Timothy Garton Ash: A new European narrative

Timothy Garton AshTimothy Garton Ash is a historian and one of the leading chroniclers of Europe’s transformation of the last quarter century. He has written eight books, publishes regularly in the New York Review of Books and contributes a weekly column to The Guardian. He is professor of European Studies at Oxford University.

Nearly 15 years ago, in 1995, Timothy Garton Ash wrote a short essay about Europe, its title a question: “Catching the wrong bus?” Abstract Euro-thinking associated with French and German intellectuals, Ash maintained, was in trouble. He proposed an antidote that may sound familiar: Europe “could perhaps use a little more British thinking at the moment – with ‘British’ here meant in the deeper sense of our particular intellectual tradition: sceptical, empirical and pragmatic.” The task was “to ‘think Europe’ in English; to see Europe plain and to see it whole.”

What kind of Europe did Ash see in 1995? There was a European Union, “less than a federal superstate and more than an alliance: an unprecedented, unique and horribly complex combination of the supranational and the intergovernmental, of economic integration and political cooperation.” There was a second Europe of states recently liberated from communism and aiming to join the EU and NATO. There was also a third Europe, made up of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, ambivalent about joining European institutions and hardly on the EU’s own radar.

In 1995 the first Europe was engaged in the “grotesque, rapid-sleep-inducing, acronym-ridden, polit-bureaucratic detail” of its own internal reform. The political leaders of the European Union were preoccupied with their own internal debates in the context of an open-ended Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) and preparations for the common currency. Many, like Ash, feared that EU leaders would not have enough energy and attention for those parts of the continent where EU action could make the difference between democracy and dictatorship, war and peace. Fears of war in Europe were not abstract in 1995. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina was moving towards its most horrible climax (or rather nadir) in Srebrenica. It was followed by state collapse in Albania in 1997, fighting in Kosovo in 1998, NATO’s war with Serbia in 1999, fighting in South Serbia in 2001, and near civil-war in Macedonia in the same year.

Now fast forward to 2007, the final year of the EU’s fifth enlargement. Taking another look at Europe “plain and whole”, what did we see in 2007? European leaders and institutions did not, as Ash had feared in 1995, “catch the wrong bus”. The “empirical-sceptical approach” proposed by Garton Ash won out. His suggestion, in 1995, was for:

“a detailed project both for the enlargement of the present EU to include, over the next twenty years, the recently liberated second Europe, and simultaneously, for a more closely coordinated, and in some respects ‘common’ foreign, security and defence policy, to meet the challenges and dangers both within Europe itself and from the dangerous world around.”

By 2007, with the exception of the Western Balkans and Turkey, this has largely been achieved. And ’empirical-sceptical thinking’ certainly played a role. The EU enlargement story is not over, however. New thinking is still urgently required.

In a much more recent essay, published in 2007, Ash claimed that “Europe has lost the plot.” Approaching the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, on 25 March 2007,

“Europe no longer knows what story it wants to tell. A shared political narrative sustained the postwar project of (west) European integration for three generations, but it has fallen apart since the end of the cold war. Most Europeans now have little idea where we’re coming from; far less do we share a vision of where we want to go. We don’t know why we have an EU or what it’s good for. So we urgently need a new narrative.”

“Europe’s true stories”, as the essay is called, suggests a new European narrative, to be constructed by interweaving six issues, each representing a European goal: freedom, peace, law, prosperity, diversity and solidarity. The earlier European narrative, notes Ash, has become obsolete.

“In this proposal, our identity will not be constructed in the fashion of the historic European nation, once humorously defined as a group of people united by a common hatred of their neighbours and a shared misunderstanding of their past. We should not even attempt to retell European history as the kind of teleological mythology characteristic of 19th-century nation-building. No good will come of such a mythopoeic falsification of our history (“From Charlemagne to the euro”), and it won’t work anyway.

The nation was brilliantly analysed by the historian Ernest Renan as a community of shared memory and shared forgetting; but what one nation wishes to forget another wishes to remember. The more nations there are in the EU, the more diverse the family of national memories, the more difficult it is to construct shared myths about a common past.”

European identity, argues Ash, should not be established through the negative stereotyping of an enemy or the “other”. Attempts to find Europe’s “other” in the United States or Islam are “foolish and self-defeating. They divide Europeans rather than uniting them.”

“Europe’s only defining ‘other’ is its own previous self: more specifically, the unhappy, self-destructive, at times downright barbaric chapters in the history of European civilisation. With the wars of the Yugoslav succession and the attempted genocide in Kosovo, that unhappy history stretches into the very last year of the century. This is no distant past.”

Looking at the recent experience of EU enlargement to Central Eastern and South Eastern Europe, the lack of a convincing narrative becomes apparent. The most recent enlargement brought the 20th century division of Europe to an end. The continent has never been as democratic, prosperous and stable as it is today. As one of Europe’s biggest successes, this story must be part of any new European narrative.

“Everything depends on the personalities, events and anecdotes that give life and colour to narrative. These will vary from place to place. The stories of European freedom, peace or diversity can and should be told differently in Warsaw and Madrid, on the left and on the right. There need be no singles one-size-fits-all version of our story.”

It is to this challenge – of fleshing out a new European story with personalities, events and anecdotes – that this website tries to make a contribution.

25 February 2009