Creating European Identity through History: Representations of the Past in Contemporary European Politics

Creating European Identity through History: Representations of the Past in Contemporary European Politics

Caner Tekin, Institut für soziale Bewegungen, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
Vom - Bis
09.09.2015 - 10.09.2015
Caner Tekin, Institut für soziale Bewegungen, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Initiating a commonplace argument of European history has become the European Union’s objective for a long time. The House of European History in Brussels, the museum endorsed by the European Parliament, is the latest attempt to reflect a shared narrative with references to history. The question yet remains on whether there is an uncontested history of the EU. In order to discuss this issue, the idea of uniform European history, scholars from far and wide came to sit on the workshop, “Creating Identity through History: Representations of the Past in Contemporary European Politics” organised by Caner Tekin and chaired by Professor Stefan Berger at the Ruhr University Bochum. They therefore addressed a historical and political question: What are the motivations before creating a common historical narrative of Europe and what are the underlying factors of and challenges to this process?

The participants in the opening session reviewed the House of European History (HEH). They characterised, in agreement, the House to reflect a uniform, even cohesive, argument about European history. Comparisons between the HEH and other local museums suggest that the former’s coverage is in harmony with the general purpose of the primary supranational EU institutions, namely, producing a pan-European discourse in the EU. The presenter DANIEL ROSENBERG (Jerusalem) therefore stated that the House of European History is not designed to show an accumulation of European history; it is rather an abstract attempt to give a Pan-European idea. The concept “House” also implies this characteristic. “It has strived to reflect an inclusive language”, Rosenberg stated. Perhaps that is one reason of why the HEH focused on historical events after 1945. Important incidents in earlier European history, like the siege of Vienna by the Ottomans in 1683, are apparently not added to the HEH’s selective content due to the EU’s inclusive pan-Europeanist rationale.

At the end of the first session two points came into question: The European Union’s narrative, or, more critically, its political programme about European history, and its reactions from national contexts. The following sessions of the workshop discussed these two points.

The participants proceeded to the workshop’s second session about the role of the European Commission in the historiography of European integration. ORIANE CALLIGARO (Brussels), the session’s presenter, argued that the European Commission from the beginning assumed the objectives of creating a Europeanised historiography, a particular form of history-writing according to pan-Europeanism, and initiating a network of scholars on the history of European integration. In order to achieve these objectives, the Commission inaugurated and supported two networks, the history department at the European University Institute and the Liaison Committee. Oriane Calligaro argued that the Commission was partially successful in these attempts. The Liaison Committee, for example, from the 1980s did well in introducing a network of scholars writing European integration and therefore contributed to a common terminology, which involves today popular concepts like “identity”, “memory”, or “integration”. But the period, in which the European Commission endorsed various departments, also suggests that European historiography was almost impossible to monopolise. Despite that fact, as agreed by the participants, the European Union continues to mirror a political program in identity policies.

At the end of the first two sections, participants asked the question that whether we really need a representation of European history, especially since national institutions are so willing to give their own perspectives. It then seems timely to look at intersections between European and national identity policies. The EU’s cultural policy is an important example of a uniform European representation. Therefore, CLAUDIA SCHNEIDER (Berlin), in the third section, asked: To what extent do EU members uphold a supranational representation of European culture? She oriented this question to her analysis of national representations at the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC), the network of national cultural institutes of the EU’s member states. One of the institution’s aims is encouraging “cultural dialogue and exchange” at the European level. Despite that, principal objectives of EU members at the EUNIC admittedly prevail against the idea of shared European identity and culture. Member states voluntarily come together to contribute to the common European memory, but they do actually exhibit their national cultural heritages. The emphasis on being European, as Schneider concludes, is in fact no more than a side effect of the EUNIC.

After discussing the EU’s venture of Europeanised historiography and the actual situation at national levels, the workshop turned its attention to the representation of Europeanness and European history in relation to the historical “others”. Therefore, JUDITH MÜLLER (Ben Gurion University) pointed at the references to Europe in the Jewish literature during the fourth session. Europe in the 19th century according to Jewish texts was almost a humanitarian “home”; it later dramatically turned to a source of trauma under rising anti-Semitism. The main point Müller made is that the Holocaust has always been linked to Jewish narratives. But the Holocaust has not been the only focal point. The authors, especially the ones like Aharon Appelfeld and Lizzie Doron, remind us of sorrow and despair before the Holocaust, too. In her conclusion, Müller stated that the mentioned writers identify in their stories the Jewish “self” through locating the dark chapter of rising anti-Semitism in European history. By so doing, the Jewish authors also seek in their narratives the ideal Europe in pre and post-war period.

