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Analysis from Washington: Where is Europe? What is Europe?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 22 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Few geographic terms carry as much cultural freight as "Europe," a word that now evokes less a place than the agenda of one or another country or political group.

Even fewer geographic designations have such undefined borders, with some defining Europe as the landmass between the Atlantic and the Urals, others limiting it to the European Union and its immediate neighbors, and still others extending it across the world "from Vancouver to Vladivostok."

But as almost everywhere else, this linkage of place and meaning in Europe has enormous consequences for those living within its boundaries and even more for those who live outside this charmed circle.

In the last ten days, three events called attention to the problematic nature of the place and idea called Europe. First, on December 14, the European Union invited ten countries to its East to begin accession talks. But the EU pointedly did not include Turkey which has long sought to become a member.

Three days later, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned her NATO colleagues in Brussels that Europe now faces a serious threat of weapons of mass destruction emanating not only from the Middle East but also from Eurasia.

And immediately after that, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe warned Ukraine that it would face suspension from that European body unless it immediately took steps to abolish the death penalty on its territory.

Each of these actions points to a different aspect of the problem of Europe. A member of NATO, Turkey is very much a part of Europe as far as defense is concerned. Moreover, since the days of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey has defined itself as a European rather than a Middle Eastern state.

But few leaders in Western Europe agree with that Turkish self-assessment. And their attitude has convinced many in Ankara that there is nothing Turkey can do -- on human rights, prisons, or the Kurds -- that will make the Europeans change their minds.

To the extent the Turks are right, Europe is something much less high-minded than many European leaders like to suggest: it is not simply about a set of values or standards that anyone could potentially meet but rather about an underlying cultural divide few can cross.

Albright's speech at NATO headquarters raises another problem. In the past, when Europe and Eurasia were simply geographic terms, the former was a subset of the latter, a designation that embraced all the territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific north of Africa.

The American diplomat did not define just what she meant by her use of these terms. But her words suggest that she views Europe and Eurasia as two very different and even competitive places.

One possibility is that she was using the term as some Russians do, as a designation for the territory occupied by the former Soviet Union and one that suggests the culture of that region, a combination of European and Asian, is fundamentally different from that of Europe alone.

Another possibility is that Albright was simply suggesting that European members of the North Atlantic alliance must begin to think about their world and the threats to it more broadly than they have in the past.

Regardless of which she intended, Albright was highlighting the increasingly problematic nature of Europe not only for the EU and NATO but for the United States and other powers around the world.

Finally, the Council of Europe's warning to Ukraine on the need to end the death penalty highlights simultaneously the way in which many Europeans like to see themselves and the difficulties of their point of view.

Many Europeans view the Council of Europe's latest action as an indication of the way in which Europe is performing a civilizing mission in former communist countries. While there is certainly truth to that, such a perspective is not so different from that of earlier Europeans who saw themselves as civilizing their colonies.

But not only is that perspective likely to generate an equally negative backlash against Europe and Europeans, but it ignores the role of other countries, especially of the United States, in promoting freedom and democracy often with more vigor and effect than the Europeans have done.

Moreover, in addition to the backlash against Europe elsewhere, such attitudes may generate a backlash against any broader community among those who consider themselves Europeans, either by groups that want a little Europe that excludes anyone who does not fit some predefined mold or by those who seek to retreat even further to individual national homes.

Either of those developments would undermine the very possibility of talking about Europe in the future, either as a place or as an idea.