Europe at War

Since September 11, I have been exploring that question in nine European countries, through conversations with political leaders, intellectuals, officials, and so-called ordinary people (but they never are ordinary) in Madrid, Paris, Warsaw, and other capitals. To visit so many nations in so short a time is like using one of those flick-books some of us had in our low-tech youth, with a series of cartoon sketches drawn on successive pages of a notebook. Flick the edges with your thumb and you see a jerky moving picture.

Everywhere, I found a fundamental sympathy with the United States under terrorist attack. This may seem obvious, but it has hardly been true in all regions of the world. A great black banner across the Brandenburg Gate declared “Wir trauern—Our deepest sympathy.” A working-class Parisian in a bar told me, “We’re all under attack…the democracies. We’re all the free world.”

Yet every European country has its own war. For Spain, it is about fighting their own Basque separatist terrorists (ETA), as the Spanish prime minister José María Aznar very forcefully impressed upon me. For Germany, it is about domestic security (in Germany alone I found people feeling personally threatened, as they do in the US), and then about a post-post-Hitler Germany gingerly stepping up to play a military role in the wider world. In Macedonia, it is about their own terrorists—or alleged terrorists—and what this will do to US involvement in the Balkans. Under Tony Blair, Britain burnishes its special relationship with the United States (“Newest US Ambassador Is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom,” said a memorable headline in The Wall Street Journal Europe), but wants to lead in Europe too. Bulgaria worries about the effects on its prospects for joining NATO and the EU. And so on.

This story of similarity and difference is one constantly repeated at all levels of the European experience. A street in Madrid suddenly reminds me irresistibly of a street in downtown Belgrade. Sit in a café in Sofia and you could be in Paris. Shops, smells, fashion, the way an intellectual smokes his cigarette, the toss of a girl’s head, all transport you from one city to another. “Yes, this is Europe,” you say: hard to describe, impossible to pin down, but it exists. Yet part of what defines this Europe is precisely the richness of its diversity in such a small space. How many cuisines, languages, wines, newspapers, styles of femininity, across just a few thousand miles!

Unity in diversity” is the pat formula often used. Well, there is much similarity beside diversity. There is, I would say, commonality in diversity. But that is not the same as unity. Has there been a united European response to the events of September 11? Only if one uses the word “united” in a very loose sense. Is there a united European response to the way the war is being waged in Afghanistan? Only if one uses the word still …

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