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Superiority is central to European Identity. Discuss.

Superiority is not just central to European identity- it is its guiding star, a fallacy by which falsehoods can become pillars of reason, by which brutality is but an essential means to an end, by which atrocities can be rationalised. Merriam-Webster defines superiority as the following: the state or fact of being better, more important, or higher in rank than others. So how can we apply this definition to a European context? Does it manifest itself in the brutal face of colonisation, Europeans spreading peace and civility to barbarous peoples? Or through the farce of “Enlightenment”, conveniently ignoring philosophical and scientific strides made in Asian and Middle Eastern societies beforehand? Or even in current debates regarding migration, conveniently othering “swarms of people”, in order to turn away from our moral obligations, to turn away those who are desperate, from our shores? These examples are deeply ingrained into  the European consciousness, and by this metric it appears that there is no question whether superiority is central to European identity. But in order to truly establish superiority’s place in European folklore, one must first ask: What is Europe? What does it mean to be European?


Questions the size of “What is Europe?”, and “What does it mean to be European?” cannot hope to be fully deconstructed in a 2000 word essay. Indeed, the very notion of a European identity has been repeatedly questioned, with scholars such as Fukuyama arguing that “there has never been a successful attempt to create a European sense of identity”, and A.J.P Taylor before him arguing that “European history is whatever the historian wants it to be.”, suggesting the fluidity of a European narrative. But one can observe insights into European self reflection, and recognise the place of the very definition of Europe in the superiority complex evident in European history.  For the purposes of this essay, Europe will not be seen as merely a geographical landmass- a definition which in itself has often been tied into political considerations. Thus, Rolf Petri’s conception of Europe as an ideology, (a “unitary object that incorporates complex sets of meanings”) that “informed the geographical subdivision on the Earth” is apt. But what observations can we make of Europe, and how it was defined?

One key observation is to note Europe’s christian heritage. Modern politicians such as Geert Wilder have referred to a common “Judeo-Christian culture” that unites Europeans, a statement that has roots sprouting from the reign of Charlemagne, taking hold in the 15th century. In this vein, the initial seeds of the perceived superiority of Europe had been planted- with centuries of European missionaries seeing their very purpose as to spread the Word of God. (Petri, 2018)

Another observation to be made is the concept of Europe in an inevitable drive towards progress from the 16th to early 20th century. Even after the Enlightenment, and the subsequent rolling back of the role of the Church in intellectual and public life, the notion of Europe having an ingrained purpose remained, repackaging itself into spreading secular principles of freedom and reason across Africa and Asia (Condorcet,1796). In this sense, the Enlightenment provided a “moral imperative” for European dominance (Murray-Miller, 2018), with Europe carrying a burden to “modernize” and set up civilisations across the world- an inherent contradiction, between the values of “tolerance” espoused in Europe, and the brutality practiced abroad. Europe, despite different nations having their differences, was characterised by “unity in difference”(Guizot, 1828), a thread tying together Europe’s “universal” values, that were then spread across the world via colonisation. This was done with considerable success, with writers such as Flaubert and Howard Russell stating the “disturbing similarities” between “oriental” cities such as Cairo, and their European counterparts in the 19th century.  It is by this doctrine that Paul Valery, following the conclusion of the first world war, stated that “Everything came to Europe, and everything came from it. Or almost everything.” The common thread between these examples is a strong sense of eurocentrism, Europe being characterized as a unique entity within world history, with a singular, driving need to usher the world into the light of its progress- superiority lying at the heart of Europe’s mission.


Mid 20th Century Europe onwards can be treated differently to the Europe of centuries past- due to  the overwhelming influence of the European Union, and the institutions that preceded it. The “master narrative” of the European Union often peddled by members of the European Commission themselves, centres on the horrific effects of World War 2, and a process of integration, a roadmap to peace, in order to ensure that such a war never again takes place of European soil. Ostensibly, this vision of Europe does not integrate our definition of superiority- indeed, it could be argued that within this frame, an implicit inferiority is assumed. Not only does this narrative place less emphasis on nationalistic depicitions of Europe (which should not be seen in opposition to a shared European identity, but indeed the concepts are often intertwined), but also, within a late 20th century context, it perhaps highlights individual European countries’ accepatance of their inability to compete with states such as the USA or China, and therefore seeking to club together to combat their supposed inferiority. Despite this analysis, even this narrative can be demonstrated to lie within the notion of European superiority. Indeed, in 1949, Toynbee stated that the very “dwarfing of Europe”- here referring to Europe’s disarray following the second world war, its international dominance in position being at risk to the US- necessitated Europeans looking for a unified past. This “dwarfing of Europe” can perhaps be seen through both lenses- both necessitating a search for a unified past, and a look towards a collective future- foreshadowing the Schuman doctrine of 1950, the Treaty of Rome in 1957, as Europe sought to unite in order to regain and reestablish its lost superiority. The resistant attitudes of European countries such as Belgium and France to lose their colonies, at a time where they actively sought to align both economically (via the Treaty of Rome) and politically (via the European Convention of Human Rights, which has been said to be a restriction of the rights granted by the UDHR by not recognising a right to self-determination among other things- Pasture, 2018), is suggestive of the continuance of a superior attitude towards non-european neighbours.


