To inflict unity on Europe's diverse peoples is so divisive


OPINION:Despite decades of institutional development seeming to create a more integrated Europe, the continent remains more divided than united, writes RICHARD PINE

IMAGINE A devout Christian or Muslim waking one morning to be confronted with irrefutable proof that God does not exist. All my life I have been profoundly European, yet recently I have “woken up” to the fact that the Europe in which I believed no longer exists.

I believed in a multicultural, multilingual continent representing millennia of artistic and philosophical achievement; I relished the integrity of a landmass embodying the hub of western wisdom; I embraced music from Mozart to Raymond Deane, literature from Broch to Banville, philosophy from Plato to Levinas. As a consultant to the Council of Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, I worked for a common understanding of the plurality of cultures of Europe. This month, the Council of Europe is 60 years old. In 1946 Winston Churchill had called for a United States of Europe, almost in the same breath as he coined the term Iron Curtain to exclude those who did not share his spiritual and moral imperatives. The Council of Europe was its first manifestation, inaugurated in 1949, with Ireland as one of the 10 founding members.

By the late 1970s it was the largest grouping of democratic states in the world – by definition excluding the eastern bloc. The challenge came with the democratisation of the east and in 1990 Hungary was the first former communist state to be admitted, leading to a steep learning curve as east-west sensitivities had to be overcome.

Today, its political composition obscures the cultural emphasis with which it began.

The council was predicated on cultural imperatives and on human rights and freedoms, of which Churchill saw “freedom from fear” as the greatest. It represented a careful balance between the victors and vanquished in the second World War. Immediately, discord split the search for a “cultural charter”, which was to be the first plank of European unity. It failed, due mostly to political manoeuvring.

There had always been suspicion, misunderstanding and ignorance in the old Europe, especially between north and south, between the bureaucrats who planned the lives of others and those who placed more importance on living life. And all the time there was tension within cultures – what the Germans call Schwellenangst – fear of crossing the thresholds of each other’s ideas and beliefs and value-systems.

European integrationists should have learned from the early cultural discord that Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon may be beautiful and meaningful places on the European landscape but, as points on the route-map towards European integration, they have given their names to ugly and largely meaningless forms of words.

Europe is more divided than united, for one basic reason: it consists of irreducible units of culture, of people, of behaviour. This is not always articulated because it is politically incorrect to do so.

This European problem is larger than any authority, any wisdom, any personality, can solve. You cannot force people to adopt a way of life that is not their own, any more than you can tell a hill-farmer how to raise sheep or an olive-grower how to harvest his crop. You can advise, intimidate, withdraw the intervention subsidy, but you cannot force. But force majeure, as the insurance companies call it, seems to be what Europeans are facing, due to the anxiety of certain Eurocrats and the core megapowers to inflict a unity on the diverse cultures and peoples of Europe.

I have as much in common with a strudel-scoffing Swabian as an Inuit has with a Transylvanian – less, actually. And I respect that difference, because you cannot make two elements cohere unless the glue is acceptable and attractive to both. I worked for the council on the glue of cultural development programmes. I experienced culture as the linchpin of both creativity and violence, as the fons et origo of political and social difference as well as cohesion. I helped to pioneer the concept of “cultural democracy”. I became an expert on decentralisation of authority by observing how, at the grass-roots, perceptions shaped ambitions and led to basic decision-making about local destinies.

When my work was translated into several languages, it meant a different thing in each language/culture/society; this was both its beauty and its danger. Today, the beauty has given place to more than danger.

Working on cultural charters, I have seen ideals whittled down to pragmatic sentences that said little and pleased no one. Energies and aspirations fumigated by the need for political correctness between ideologically opposed power blocs.

The financial crisis has highlighted the lack of a common European policy among its leaders. With Gorbachev modelling Vuitton handbags, one wonders what sort of world glasnost has created. But also – and much more seriously I think – it demonstrates a systemic crisis. Having already given away so much of their sovereignty, countries and regions are now expressing a distaste for, or suspicion of, what unity actually means.

The appeasing catch-all slogan “unity in diversity” is an obscenity – at best, high-octane bovine effluent, at worst an arrogant condescension to the smaller and more diverse cultures, designed to fool the greatest number of people for as long as possible. It is diversity which actually creates Europe – more interesting in its differences than in its conformity and orthodoxy.

Having spent most of my life on an island at the western extremity of Europe, I now live on a very small island, Corfu, at (almost) the eastern extremity. Living and working in Greece today, one cannot but be acutely aware of the dangers threatening Europe.

But is Greece truly part of Europe? Greece’s accession to the EU in 1981 had two effects: it signalled the inevitability of the other Balkan states (Bulgaria, Romania, the constituents of former Yugoslavia) eventually joining the EU, and it created the crisis of conscience, of territory and of diplomacy which we see today in the potential membership of Turkey, Albania and what is still called FYROM – the nameless Macedonia, once the heartland of Hellenism.

Europe becomes a problematic term. The Balkans, once behind the Iron Curtain, are today within Europe. The southeast of Europe is volatile and vulnerable, and of immense significance for the way pan-European politics will be played out.

As part of my Council of Europe work on peripheral cultures, I once committed the solecism of asking a Connemara sheep farmer what it felt like to be remote from the centre.

“Remote?” was the reply. “Remote from where? I am here. I am me. This is the centre.” It was a humbling moment – for me, not for him. Europe has more chance of being saved by a Sarakatsani folk-singer’s wisdom than by the prancing of a financial or political princeling or, god forbid, an economist. I want Europe to be a vibrant, positive, constructive entity, but I see less and less of it every day, compared to the 1970s, when my enthusiasm was ignited and my European work began. Europe needs integrity without integration, coherence without cohesion.