The so-called ‘Erasmus generation’ is the most europeanised in history. Nothing can have such an impact on one’s education like an experience in another country, during which one is in direct contact with students of many other nationalities. It is exactly with “Erasmian millenials” in mind that Alessandro Cavalli and Alberto Martinelli have written this book. The volume can be conceived as a handbook for the deepening and organization of readers’ knowledge about Europe, but also as a tool for developing full awareness regarding our belonging to a society, a culture and a political community greater and richer than the national ones.

At the end of every chapter, the reader is left with two impressions: the considerable relevance of the European landscape, but also its great diversity.

The book is a lot more than a simple textbook. It does not only describe but also interprets, questions and makes one think. Building on the best available academic literature, it provides factual descriptions and important analytical input for practitioners. This is, in sum, an important piece of work, which is bound to remain in bookstores and libraries for a long time.

The volume’s twelve chapters analyse various aspects of the European society: ranging from religion to cities, from welfare to political institutions, and from languages to universities. Each topic is, first, illustrated from a historical perspective, then examined in its current expressions, and finally analysed as regards the role it has had in the integration process. At the end of every chapter, the reader is left with two impressions: the considerable relevance of the European landscape, but also its great diversity. This is a “thick” pluralism of values, social practices, economic structures, and political institutions. This embarras de richesse is almost heady but at the same time poses two questions: do not such richness and diversity constitute an impediment to integration? More importantly, is it possible to identify what underpins Europe beyond its pluralism?

Rationalism and individualism

That the authors have an answer to these questions is evident from the title, including the notion of a European society in the singular rather than the plural. For Cavalli and Martinelli, the key elements of the European identity are basically two: rationalism and individualism (or subjectivity). The former is expressed through the constant search for knowledge, guided by critical thinking. Born in Ancient Greece, rational thinking has developed throughout modernity, and in particular thanks to the Enlightenment. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Goethe’s Faust, and before them the Dantesque Ulysses are the symbolic characters of this rational ethos (the search for knowledge and the new as a new virtue)—an ethos that generated extraordinary results in the field of the arts, architecture, philosophy and science, and on the basis of which the market economy and industrial capitalism could develop.

Rationalism and individualism are, naturally, two background values: they define the general coordinates of a cultural space, which remains open to infinite combinations.

Prometheus, Ulysses and Faust symbolise the authors’ second trait too: the faith in the individual, the promotion of his autonomy, and the belief that everybody builds his own destiny and is responsible for his choices and actions. The individualist ethos underlies values such as liberty and equality, recognized by natural law and liberal political thought. This ethos not only allowed the concrete realisation of the concept of citizenship, but also the drive to reconcile the value of liberty with that of equality, which was especially emphasised by the socialist tradition. Democracy and the welfare state are the paradigmatic incarnations of such reconciliation—the ultimate proof that liberty and equality are complementary principles, even though their relationship must be constantly calibrated according to the transformations of society.

Rationalism and individualism are, naturally, two background values: they define the general coordinates of a cultural space, which remains open to infinite combinations. Those who live in such a space need to respect some basic rules that are prerequisites for pluralism, namely tolerance, openness towards different ideas, and the inclusion of the other (to put it like Habermas).

Cavalli and Martinelli recognize (and, actually, highlight) that European history has also given birth to many “monsters”—the Shoah, to mention only one. The affirmation of Europe’s rationalist and individualist background has not always followed a linear trajectory, and has been accompanied by horrible conflicts. We can nonetheless assert that, through trial and error, the European culture has gradually “learnt” to select friendlier social and institutional solutions vis-à-vis its basic ethos.

What about religion? Which role and influence should one assign to the Judaeo-Christian tradition within the shaping of the European identity? The authors lean towards a “dialectic” answer: Christianity has influenced our continent’s culture and institutions deeply throughout the centuries. In the Christian view, man has a direct relationship with the transcendental God. Together with Roman law, Christian beliefs have contributed to validating the concept of person and to the latter’s combination with the notion of dignity. At the same time, by taking an anti-modernist stance, the Church has also opposed the affirmation of the continent’s rationalist and individualist ethos. The separation between the spiritual and secular power has been a slow and difficult process, much like the enfranchisement of the faithful from the subjection to dogmas involving the secular and private spheres. In sum, Christianity has played both a constructive and a dialectic role in the evolution of the European culture, in its function of a “cultural pole” from which to gain some distance.

Europe’s values and integration

As for European integration, the authors have no doubts: Europe’s unification is a modern project born from the hard lessons of the first half of the twentieth century. The “monster” of the two world wars deeply traumatised Europeans who, like Ulysses, decided to tie their hands in order to pursue an unprecedented project, i.e. the construction of a multi-national political association (a “demoicracy”, to use Kalypso Nicolaidis’s fortunate expression). They did not do so through coercive means but through the law.

The value framework characterizing the European identity is emotionally “cold,” being based less on passions than on a utilitarian calculus (although though mitigated by reciprocity principles).

The EU was born as a market community, which has been gradually turned in a legal one with political objectives. The extraordinary factor in this process has been exactly the political use of diversity as a uniting force, through the lever of the rationalist and individualist ethos, and the principles of tolerance and mutual recognition.

The authors, however, are not naïve, and are fully aware of the risks that such a project entails—and which the euro crisis has made quite evident. The value framework characterizing the European identity is emotionally “cold,” being based less on passions than on a utilitarian calculus (although though mitigated by reciprocity principles). Today, we are facing two big challenges testing our model: immigration and fundamentalist terrorism. The EU is at a crossroads: fear and passions are pushing our continent’s “demoi” to turn inward and resort to old nationalist myths and symbols. The rational ethos, on the other hand, pushes towards further integration, both as an instrument to better manage the two aforementioned challenges, and as a way to defend the universal values that Europeans invented. European leaders’ responsibility (as rational heads of states as well as co-directors of the integration process) could not be bigger and consequential for the humanity as a whole.


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An Italian version of this review was published in the Corriere della Sera on 24 January 2016.


Photo Credits CC: Cheryl Harvey 


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INTELLECTUAL EUROPE REVIEW


Alessandro Cavalli and Alberto Martinelli, La società europea. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2015


European Identity


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