For a European Civilisation: Reply to Rosa Balfour

Dear Dr. Balfour,

I read with no small amount of concern your recent piece in Carnegie Europe titled “Against a European Civilization: Narratives About the European Union”. What follows is a rebuttal of much of it, with less important elements left out.

In your article, you take exception to the idea “that there is something specifically European that underpins the European Union” and to President Macron’s appeal to “rebuild . . . a collective narrative and a collective imagination”. In this context, you mention “the risk of European-ness becoming equated with whiteness”. To me, this suggests a misguided set of priorities. You seem apprehensive of a possible return to the kind of identity politics which wreaked havoc in Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Yet it is clear today that ideas closely related to those of the Fascists and National Socialists of old are more dominant in the Muslim world than anywhere else. Hamed Abdel-Samad’s book “Islamic Fascism” contains extensive documentation to this effect. The best-seller status of Hitler’s “My Struggle” across the Muslim world is but one example.

It therefore seems crucial to me that Europe uphold a civilisational identity which can act as an alternative to these dangerous ideas, not least for the Muslims currently inside the EU. It is no secret that radicalisation is driven by the sense of a lack of identity. Let us give young Muslims one which is not murderous.

The next part of your argument is more confusing than anything else. You state that “[t]he narratives about the EU reflect different political views, not what European-ness is or may be”. Yet earlier you mentioned narratives about the EU which were based on understandings of “European-ness”, and came from none less than Emmanuel Macron, Josep Borrell, a “European commissioner in charge[…] of migration and asylum”, and unspecified individuals “[i]n policy circles”. You also submit that “[s]upport for the EU will not depend solely on its identity but on the political choices pursued”. This is obviously true, but immaterial. The fact that identity is not the only important thing does not render it unimportant. Moreover, identity and values often and profoundly influence policy, as the eminent analyst of EU history Andrew Moravcsik has famously argued.

You claim that “civilizational justifications for European integration[ would] potentially caus[e] the fragmentation of [the EU’s] membership”. This does not seem plausible to me. Western and Central Europe are, to a large extent, a single cultural space. Granted, the European Union counts among its members some Eastern European states as well. Yet they, as far as I can distinguish, are not radically different from the rest, either, and the EU has historically been quite successful in its promotion of a notion of European identity even in post-Soviet countries.

You worry that such a project may “undermin[e the European Union’s] global clout and soft power”. Since when is this how soft power works? An examination of probably any nation’s soft power efforts gives a contrary impression. Take the German Goethe-Institut, for instance. It expands German soft power by promoting German culture, and seems to have been quite successful at it, judging by its 150 locations worldwide. Yet from the sound of your article, you think that the European Union can only decrease its soft power by promoting European culture. To give you another fact about the Goethe-Institut:

In its early years, the Goethe-Institut deliberately placed an emphasis on classicism. The names Goethe, Schiller, Bach and Beethoven retained a positive reputation internationally, even after World War II and the Holocaust.

And yet throughout your article you make clear that you are opposed to a return to the roots of European civilisation, and favour instead an emphasis on postcolonial reinterpretations of European history and on diversity and multiculturalism. You want to show the parts instead of, not in addition to, the whole, as you oppose categorically the project of promoting European civilisation. Even if you want to promote harmony between cultures, this approach seems misguided. Beginning in the 1970s, the Goethe-Institut altered its approach to one of “exchange, dialogue and cooperation at eye level” instead of one-sided self-promotion. That is perfectly fine. But how can one engage in any kind of exchange if one has nothing to offer?

In fact, you admit, later in the article, that China “is charting the rise of its model at the expense of the West” and is “a proponent of ‘Asian values’ ”. According to your own logic, then, should not China’s civilisational project of promoting Asian values prevent it from expanding its influence?

