Tony Blair
Tony Blair; drawing by David Levine

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 more loosely. All European governments support the action, but with varying degrees of difficulty. (Germany, for example, has made a significant offer of troops, but the Greens could still break Chancellor Schröder’s Red–Green coalition over the issue.) Many European societies are increasingly worried about it—opinion polls in Germany, France, and Britain have shown a majority favoring a pause in the bombing—but again, in varying degrees.

Have these events helped the process known in most European languages (though rarely in English) as “European unification”? In one important respect, it would appear so. With a dynamic European commissioner, António Vitorino, helped by energetic support from governments such as that of Aznar in Spain, the European Union is introducing new measures to combat terrorism. Besides increased cooperation between police forces and intelligence services, and new powers to cut off terrorist funds, the most important measure is an EU-wide arrest warrant. This will allow persons wanted in any member state to be arrested in any other, and handed over directly to the country in which they are sought. These are important steps against terrorism; they also serve to bring the countries of the EU closer together.

Still, that is not quite the same as “European unification.” At best, it is the unification of part of Europe. What about the rest of Europe not yet in the EU, but knocking at its door? The French foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, was one of several people who suggested to me that the events of September 11 could actually impede the long-awaited eastward enlargement of the EU to include countries of the former Soviet bloc. Védrine pointed to these new, rigorous EU standards of police, judicial, and frontier control: here was yet another hurdle that countries like Poland would have to jump before being admitted. Védrine’s comment was not merely an analytical contribution. If the French foreign minister says this to me now, it means that France (and others) might next year raise a specific objection to including this or that Central or East European state—many of which have weak and corrupt police forces, judicial systems, and customs services.1 In this way, the effect of September 11 might even be to slow down the larger unification of Europe.


Has the attack helped to consolidate a European foreign policy? Not unambiguously. Yes, the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, is playing an active part in promoting peace talks in the Middle East. Yes, the leaders of Europe’s three most important military powers, Britain, France, and Germany, have closely coordinated their approach. But that has provoked resentment among the rest. The increasingly operatic EU president, Romano Prodi, threw a fit because the British, French, and German leaders held a private meeting about the war immediately before an EU summit in Ghent. This was not, Prodi suggested, the true community spirit.

When Tony Blair recently tried to hold a working dinner about the war at No. 10 Downing Street, with just the German chancellor and the French president and prime minister invited, the Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi insisted on joining them. So Blair felt he had to include his friend José María Aznar as well. Then the Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, invited himself, since Belgium currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU. That meant also having Mr. Solana, as Europe’s Mr. Foreign Policy. Finally—to turn the episode into pure Feydeau farce—the Dutch prime minister, Wim Kok, tipped off by the Belgians, rang up to say it would be a “good idea” if he came too, and arrived forty-five minutes late in the back of a London police car.

The comedy of this dinner party illustrates the tension between two versions of “European foreign policy.” On the one hand, there is the ideal of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, that all fifteen member states should speak with a single voice, through Mr. Solana or the government currently holding the EU presidency. On the other, there is the reality in, for example, the Balkans, which is that the major European powers—always Britain, France, and Germany; often Italy; sometimes Spain; in future perhaps Poland—make policy in close coordination with the United States, and the rest of the EU follows, with a few adjustments at the margin. This tendency is strengthened by the Bush administration’s preference for pick-and-choose “coalitions of the willing” in the present war. (Many are willing but few are chosen.) But some major European powers, especially Britain and France, also prefer it this way. “Il y a une directoire,” a senior French diplomat said to me over lunch in Paris, with emphasis and approval, meaning, there is a directorate of the three major powers in the EU. The United States may be comfortable with that. Indeed, Henry Kissinger has suggested the rebirth of the nineteenth-century Quadruple Alliance, now to comprise the United States, Britain, France, and Germany.2 Everyone else in Europe hates the idea.

Underlying these political struggles are deeper questions of identification and identity. Many Europeans do not identify with “Europe” as a political organization or force. According to the EU’s own Eurobarometer polls, less than half those asked think EU membership is a good thing for their contry. In the Taberna La Dolores, a tapas bar in central Madrid, Carlos Molinas, a twenty-eight-year-old unemployed lifeguard, explained: “People don’t feel European; they feel English or Spanish.” “Europe,” he told me, “is a politicians’ project. It doesn’t reach down to the people in the street.” Whereas, he said, the United States of America reaches down to virtually every household—as we’ve seen so vividly since September 11. He had the impression that every American home has its American flag, its pride, its sense of belonging to a larger political community.

