Neal Ascherson on the idea of Europe: past and possible future

Postcard 1900: Germany, Belgium, Holland – greetings from the three countries border

Recently, Neal Ascherson spoke about Europe and its history in a lecture for the London Review of Books at the British Museum.  The full text is published in the current issue of the London Review of Books, and is also available, as text or  podcast, on the LRB website.   Ascherson called his lecture ‘Memories of Amikejo’, referring to a tiny sliver of land between Belgium and Germany which had been overlooked by the surveyors as they drew new European frontiers after the fall of Napoleon. In this splinter about the size of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens combined, says Ascherson, lived a handful of free people, untroubled by military service, identity papers, taxes or censors: ‘Happy, stateless Europeans’.

The area, also known as Neutral Moresnet or ‘the Akwizgran Discrepancy’ was a separate territory between 1816 and 1920. It came into existence after the demise of the Napoleonic empire, and was sandwiched between the United Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Kingdom of Prussia. When in 1830 Belgium gained independence from the Netherlands, a four-country point (Vierländerpunkt) came into being .  Today it is part of Belgium, but the position of its borders are marked on a paved area around the present day three-border point (Drielandenpunt). The residents themselves, who became the citizens to adopt Esperanto as their national language, preferred to call their enclave ‘Amikejo’ (‘Friendship’ in Esperanto).

German postcard, 1905, shows the Dutch, Belgian, German and Neutral areas, and the ‘Vierländerpunkt’.
German postcard, 1905, shows the Dutch, Belgian, German and Neutral areas, and the ‘Vierländerpunkt’.

Reading Ascherson’s account of the ‘Discrepancy’ I recalled that it was the subject of a Channel 4 documentary, in a series called Borderlands back in 1992 which looked at six areas of Europe that challenge the meaning of the nation-state, including this multilingual corner of Belgium.  I used to show a video clip of the programme to European Studies students exploring the theme of diversity in Europe.  It’s not without significance that the treaty which established the European Union and paved the way for the euro was signed that year in Maastricht, the town which stands just a few miles to the west of the Drielandenpunt.

The four-country-point identified near Vaals in an old school atlas
The four-country-point identified near Vaals in an old school atlas

There’s a wider European significance in this story, argues Ascherson.  It proved that ‘a tiny Europe could exist sans frontières, or at least without enforcing them’.  Amikejo is also  ‘a wormhole through time into our Europe of the Single Act and the Maastricht Treaty. No customs barriers, no closed frontiers, military conscription almost a memory, no national currency’.

For the bulk of the 20th century that dream was crushed by nationalism – the ‘game of denying European identity to neighbours’ – and by the Cold War division of Europe, both of them historical forces which led to the strict enforcement of borders and the crushing of ‘discrepancies’.  In the years after 1980, Ascherson goes on to argue, two forms of social order died in Europe: the Communist system embedded in the fifty-year continental order of the Cold War, but also the regulated, social democratic welfare order developed in the nations of Western Europe after 1945. ‘One of these deaths should gladden the soul’, he asserts. ‘But the second should trouble it’.
Ascherson’s lecture examines how the idea of Europe has shifted over the centuries.  He visualises the western end of the Eurasian land-mass as a ‘fish-trap’, the ultimate destination of waves of western-bound migrations where ‘the sheer pressure of growing populations combined with a shortage of resources, land above all, has encouraged communities to fuse and cohabit’:
In the west the pressure of the demographic fish-trap – backs to the sea, nowhere to go – forced incoming groups towards accommodation, hybridity and fusion. Further east, where the land broadened and the pressure was lower, it was different. To this day, you can find settlement patterns which are pointillist rather than solid colour, where the ethnic settlements remain distinct. You can see it in parts of south Russia: a Cossack village here, an Armenian village there, then a small town that was a Jewish shtetl before the Holocaust, then a village planted by Catherine II where the farmers still speak an archaic Swabian, or a settlement of Pontic Greeks returned from forced exile in Kazakhstan. They trade with each other – Armenian vegetables, Cossack vodka – but guard their prejudices. This sort of landscape is hard to understand in terms of the Western nation-state, with its idea of ‘imagined community’ and its anxiety about homogeneity and cohesion.
That passage reminds me that in 1995 Ascherson published an absorbing cultural and ecological history of those lands to the east, Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism.  The argument of the book was that the Black Sea – its peoples and coasts, its fish, its water and its immeasurably deep history – is a single cultural landscape. ‘No part makes sense when separated from the others’, Ascherson wrote. ‘And yet no quality is more essential to the Black Sea than continuous change in all those parts. This has never been a stable, ‘etemal’ place. Its peoples have been in movement for at least five thousand  years’.

