Does Europe Have A Soul?

Ian Buruma

Writer and Professor at Bard College (United States)

The European Union was a baby conceived by many fathers, including the very American George Marshall, whose famous plan abolished trade barriers and fostered economic cooperation between European nations. A European Union of 27 nations was not even a dream fifty years ago, when six countries formed the European Economic Community. Now that we have a Union, nobody appears to love it very much. The French and the Dutch, in a fit of pique, voted against a European constitution which few people even bothered to read. And who can blame them? It was unreadable.

 “We must give a soul to Europe”, said Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, whose country presided over the European Union in 2007. Speaking at a conference, entitled A Soul for Europe, the German filmmaker Wim Wenders struck a similar note. He, too, fretted about a spiritual vacuum where the heart of Europe should be. Not surprisingly for a man in his line of business, he believes that the spirit is made of celluloid, and the European soul is located in movies by Pedro Almodóvar, Federico Fellini, and Andrej Wajda. Alas, however, to use a phrase from one of his own films, “America has colonized our soul”. That is to say, Europeans are hopelessly addicted to Hollywood.

It is a Romantic notion, of course, this idea of a national or continental soul. For 19th century German patriots it meant a national spirit, expressed in poetry and philosophy, that challenged French rationalism. For conservatives between the two world wars, and for many Europeans of Wim Wenders’s generation, it means liberation from American materialism. The United States is all about money, while Europe, according to Wenders, “is not only about markets, it is also about values and culture.” More than that, he thinks of Europe as something “holy”. In Wenders’s view, to find an alternative to the American Dream, Europeans, especially European filmmakers, should create a sacred European Dream.

Angela Merkel is a little more down to earth. She spoke of “Europe of the Projects”. She mentioned “proper power networks” and “proper gas pipelines”, such as the Baltic Sea pipeline now being built from Russia through the Baltic Sea to Germany. These are doubtless important projects, but unlikely to warm many hearts or stir many souls. 

The problem with soul is that it is too vague to be of much use. Do I myself have a European soul? My father is Dutch, my mother British, from an Anglo/Dutch/German Jewish family. This makes me about as European as is humanly possible. But identity is a complicated thing. When I’m in the United States, I feel European. When I’m in the Netherlands, I feel British. When I’m in England, I feel Dutch. When I hear an antisemitic joke, I feel Jewish. When I’m with rabid supporters of Israel in New York, I feel more like a Gentile. So where does this leave my soul, my collective European soul?

It is true that certain national figures, such as television comedians, or soccer stars, or news readers, can foster a sense of community. It is also true that Fellini’s movies express something we all recognize as an Italian sensibility. But Wenders is right: what most Europeans have in common is not a love of European art films, but of American pulp. American popular culture is not only successful because of bigger budgets, but because it has a long history of overcoming cultural differences. Like American fast food, it appeals to instincts – and not always the most elevated ones – that we all share. I’m not sure that European artists should aspire to that. In the US everything tends towards homogeneity. Isn’t it better to celebrate European diversity? What would Fellini be without Italy, or Almodóvar without Spain?   

To a religious person, the soul is more tangible. The late Pope John Paul II wanted the Christian faith to be mentioned in the European constitution. The Hungarian primate, Monsignor Peter Erdoe, stated that “without Christianity the heart of Europe would be missing.” The current Polish government has taken the same line. Judeo-Christianity, as well as cultures of Greece and Rome, is indeed a part of a common European history. But now that most Europeans pride themselves on being secular, and religious Europeans are often either Muslims, or immigrants from former European colonies, a religious definition of the European soul would be both dishonest and wrong. 

In the US everything tends towards homogeneity. Isn’t it better to celebrate European diversity? What would Fellini be without Italy, or Almodóvar without Spain?

Then again, even secular Europeans, who would never set foot in a church or a synagogue, often oppose the membership of Turkey in the European Union, not just because of problems with human rights, but precisely because Turkey is not Christian. Few people say this openly, of course, for fear of looking prejudiced. They prefer to talk of the Enlightenment as the thing that holds Europe together. But the claim that “Enlightenment values” define the soul of Europe would be rather odd, for the values of free speech and scientific enquiry are shared by people all over the world. We don’t admire the Enlightenment for reasons of national spirit, but on the contrary, for its universal worth.  

So perhaps Europe’s fiftieth birthday should be an occasion to dampen the hot air. European cooperation began as a practical economic project, and not a spiritual one. That is as it should be. The Enlightenment has taught us that enlightened self-interest often produces the best value. The most inspiring thing about the European Union is the mobility of its citizens, the way Europeans can live and work anywhere they want in Europe. Let there be more Polish builders in Paris, British designers in Berlin, or French entrepreneurs in London. One of the great ironies of the last few decades is the way London, the capital of a nation that rejected so many European dreams, has become the great European metropolis. People are coming from all over Europe, because London offers them freedom to pursue their own dreams. These are frequently materialistic, and sometimes even base, but altogether they make up something that, for want of a better word, might be called a European soul.