Pro-European intellectuals put it differently. We have, they say, to ask the question “Why Europe?”—and find a good answer to it. One can view this questioning in two ways. One can see it as a symptom of crisis. Few Americans ask “Why America?” Until recently the British did not ask “Why Britain?” The anthropologist Mary Douglas once observed that the strongest institutions are the invisible ones. Similarly, the strongest political identities are the unquestioned ones. Ten years ago, in a dynamic period of the EU’s development, few bothered to ask “Why Europe?” Now they do. More hopefully, one could regard this as a symptom of something in the making. We ask “Why Europe?” as Italians in the Risorgimento asked “Why Italy?” This being Europe, the reality is a bit of both, but rather more of the former.


Identities are usually defined not just by what you are for and who you are with, but above all by who or what you are against, or what you feel is against you. This is often an outright enemy, but it may just be a great rival—the other team, so to speak. In the jargon of identity studies, it is the Other. The deepest question posed to Europe by this war is: Who or what is Europe’s Other? During the cold war, the answer was plain. Europe’s Other was the threat from the Communist “East.” Much of the integration of Western Europe in the European Economic Community can be understood as a response to that threat. There were other Others, too: Europe’s own bloody past was a kind of historical Other, the United States a very important rival for Gaullists of all countries. But this was the main one.

Since the end of the cold war, Europe has been a continent in search of its Other. However, as I have recently argued in these pages, in the 1990s many European intellectuals, especially on the left, found the Other in the United States.3 Europe was to be defined as the Not-America. This worked at several levels. At the most quotidian, Europe was to be about the defense of a certain way of life, with its traditional foods and drinks—the baguette, the cheese, the wine, the espresso, the schnapps—and the long lunch breaks to enjoy them, its old customs, and extraordinarily rich culture of living well. This idea is particularly strong in France. “To say it very simply,” Hubert Védrine told me, “Europe should be the best place in the world to live.” Reminding me that in Germany, when one wants to convey that someone enjoys the good life, one says, “he lives like God in France,” Védrine suggested that Europe should be about us Europeans all living like God in France. A rather self-congratulatory idea perhaps, and a little old-fashioned—for many young Europeans feel that God now lives in California—but one with resonance nonetheless, for millions of Europeans.

The underpinning for this way of life was to be found in a different model of the organization of a democratic capitalist economy and society, placing more emphasis than the United States on the state as welfare provider, on public services, solidarity, social justice, the environment, and quality of life. The EU was seen as a means to preserve this “social Europe” in a globalized world of brutal competition. Being big and united, Europe could enjoy the benefits of globalization without paying the price in the sort of stripped-down Americanization that a Polish friend complained to me is now spoiling his country. We could, as the French prime minister Lionel Jospin put it, have the market economy without the market society.

Finally, Europe was to be a counterweight to the crude, brash, only-surviving-superpower, with its misguided policy in the Middle East, its lamentable record on aid to the third world, and a general tendency to throw its weight around. Hubert Védrine famously coined the term hyperpuissance—hyperpower—to describe this American monster, although he now assures me that his term was “purely analytical.” An Italian post-communist talked of needing Europe to “balance” the power of the United States—“balance” being the polite word. These resentments and longings were initially strengthened by the arrival of President George W. Bush, seen by many in Europe as a unilateralist Texan cowboy.

This view has not simply disappeared after September 11. Indeed, many Europeans argue that September 11 shows the need for a more sophisticated, multilateral approach to a complex, often nasty world. But it is more difficult to define yourself primarily against America at a time when America and Europe both seem to be under attack, as part of one Western, Christian or post-Christian, materialist, decadent civilization.

In that attack, Osama bin Laden thrusts upon Europe the prospect of another Other, at once very new and the oldest of them all. For “Europe” was originally defined as a conscious entity in the conflict with the Islamic world. The first political usage of the term comes in the eighth and ninth centuries, as the descendants of the Prophet—the “infidels,” in Christian parlance—are thrusting, by force of arms linked to a faith that we would now call fanatical, into the underbelly of Europe. “Europe” begins its continuous history as a political concept in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, first as synonym for, then as successor to, the Crusaders’ notion of Christendom—and once again, its Other is plainly the Arab-Islamic world.4

There is a real temptation to revive that ancient European bogey. While I was traveling around the continent, one European leader spectacularly succumbed to the temptation. The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, told Italian journalists that we should have confidence in the superiority of our culture. “The West,” he said, “given the superiority of its values, is bound to occidentalize and conquer new people. It has done it with the Communist world and part of the Islamic world, but unfortunately a part of the Islamic world is 1,400 years behind.”5 The sentiment would have been applauded by the Knights Templar and Pope Pius II. In a volcanic essay, the veteran Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci added, “We might as well admit it. Our churches and cathedrals are more beautiful than their mosques.” And she described Arab immigration to Italy as “a secret invasion.”6 Is it an accident that these two voices come from Rome, the center of Western Christendom?

