Home Europe Let’s be a bit more honest about what a ‘European identity’ looks like

Let’s be a bit more honest about what a ‘European identity’ looks like

by editor

Saim Saeed is a Brussels-based journalist and former POLITICO editor.

European officials are keen to assert that the sum of their institutions is more than their parts.

The EU, in their view, isn’t just a set of standardized rules, a customs union and an internal market. The bloc has “values” like democracy, freedom, dignity.

To its officials, Europe is an “aspiration,” an “idea” and, crucially, an “identity.”

In recent years politicians have been attempting to flesh out these ideas. For example, since 2019, a commissioner has been tasked with “promoting — and initially “protecting” — the “European way of life.” A job that includes promoting sports and coordinating health policy, while also fighting antisemitism and curbing migration — an odd mishmash of everything a eurocrat might see as the “European way of life.”

More recently, however, there’s also been a push to define this European identity along ethnic, religious and cultural lines. For example, The European Peoples’ Party — Europe’s biggest political group — wrote in its manifesto that the Continent has a “shared Judeo-Christian culture and heritage,” and that “we must protect our European way of life by preserving our Christian values.”

In an op-ed in this newspaper, the Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon reiterated this “Judeo-Christian heritage,” situating it alongside Greek democracy and Roman rule of law as the three foundational tenets of European identity.

The latter is a more ambitious attempt at defining a polity beyond national borders and EU treaties, to be sure — but it’s also a more problematic one. Such a view not only alienates millions of Europeans who fear their own national identity is being eroded, it’s a grossly misleading view of European history that ignores a lot of what’s happened since the Roman Empire’s heyday more than 2,000 years ago.

Let’s start with the term “Judeo-Christian.”

Lest we forget, Europe has a long and ugly history of systematic antisemitism and attempts at quashing and even eradicating Jewish life wherever it was found. Crusaders murdered thousands of Jews on the way to Jerusalem — particularly in the Rhineland. King Edward I issued the Edict of expulsion in 1290, removing Jews from the Kingdom of England for almost 300 years. And Jews were also blamed for the bubonic plague — known as the Black Death — only to be subsequently hunted across the Continent in the 14th century. Then came the 1492 Alhambra Decree in Spain, which forced Jews to convert to Catholicism or be expelled, while pogroms across Eastern Europe targeted Jews.

The Holocaust, of course, was the most lethal attempt at trying to remove Jews, but it was the culmination of more than 2,000 years of persecution. Most European countries have spent centuries trying to be free of perceived Jewish influence. And even when they weren’t being exiled or murdered, they were hardly ever recognized as citizens — let alone allowed a say in shaping laws.

Whatever moral or cultural influence Jews have had in Europe has been despite the Continent’s deeply ingrained antisemitism.

Furthermore, the “Christian” side of this neologism is also a little suspect.

Hungarian baths, Serbian burek, Mostar Bridge — all European heritage — owe their existence to Islamic medicine, culinary traditions and architecture. | Romina Amato/Red Bull via Getty Images

A series of events over centuries has undercut the moral and political sway the Church once held. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the rise of modern science all undermined the Church. One could point to Galileo and Copernicus presenting celestial realities the church took exception to; the antisemitic blood libel that haunted European Jews; the witch burnings that took place well into the 18th century, not to mention the modern-day battles fought against abortion and gay rights.

The very values Europe espouses today — LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, secularism — these were only achieved by contesting clerical moral authority. Moreover, so much of the development of modern European institutions — rule of law, parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary — have been in opposition to Christian tenets like the divine right of kings. If Europeans were to take pride in anything, it should be its secular values winning out against the Church — a fight that’s being lost against theocracies and religious nationalism elsewhere in the world.

Then there’s the fact that “Judeo-Christian” as a definition is also problematic for the religion it leaves out: Islam.

Muslims are as native to Europe as Christians and have been an influential force across the Continent for centuries. In Iberia, Muslims developed a syncretic culture where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative harmony. They introduced oranges, lemons, cotton and rice — the key ingredient in paella. But when the Christians took control of the peninsula, millions of Muslim Europeans were either killed, expelled or forced to convert.

Still, even after their expulsion, Muslims left a profound influence on Spanish and Portuguese languages, cultural artifacts and architectural treasures — the Alhambra, the Cordoba Mosque, the Alcazaba (from the Arabic Qasbah) of Malaga — which millions still visit today.

Discomfort at acknowledging Islam as a part of Europe is also true in the Continent’s southeast, where the Ottomans ruled for centuries. Hungarian baths, Serbian burek, Mostar Bridge — all European heritage — owe their existence to Islamic medicine, culinary traditions and architecture. And ignoring that history does a disservice to historical truth, as well as to millions of Muslim Europeans made to feel like they don’t really belong.

Moreover, skipping straight to Ancient Greece is oddly selective. Putting aside the nature of ancient Athenian democracy — no slaves or women allowed, orgies before and after voting — looking at a timeline of how long Europe has been a democracy since the Athenians, one would have to skip over quite a few emperors, Lord Protectors, popes, First Consuls, czars and Führers before getting to free elections with universal suffrage.

Even today, democracy remains a tiny blip, very much an exception, to how Europe has been ruled throughout most of its history, with many European countries having authoritarian rule until well after World War II — including Greece itself. While democracy may have been invented in Europe, just as prominent have been its other inventions: fascism and communism. The Roman Empire gave us the word “senator” — but it also gave us the word “dictator.”

Of course, one could comb through history and find examples that support a secular, tolerant and democratic European identity. It’s no coincidence that historic centers of Jewish life in Europe until the 20th century, like Krakow and Thessaloniki, were ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottomans — two empires that welcomed them after they were pushed out of Western and Central Europe. The Commonwealth also produced Europe’s first written constitution. Acknowledging that, however, would require giving credit to both Muslims and Eastern Europe — something that’s hard for Western European politicians even now.

In short, if one were to build a collective European identity on shared history, it would largely be built on violence, intolerance and authoritarianism. But luckily, our past doesn’t define who we are, and we’re allowed to aspire to greater things. What the European project has done so wonderfully is to encourage a belief that we can be a better version of ourselves. But that still requires looking unflinchingly at the darker parts of our past.

Emphasizing Europe’s “Judeo-Christian” heritage and looking only to antiquity betrays that project by incorrectly assessing who we were, and as a result, excluding the various peoples and entities that shaped the Continent into what it is today.

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