Europe, Europe! The Dream Doesn’t Die

european union
There was a time, long ago, when the term “Europe” was a vague definition for the lands north of the Mediterranean Sea, a vast regions of fog and swamps, inhabited by hairy Barbarians. In time, the Roman Empire came to dominate the area we call today “Western Europe” but nobody would even dream to call him or herself “European.” For more than a millennium, the inhabitants of this region would proudly call themselves “Romans,” even though they might never have seen the city of Rome in their lives.

After that Rome fell, in the 5th century CE, the European population declined and, by 650 CE, it is estimated that it had shrunk to some 18 million people. Europe was an immense forest punctuated by castles and villages here and there, and, occasionally, by the ruins of great cities. It was the start of what we call the “dark ages,” that weren’t dark at all.

It was at that time that Europe arose. Not that Europe was anything like a recognized entity — people would call themselves “Christians,” but never, ever “Europeans.”  But Europe had become a recognizable cultural entity. It was the result of two powerful communication tools that Europeans had inherited from the Roman Empire: the Latin language and the codices that replaced the old rolls.

Latin was the language of the Roman Legions. Then, when the legions were gone, it became the sacred language of Christianity and, at the same time, the language of commerce and of politics. Few Europeans could speak Latin, most were limited to their vernacular languages, but if rulers and merchants wanted to speak other they had to use Latin. And the Western European intellectuals couldn’t even imagine to express themselves in any other language.

The other tool that created the European cultural unity was the codex. A remarkable invention: it was what we call today “book,” a number of sheets of paper, vellum, papyrus, or similar materials, bound together. The existence of books looks obvious to us, but, at the time, it was a major revolution. It allowed to store and access information in a much more efficient and rapid way than with the old rolls.

With Latin and codices, the Middle Ages became a sophisticated cultural entity that kept alive the classical literature and added much more to it. One of its features was the return of women as authors. They had been silent during Roman times, but now we hear again their voices: Hildegard Von Bingen, Marguerite Porete, Heloise, and many others. The Middle Ages were not “dark” — they were, by all means, bookish.

By the 9th century, King Charlemagne attempted to make Europe not just a cultural entity, but a political one with his Holy Roman Empire. It was only partially successful, but with the start of the 2nd millennium, Europe had become powerful enough that it could expand out of its borders: it was the time of the crusades. There was no central European government at the time, but Europeans acted together as if there were one. The crusades saw the birth of entities that prefigured modern multinational companies: the Templar Knights were at the same time a monastic order, a military force, and a bank.

The crusades were only partially successful. The European economy peaked with the beginning of the 14th century and then collapsed with the Great Plague of mid 14th century, when Europe lost perhaps 30% of its population. Then, there came the time of the great rebound and this time Europeans engaged in the great overseas adventure that in a few centuries would lead them to dominate most of the world.

But something had gone wrong in the meantime. The process of European integration that had started in the Middle Ages ground to a halt with the “Renaissance.” During the 17th century, the 30-years war saw Europeans fighting each other in what was perhaps the most destructive war ever waged in human history up to that moment. Europeans even waged a war against women: the Renaissance was the time of the great witch hunts that saw innumerable innocent women burned alive at the stake.

Over the centuries that followed, Europe never knew a moment of quiet and it disintegrated into a constellation of nation states. Enclosed within rigid and impermeable borders, these creatures were proud, touchy, and aggressive. With the 20th century, they started behaving like drunken gunmen engaged in a tavern brawl. The result was the disaster of the two world wars.

It was only in the second half of the 20th centuries that Europeans seemed to recover some of their mental sanity and started wondering what they had been doing. Was there a way to avoid new internecine wars? That was the origin of the idea of the European Community, later renamed the European Union. A movement of ideas of people genuinely convinced that Europe was a good thing that would prevent new wars. It was the first time in history when the people living in Europe would start seeing themselves as “European Citizens.”

In some ways, the European Union was a success, but today it shows the problems that were not solved when it was created. States can be kept together only in two ways: by military force or by cultural bonds. Europe had known both ways in its history: during the Roman Empire, it had been turned into a single political entity by the mighty Roman Legions. Later on, it had been bound together by the common ties of the Christian culture and religion. Within some limits, the United Europe of the second half of the 20th century was the result of the might of the American legions. But legions are expensive commodities and if the American ones leave (and they will), what will keep the European states together?

Here, we see how the European Union was built on weak foundations. The European nation states had consistently refused to cede even an inch of what they saw as their divine right: that of using their national language and only that language in all occasions. The result is that Babel was reincarnated in the city of Brussels, where every statement, every document, every speech, needs to be issued in multiple versions in different languages.

National languages are much more important than colored flags, they are the essence of the concept of nation states. The failure of the founders of the European Union has been that of not pushing a European Language that would have united Europe. Perhaps it would have been possible to resurrect Latin or, more e simply, to adopt English, the de-facto international language of our times. But, instead, the founders thought that it was easier to pay the salary of a legion of interpreters who collected in Brussels like vultures on a fresh kill.

The result was a Europe of the banks rather than a Europe of Europeans. It was never loved, but accepted as long as it seemed to be able to keep the economy going. But, with the economic downturn, feelings changed. Most people tend to reason on the basis of the simplest and most schematic inferences. If the economy was going better before the European Union came, there follows that if we get rid of those ugly bureaucrats (and of the interpreters) in Brussels, things will go back to the good times and everything will be well in the best of worlds. One result was the Brexit disaster and it is a minor miracle and also a good illustration of the power of the European dream that the recent elections saw the separatists win only in some marginal regions of the Union. Overall, most Europeans still see themselves as Europeans.

But for how long can the European Union survive in its current form? Will it collapse and then bounce back? Will it become just a minor peninsula of the great Eurasian co-prosperity zone? Maybe a remote terminal station for the new silk road? And, with its mineral resources badly depleted by millennia of exploitation, can Europeans survive at all in a future where they are threatened by climate change and ecosystem collapse?

We cannot say. The only certainty is that good dreams never really die — they bide their time. And the dream of a united Europe is not dead. It will come back, one day.

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy and he is also a member of the Club of Rome. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)


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