However, this is not just about Western Christendom. President Vladimir Putin’s remarkable strategic response to September 11, immediately and strongly positioning Russia with Europe and the West, is justified ideologically by the claim—deep-rooted though not undisputed in the history of Russian self-identification—that the world of Eastern Christendom, of Orthodoxy, stands on the front line against Islamic and “Asiatic” barbarism (typified for Putin by Chechen and Afghan “terrorists”). Samuel Huntington has advanced the notion that a dividing line of clashing civilizations runs through Eastern Europe, between “Western Civilization,” including both the Europe of Western Christendom and North America, and “Orthodox Civilization,” including Russia. Putin replies that the true line runs between a West that includes all of post-Christendom and a threatening East exemplified by Islamic Central Asia. The voice of “the third Rome” (Russia) reinforces those from the second Rome. And Berlusconi actually made his now notorious remarks after a meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Most European leaders and intellectuals of course reject this polemical (re)construction of our identity. Even if some claim of cultural superiority were justified—and the record of European barbarism in the twentieth century should make us humble in that regard—it would be madness for Europe to embrace this rhetoric. The entire West is already at risk of alienating Muslims throughout the world in what George W. Bush once ill-advisedly called our “crusade.” This would be particularly dangerous for Europe, which sits just a few miles north and west of a diverse, frustrated, and in large parts impoverished Islamic and Arab world, in what Europeans used to call the Near East, in North Africa, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Above all, it would be suicidal for a continent in which perhaps as many as twenty million Muslims already live.

As I write these lines, I am sitting in North Oxford. The newsagent from whom I bought today’s newspapers is Muslim. The local pharmacist is Muslim. The young woman working at the cleaners is Muslim. They are all courteous, friendly, highly competent people, speaking perfect English, and, so far as I can see, at once accepting of and fully accepted in British society. Until September 11 it would not have occurred to me to describe them as “Muslims,” any more than I would describe the local post office manager or hardware dealer as “Christians.” Yet now we hear on the radio the voices of British Muslims saying that Islam, not Britain, is their homeland, and they are going to fight for the Taliban. They represent a tiny, no, an infinitesimal, minority of British Muslims, but they are the ones that catch the headlines—and simple-minded people will start to get suspicious of all Muslims. I am told by friends in a position to know that even wholly peaceful, liberal-minded, and moderate British Muslims have felt a certain crisis of identity, even before September 11. It is now all the more important that we help them feel at home.

Although London and a few other English cities have their share of Islamic radicals, Britain is still relatively fortunate in the civic integration of Islamic minorities. The Turkish communities in Germany, for example, are less well integrated. A very senior and liberal-minded German politician told me that Germany has more extremist teachers of Islam than Turkey does. In a working-class quarter of Madrid, I spoke to a twenty-three-year-old illegal immigrant from Morocco called Yacine. Yacine came to Spain hidden under a bus. He does not have the papers to get a job, so he lives by stealing. “I live,” he said, “like a wolf.” Did he think the Western response to September 11 was directed against Islam? “Yes, it’s an attack on Islam.” Many of his relatives in Morocco, he added, “think the Jews will have a part in the attack—and so do I.”

Muslims in Europe will not be reassured simply by President Bush or Tony Blair pronouncing, as fresh-baked Koranic scholars, that Osama bin Laden’s message is a perversion of Islam. As the French writer Olivier Roy has argued, we need a much deeper reflection on what it means to talk of European Muslims or “European Islam.” The very notion challenges those deep assumptions about Europe as post-Christendom that one often glimpses beneath the elevated rhetoric of European unification.7

We must therefore hope that this latest new-old Other is immediately put back in its box, and the lid firmly closed—although many Muslims will already suspect that Berlusconi was merely saying what Europeans really think. Meanwhile, the Russian Other is largely gone, especially if Putin continues his pro-Western course. The American Other remains a candidate, but one that looks rather out of place in the post–September 11 world. In the end, it will never fit the bill, for Europe and America are not, in fact, two separate civilizations, but one, albeit containing a wide spectrum of social, economic, and political models, ranging from the American right to the French left. And there is no other Other in sight.

Thus the task for those who believe, as I do, in a project called “Europe” is to build a strong, positive European identity, one that binds people emotionally to a set of institutions, without the help of a clear and present Other. The current war clarifies that task, but also complicates it. For the time being, I must conclude that this is yet another defining moment at which Europe declines to be defined.

This Issue

December 20, 2001