CLAUDIA WEBER (Frankfurt an der Oder) in the fifth session presented the contemporary conditions of remembering the Stalinist Eastern European history. She therefore addressed: “How do Europeans today refer to the humanitarian crimes initiated by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union under the shadow of other traumas to which European heritage is connected?” As an example, history-writers in Europe prioritised commemorating a number of events, especially the Holocaust, whereas they somehow overlooked the Stalinist era. Weber argued in that regard that history writers generally establish through their narratives a hierarchy of violence when dealing with memories of traumas. Historians are humans: they are not perfect in giving equal weight to traumatic events. In the attempt of dealing with historical cases critically, they might stay under the influence of other factors, such as power politics. For example, public opinion and historiography questioning the consequences of Stalinism in Eastern Europe remained limited in the Cold War. Additionally, some examples of the Stalinist terror were illuminated much later than the actual time of their happening, as we see in the recognition of the Kathyn Massacre in 1990.

The sixth meeting of the workshop focussed rather on a political analysis of a contemporary case. SOFIA VASILOPOULOU (York) tackled the current level of Euroscepticism through her analysis of the recent legislative elections in Britain. The UK has always been sceptical to European political integration and, in the present context, to the EU’s pan-European aspirations through the Europeanised historiography. But in the latest legislative elections in 2014, Eurosceptical motivations perhaps played a greater role in political campaigns and, according to Vasilopoulou, in voting behaviour of British electors.

The seven and eighth sessions were reserved to a contemporary debate about Turkey, arguably the historic “other” of Europe. PAUL LEVIN (Stockholm), who directs the Institute of Turkish Studies at the Stockholm University, began his speech with the evolution of the Turkish image in Europe in a longue durée. It is highly acknowledged that European identity in history was partially forged in relation to the Islamic image of Turkey. Levin later claimed that Turkey’s religious exclusion from Europe continued today, in particular during the European Union’s membership negotiations with the candidate. The public opinion in favour of Turkey’s membership consistently declined in Europe in the second half of the 2000s. On the one hand, Turkey’s failing reform performance played a role here. On the other hand, Europeans remembered Turkey with its historically “non-European” traits, in particular its Islamic character. Levin concluded that Turkey-sceptical political camps sometimes explained democratic problems in Turkey with the country’s religiously non-European nature and therefore paved the way for the country’s further disinclination from the EU’s accession process.

Therefore, the role of Turkey’s Islamic image within arguments that are sceptical to the candidate’s EU accession becomes relevant: Has Turkey’s compatibility with Europeanness been not “objectively” discussed in Europe? Another question of equal importance is that whether there is a yardstick of representing the history of European historic “others”. I addressed these questions at the end of the workshop. In the closing session, I brought to discussion the European Union’s accession criteria (the EU’s Copenhagen Criteria for its candidate countries) in my speech about the representation of Turkey’s history at the European Parliament in the 2000s, especially after the beginning of the negotiations (2005). I claimed that analysing political statements at the European Parliament suggests the distance of political camps to the accession criteria while they conceptualise Turkey. From the beginning of the negotiations parliamentarians largely adhered to the accession criteria in their expressions. However, they sometimes made use of the accession criteria in order to legitimise their essentially negative Turkey stereotypes. Especially the conservative and far-right camps at the European Parliament in the 2000s showed important examples of that problematic discourse. Judging from the mentioned term, the European Union’s accession criteria thus are not always an objective measure of discussing Turkey’s past.

Of course, there are far more current topics than the workshop’s repertoire on the idea of uniform European history and the relationship between European integration and history-writing. Based on the arguments summarised here, the participants argued that the EU will continue its attempts to initiate a collective understanding of European history in harmony with its identity policies. Yet, national challenges will remain against the uniform and top-to-down conception and narrative of European history.

Conference Overview:

Creating European Identity through History: Representations of the Past in Contemporary European Politics

Stefan Berger, Ruhr Universität Bochum

Daniel Rosenberg (Hebrew University Jerusalem), Exhibiting Post-National Identity: the House of European History and European Pluralism?

Oriane Calligaro (Free University of Brussels), The European Commission’s Action in Favour of a Historiography of European Integration?

Claudia Schneider (Freie Universität Berlin), Creating European Identity with Foreign Cultural Policies of the EU´s Member States?

Judith Müller (Ben Gurion University of the Negev), ‘Glorious, Accursed Europe’ - European (Jewish) History in Israeli Literature

Claudia Weber (European University Viadrina Frankfurt an der Oder), Coming to Terms with the Stalinist History of Europe

Sofia Vasilopoulou (University of York), The British Euroscepticism

Paul Levin (University of Stockholm), Representing European and Turkish Histories throughout the EU’s Membership Negotiations with Turkey

Caner Tekin (Ruhr Universität Bochum), Conceptualisation of the Turkish Past by European Parties: Uses of the Accession Criteria

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