Especially in 20th century nationalism, says Ascherson in his lecture, ‘strangers come from the East; they want what we have; they are Other’. This antipathy of settled communities to travelling communities or individuals is still hard-wired into Europe, he argues.  Yet the notion that identityis rigidly defined by place or custom is not always the case. Ascherson ruminates on how Europeans, especially the inhabitants of borderlands have often had flexible identities, depending on which uniform is banging on the door:

Villagers in the forest regions between Poland and Belarus, challenged to confess their nationality, used to say: ‘We are tutejszy – from-here people.’ A better answer to that question is another question: ‘Who’s asking?’

Yet at the same time Europeans have come up with schemes to make the continent a safer place, schemes that imagined empires and kingdoms and city-states to be part of some larger unity.  In earlier times there was the dream that the Roman Empire could be raised from the dead. Some dreamed of unity under the medieval church, and some look back longingly to a continent supposedly unified culturally and linguistically through its Iron Age Celtic populations.  But the word ‘Europe’ was not widely used as a political reference until the 16th or 17th centuries.

Ascherson considers how the current technocratic model of Europe came about, impelled by the disasters of two wars and the Holocaust.  Three key ideas were retrieved from the rubble after 1945:

The first was that a European union’s political strategy must be to construct an international framework – which would include Germany – to contain German strength. The second was that any union had to start with some deal over economic and industrial integration between France and Germany. The third, that ‘the construction of Europe’, institutional and economic, would have to be a top-down affair carried out by international technocrats under political protection. The notion that ‘the people of Europe’ should play an active part or be consulted was not entertained. After all, a European people did not exist. Maybe one day it would, making possible a true American-style federation based on democracy. But there was no point in waiting for that.

But, Anderson argues, historians of 20th century Europe have overlooked or forgotten a whole distinct episode, which he calls the ‘Resistance Spring’. The European Resistance was an upsurge not just of defiance against fascist occupiers but of hope and idealism for the future:

It mobilised men and women in nations all over the continent. It produced programmes for social justice and change, at first strikingly similar in different countries. Its texture, or context, was national-patriotic, and for that reason it quite clearly belongs in the sequence of national upheavals which began with 1848 and culminated – for the moment – in 1989.

Indeed, while the technocratic model of the European Union derives from the wartime vision of men like Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann, the wartime resistance movements adopted a far more radical vision of a postwar federal Europe.  That vision originated in a document drawn up on the Italian island of Ventotene by three men, Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi  and  Eugenio Colorni, who had been interned on the island along with some 800 others opposed to Mussolini’s regime.

Italian Fascist Ministry of Interior ID card of Altiero Spinelli

Spinelli  was a lifelong advocate of European federalism. A journalist and a vigorous opponent of fascism, he was arrested in 1927 and spent 10 years in prison and a further 6 in ‘confinement’ on Ventotene. In June 1941, Spinelli and a small group of federalists completed the Ventotene Manifesto which was written on cigarette papers and concealed in the false bottom of a tin box.  After being distributed in mimeographed form, a clandestine edition of the Manifesto appeared in Rome in January 1944.