Let us see whether Joseph Nye, the man who coined the term “soft power”, has anything relevant to teach us about it. In fact, there are a few pertinent facts in the chapter “Others’ Soft Power” of his book “Soft Power : The Means To Success In World Politics”. Firstly, we learn that “France spends close to $1 billion a year to spread French civilization around the world” and seems to have been remarkably successful, with its soft power on the rise even as its pre-eminence declined by other indicators (Nye 2004: 76). Again, your approach to soft power appears wildly unorthodox against the backdrop of the traditionally fruitful strategy of assertive promotion of one’s own civilisation. Japan’s case is also instructive. Nye tells us that Japan’s soft power is bolstered by the fact that the country “was able to fully modernize to the point of equality with the West in income and technology while showing that it is possible to maintain a unique culture” (ibid.: 85). Cultural distinctiveness pays in the realm of soft power. As factors to which Japan ows its exceptional strength in this domain, Nye lists “traditional arts, design, and cuisine” as well as “traditional spiritual disciplines such as Zen Buddhism and the martial arts” (ibid.: 86).

You contend that

[b]uilding a political construct for the EU along the lines of a European “national” self-determination is ahistorical[ and] does not reflect the civic essence of the history of European integration, which is tied more to peace and governance than to identity building.

It is true, for example, that the EU’s budget for cultural affairs has historically been (in relative terms) minuscule. However, it would seem that the EU did not engage in “identity building” any more than it did (and it did engage in it — see the paper I cite above) because it was built on an already pre-existing European identity. Hence the difficulties in the endeavour to admit Turkey, as well as the refusal to accept Morocco into the European Communities. Now, the proposal is to reassert that identity in the face of “a permanent ‘battle of narratives’ ”, in the words of Josep Borrell which you quote in your essay.

You lament that the proposed civilisational initiative “does not accommodate the inclusion of multiculturalism”. I cannot for the life of me figure out why you deem this a drawback. Multiculturalism has a dreadful record and belongs in the dustbin of history, a fact of experience which Angela Merkel, among others, has acknowledged. In 2010, it was reported that there were approximately 370 forced marriages per year in Berlin. This kind of depravity is facilitated by multiculturalist moral relativism. Consider perhaps the most infamous instance of this phenomenon: the Rotherham child abuse case, which resulted directly from political correctness. Those who knew about the blood-curdling incidents which were transpiring dared not speak up for fear of accusations of racism and “Islamophobia”. This included the police, who thus committed an atrocious betrayal of their duties to protect the British people.

Confronted with such colossal spinelessness, should we not return to a more assertive defence of our culture? We could take as a model Sir Charles James Napier, who, when an Indian cleric complained to him over the British colonial administration’s abolition of widow-burning in India, remarked:

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs”.

You believe that

As some activists and academics timidly embark on uncovering the untold stories of migration and colonialism, embracing a civilizational model of European integration would undercut this long-awaited reckoning with Europe’s past.

This boils down to saying that you want to see European history and culture portrayed in a critical light, and you think that a positive interpretation of these things would prevent that. Firstly, it is not at all apparent to me that that is true. Secondly, it seems odd to imply that your plan would be better for Europe than the one which you are criticising. Thirdly, postcolonial and even anti-Western ideas are not being advanced “timidly”. Perhaps they were when you were a university student. Nowadays, academia are obsessed with such narratives — see Sokal Squared.

Now we get to what may be the most perplexing part of your essay. You express a concern that “[t]his type of rhetoric” can cause “clashes” such as “[t]he confrontation between Macron and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following the brutal assassination of a French schoolteacher by a radicalized Muslim youth”. I cannot fathom how anyone could examine that incident and conclude that President Macron was at fault for it. The article to which your hyperlink leads tells us that the Turkish head of state

made the comments during a local party congress, apparently in response to statements Macron made this month about problems created by radical Muslims in France who practice what the French leader termed “Islamist separatism.”

What would you have had President Macron do? Ought he to have refrained from criticism of Muslim extremism? To have obscured the truth of such terrorists’ motivations? Consider, too, that the article states: “Erdogan also railed against France for condoning caricatures of the prophet of Islam”. Should France have banned caricatures of Mohammad for fear of offending Turkey?

You fear that talk of European civilisation “alienates ethnic and religious minorities in Europe”. I think we should be abundantly clear on this point: Muslims (for you are obviously thinking of them primarily) who immigrate to Europe have an obligation to integrate themselves into their host societies, just as all immigrants do. If they are alienated by the upholding of that culture into which they are to integrate themselves, they have no place in Europe.