Having established some tenets of the historical concept of both Europe and what it means to be European, one can focus more specifically on how these concepts display the centrality of superiority to the European identity. Perhaps the most effective way of doing this is to return to some of our initial questions- beginning with: does (the notion of superiority) manifest itself through the farce of “Enlightenment”, conveniently ignoring philosophical and scientific strides made in Asian and Middle Eastern societies beforehand? One element of the superiority complex regarding the Enlightenment has already been questioned in this essay: the contradiction between the Kant-adopted phrase “Sapere aude”, and a more crude alternative “libera servis aude” (dare to release slaves). However, one can also note the influence of Islam, a religion seen as barbarous and to be overthrown (if not by Christianity, by reason) on the Enlightenment itself. Indeed, it is said that keystone figures such as Gibbon in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Voltaire, and later Flaubert, were indebted to Arabic influence in informing some of their literature, relying on works by Edward Pococke (“A sample of the History of the Arabs”, 1650)  and George Sale’s translation of the Koran (1733) covering  the Arabian world. Indeed Simon Ockley produced “The Conquest of Syria, Persia and Aegypt, by the Saracens”, in 1708, declaring his subjects to be “very considerable, both by their Arms and their Learning”  (The Economist, 2018). Where is the recognition of Arab culture and writings upon Enlightenment writers in European folklore, let alone the very many scientific strides made during the Islamic Golden Age? (Gregorian, 2003) The role of this slighting of Islamic influence on European scholarship and its relative lack of discussion in contemporary debate, in fuelling the misleading attempts at best to paint the Enlightenment as a gold-plated ushering of reason, only bolsters the centrality of superiority to European identity, the influence of another culture on its literature being but marginalised.


The question of “does the notion of superiority manifest itself in current debates regarding migration, conveniently othering “swarms of people”, in order to turn away from our moral obligations, to turn those desperate from our shores?” can also be tackled in further detail.  The very European Commission itself has acted to propagate a sense of European superiority in rejecting migrants. Take Ursula Von der Leyen’s proposal for a “Vice-President for protecting our European Way of Life”, referring to the European Way of Life as being built around “solidarity, peace of mind and security”- an effective euphemism for signalling an opposition to what is described as “irregular” migration. This view has not only been promoted by the European Commission- indeed, in a stark increase of populist parties across Europe in the last decade, a consistent theme is a resistance to foreign incomers. This is clear by the “forceful distinction” made between deserving and undeserving migrants seeking to enter European shores(Tilling, 2019), coupled with the breach of EU law in enforcing borders(Lendaro, 2016). Such actions appear the logical consequence of Angela Merkel’s 2010 statement: “Attempts to build a multicultural society have utterly failed.”, with Geert Wilders in 2011 developing on this, stating that “If Europe falls, it will fall because, like ancient Rome, it no longer believes in the superiority of its own civilization.” It is in this line of thought, the superiority of European civilisation and thus implicitly European identity (distinct from the EU however), that in 2019 that the far-right AfD party  produced campaign posters asking voters to vote for them, in order to prevent Europe becoming “Eurabia”. Example after example, even in contemporary European society, appears to drive home this central tenet of superiority in the European identity, not abating in its strength of force over time.


In this essay I have attempted to argue that superiority is most definitely central to European identity, being prevalent from the 15th century to present day, and being used to justify a host of actions that would be seen as the very antithesis of the European, “universal” values. But were questions of a European identity adequately addressed? Petri argues that Guizot’s “unity in difference” theory was not unique to Europe, with Habermas arguing that “ The expectation that the intellectuals should construct a “grand European narrative,” a European “identity,” with the aid of a new founding myth remains captive to a “nineteenth-century logic”.After all, the now well-studied history of the “invention” of national consciousness by historiography, the press, and school curricula during the nineteenth century, in view of its horrible consequences, does not provide an inviting example.”- effectively suggesting that a European identity is neither a desirable or accurate depiction of European history. The very unity of Europe itself can be questioned, with a signifcant divison between Eastern and Western Europe on topics such as gay marriage, tolerance towards muslims and jews, and the importance of religion to the nation (Pew Research Centre, 2019). Given these doubts, is it desirable to place a notion as sweeping as a “European identity” upon the history of Europe? Perhaps the answer is: No.

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