The manifesto began by arguing that fascism had developed from the ideology of national independence and capitalist imperialism. However, the defeat of Germany would merely allow the British and the Americans to restore the nation-states in their old form. This must be resisted at all costs: federalists must seize the opportunity presented by the turmoil and uncertainty that would accompany the end of the war to establish a ‘European Federation … a free and united Europe’:

The ideology of national independence was a powerful stimulus to progress. It helped overcome narrow-minded parochialism and created a much wider feeling of solidarity against foreign oppression. …

The absolute sovereignty of the nation states has caused each one of them to try to dominate the others…The problem which must first be solved is the final abolition of the division of Europe into sovereign national states…People are now much more in favour of a federal reorganisation of Europe than they were in the past…

The question which must be resolved first, failing which progress is no more than mere appearance, is the definitive abolition of the division of Europe into national, sovereign States. …

Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni and others departing Ventotene
Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni and others departing Ventotene

During the lifetime of one generation Europe has twice been the centre of a world conflict whose chief cause was the existence of thirty sovereign States in Europe. It is a most urgent task to end this international anarchy by creating a European Federal Union.

Only a Federal Union will enable the German people to join the European community without becoming a danger to other peoples.

Only a Federal Union will make it possible to solve the problem of drawing frontiers in districts with mixed population. The minorities will thus cease to be the object of nationalistic jealousies, and frontiers will be nothing but demarcation lines between administrative districts

Only a Federal Union will be in a position to protect democratic institutions and so to prevent politically less developed countries becoming a danger to the international order.

After the war, Spinelli resumed his career as a journalist. In 1970 he became a member of the European Commission, with responsibility for industrial policy. He resigned in 1976 and in 1979 he was elected to the European Parliament as an Independent of the Left in the first direct elections.  Until his death in 1986, Spinelli campaigned vigorously for wide-ranging reforms to the Community institutions. He did this through a series of informal meetings known as the Crocodile Club (after the Strasbourg restaurant in which the Group was founded in July 1980). The European Parliament’s Draft Treaty Establishing the European Union, which was adopted in February 1984 and helped influence the process leading to the Maastricht Treaty, was the principal monument to the final period of Spinelli’s life. Returning to Ascherson’s lecture: he identifies  two consistent elements in Resistance postwar thinking:

First, that the prewar order in these nations – forms of liberal capitalism – had failed to defend democracy or national independence. Their collapse was partly due to the corruption, verging on treason, of the prewar elites; indeed, some of their members had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. So liberation must involve sweeping institutional and social change. Second, the Resistance programmes from Poland through Italy or Greece to France or the Netherlands framed those changes in statist, welfarist forms of democracy which were ‘socialistic’ but far from the Soviet model. There would be plural political democracy, with all the ‘bourgeois liberties’ guaranteed. There would be steeply progressive taxation, a planned economy, public health insurance and widespread nationalisations of industry, finance and transport.

The thirty years that followed the end of the Second World War were indeed the epoch of the social-democratic consensus: strong interventionist states with large public sectors, committed to full employment and the redistribution of wealth.  Ascherson observes that:

As the late Tony Judt insisted, we should not remember the 20th century only for its horrors. The stability and social justice achieved in postwar Western Europe was one of humanity’s triumphs.

But, as Ascherson observes, there followed ‘three very different decades of neoliberal dogma, now withering, which landed us in the mess we are in’.  He argues that nation-states have seen their their legitimacy erode as public services central to people’s lives have been privatised . Voters have lost interest in the democratic process as the state withdraws from public life.  But now, he argues, European governments are trying to rebuild their authority. And, significantly, one of the ways they are doing this is by increasing, not reducing, the pace of supranational integration.

Ascherson ends by suggesting that, more than thirty years since the old Cold War, social democratic order began to die, we are seeing indications that a new order might be emerging in Europe. But what kind of order?

A new birth of so-called ‘reformed capitalism’? … Or a European order of rediscovered liberty, equality and fraternity in which, to take Tony Judt’s words, ‘we can remake the argument about the nature of the public good’? I’d wave an Amikejo flag for that.

Well, maybe…As I write this thousands of Greek Communist Party demonstrators are massed in Syntagma square in front of the Parliament building in Athens to push home the message that ‘resistance exists’.  That is, resistance to the EU bailout agreement that the parliament will vote on tonight, and resistance to the EU itself, with many in the crowd reportedly convinced that it would now be better for Greece to leave the European Union.

See also

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