Furthermore, you are looking at the issue in precisely the wrong way. In fact, failure to encourage immigrants to assimilate themselves leads to alienation between them and the rest of society. Clearly comprehending this, even Palestinian immigrant and German social-democratic politician Raed Saleh writes in favour of a “Leitkultur” (a “guiding culture”, i.e. “a core set of German values and traditions” which immigrants should be made to learn and internalise) in a book on the subject.

You continue:

What is often overlooked is that the EU has constitutionalized universal values about human rights and personal freedoms while it uses the rhetoric that they are European.

They are historically European and especially European. After all, as you yourself acknowledge just a few paragraphs earlier,

[t]he EU has constitutionalized the values of democracy and human rights like no other actor — and in some respects it has “Europeanized” them; for instance, by including their promotion in its external action.

You write that

Macron’s rhetoric claims ownership of “the profound spirit of French humanism, which we invented and upheld, and which we must reinvent today.” This appropriation is, in itself, Eurocentric and is open to accusations of historical ignorance. In fact, it forgets that the first revolution guided by the ideas of the Enlightenment was the American one against the British Empire.

How is that fact relevant? President Macron clearly claimed French ownership of a specifically French brand of humanism, not of the whole Enlightenment. Moreover, the American revolutionaries’ ideas came directly from Europe, so the charge of Eurocentrism makes sense at best on a geographical technicality. You claim that

Identifying the Enlightenment as the key source of European identity also omits the influence of other cultures in Europe — Arab, Christian, Jewish, and more — and the legacy of ancient Greece for concepts of democracy and freedom.

Maybe it “omits” them , but that does not mean that it obscures them. The Enlightenment thinkers themselves were aware of such influences and explicitly drew on some of the sources which you mention. These ideas are not mutually exclusive. Also, this is not a valid criticism of the promotion of European identity per se, just of a particular approach to it. You take special care to emphasise that

ideas originating in the Enlightenment can be appropriated by non-Europeans and adapted to different cultural context.

Correct, but the key word is adapted. Their application will still be markedly different than in Europe (and European-derived states like Australia).

You note that

[t]he historiography of European integration by and large ignores that it advanced together with the decolonization of European empires, as if they were separate experiences[, and]Timothy Snyder is a rare voice arguing that [these processes are connected].

To me, this sounds as though most historians were not convinced that there is a significant connection between these developments — with the exception of Timothy Snyder, whom fellow historian Walter Laqueur has criticised for his “mania for exaggeration and sensationalism” and for making much of trivial details at the expense of important ones.

In Washington, the National Museum of African American History and Culture offers calculations of the profits Europe and the United States made through slavery. Similar efforts should be made to uncover more of Europe’s entanglement with its empires.

That is the same National Museum of African American History and Culture which disapprovingly (!) noted the dominance in U.S. society of “white values” such as “Hard work, self-reliance, respect of authority and ‘the nuclear family — father, mother, 2.3 children [as] the ideal social unit’ ”. I find it sickening that you would refer your readers to an institution clearly ideologically committed to the destruction of values foundational to the proper functioning of a 21st-century society — any 21st-century society.

Beyond that, I am not in principle against such calculations as the ones you mention. Yet there is a troublingly telling moment near the end of your article, when you remark that

[f]or the European Union, seeking to brand itself as a unique civilization […] ignores the degree to which European wealth was generated through empire and immigration.

For me, these topics are not intimately connected, but they clearly are for you. You seem to be convinced that the E.U. can never be morally justified in asserting its distinctive civilisation:

a) because some of its Member States had colonies — Of course, the colonised probably would have become the colonisers themselves had they been able to do so. In fact, Middle Easterners colonised Europe before Europe colonised the Middle East, as well you know — and

b) because immigrants came to Europe at certain points in history. Why the latter seems an important fact to you I cannot discern.

In conclusion, I urge you to revise your views. Your present notions may seem rational and humanistic, but they are liable to plunge Europe into devastation. There is nothing wrong with exploring the darker sides of European history, including colonialism. Your essay, however, instills the idea that, because of the original sin of colonialism and similar offences, Europe is indelibly tarnished and can never be proud of the bright sides of its past.


Nye, Joseph S.. 2004. Soft Power : The Means To Success In World Politics. New York: PublicAffairs.

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