Sunday, Aug. 10, 2003

A Passage to Europe

How far has Europe come, and where is it going? The first thing to do when we ask ourselves that question is to eliminate all the illusions that encumber our perception of Europe. We should forget everything that leads us to think of Europe as a sort of large nation, or superstate, that extends the small ones, replaces them, accentuates their virtues, limits their faults — and therefore offers the French, Germans, Italians and other Europeans a new community that is simply a greater, more powerful, more accomplished community than those in which they have hitherto recognized themselves.

For the ancient Greeks, the word Europa referred to the nymph who was carried by Zeus from the East to the continent we now call Europe, which was not so much a space as a passage, the pathway from the Orient to the Occident.

When the founding fathers of Europe — the genuine ones, such as Frenchman Julien Benda, author of Discourse With the European Nation — said “Europe,” they thought not of yet another nation but of an anti-nation. They had in mind not a new country but an original, wonderful machine — and that machine is what works in every country to weaken the evil passion, the devastating and bloody passion of nationalism.

What I call Europe is what makes me feel a little less French today than I felt yesterday. Europe’s greatest merit, in my view, would be to allow a growing number of French people — though the rule also applies, of course, to Germans, Italians and Spaniards — to be able to say, “I am no longer French, but European of French origin.”

Europe, in other words, is not the finally discovered form of the right community, of which the nation, the region or God-knows-what were mere sketches or rough drafts. Europe is the principle that reminds every community, particularly a national one, that the right community does not exist, and that it is ultimately only an arrogant and bloody dream.

Success for Europe, from that point of view, is the adoption of the euro: a financial and therefore cultural revolution that for us French, for instance, has cured us of the franc-fetish component of our narcissism. Success for Europe is the growing power of the European Commission and particularly its increasing boldness in exercising that power, thus silencing our chauvinistic, identity-bound, patriotic obsessions. Another success: the very large number of young and not-so-young people who are getting used to seeing intra-European frontiers not as fences, but openings; not as places to take root, but thoroughfares; not as prisons, but as calls to freedom.

Failure, on the other hand, is the persistence or even growth of jingoism within the European space, despite the European principle. Failure: Jean-Marie Le Pen’s breakthrough in France, the rise of Jörg Haider in Austria, and in Italy the power of Silvio Berlusconi and the post-fascists of the Northern League. Failure: the rise everywhere in Europe, in spite of Europe, of that rabid anti-Americanism that we all know has nothing to do with the real America. Failure: in a word, everything that indicates that building Europe does not curb but accelerates the development of the kind of national fury that has been the scourge of our peoples, the source of their greatest insanities and, of course, their wars.

And another failure — I saved it for last — the Yugoslav disaster that 10 years ago ravaged the Continent, which has yet, I believe, to recover from it fully. “Europe died in Sarajevo,” I wrote at the time, and I still think that, in a way — because of the dead, certainly; because of the return of concentration camps and dreams of genocide 50 years later; but also because of Europe’s powerlessness to defend, once again, its intrinsic values, like at the time of the Armenian genocide, or the Spanish Civil War, or the great anti-Soviet workers’ uprisings in Central Europe, or, lastly, the Shoah. Every European today carries the corpse of a Bosnian in his heart.

Will Europe succeed in overcoming these demons?

At the start of a new century, will Europe — the real Europe that is not reducible to a federation of nations but which instills in all nations the right essence of transnational and cosmopolitan spirit — manage to exorcise the ghosts that haunt it?

The matter will play itself out on several fronts, the issues simple but laden with all the black memories of the last century. The Jews, of course, and the return of anti-Semitism. Islam, obviously, and our capacity to listen to those who speak — as they did recently in Bosnia — for an open, tolerant and luminous Islam. America, inevitably, the neurotic hatred of which is always a sign in Europe that bad days are coming. Lastly, our ability to live, as the great European philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, not exactly in several languages but in several musics at once.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher and author whose most recent book is Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, published by Melville House