Pieces of the puzzle: finding common ground for a European history

by Charlotte van Vessem

Prior to the start of France’s six-month Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) on the 1st of January 2022, French President Macron laid out his priorities regarding the European Union in a speech in December 2021. In this speech, President Macron expressed France’s desire to create a European think-tank of historians to create a narrative of a common European history. The project is mostly aimed at counteracting historical revisionism within the EU. While the EU faces numerous challenges, both internal and external, it might be true that these issues are in some way intertwined with the EU’s image problems. Since the Russian attacks on Ukraine, the EU has shown that it can move in relative unison. However, underneath this outwardly displayed unity, an internal divide remains that is not so easily overcome. An ambitious and complicated project such as this one will need to address questions that touch on the very core of the EU. What truly unites the European Union? And what values are at its core?

At first glance, there seem to be more dividing episodes of history than common ones. Ironically, the most shared aspect of European history is perhaps the continent’s long history of internal warfare. Many of the EU’s member states exist because of disputes and wars with other now-member states, rather than peaceful collaboration. If anything, the European continent has most likely seen the highest number of wars. As such, finding a uniting historical narrative in brotherhood and unity will prove to be a difficult, perhaps even impossible task. 

Secondly, there is the issue of what exactly counts as ‘European’ and what ‘European values’ actually entail. The EU’s original members were Western European states, and these states continue to perceive themselves as the ‘standard’, especially regarding democracy, liberty, human rights, and the rule of law. With the Union’s eastward expansion, the expectation was that the Western sphere would move eastwards, welcoming Eastern European states as new members of the Western world. As the EU is mostly a union founded on economic support and treaty agreements, it cannot build on a tradition of shared culture, linguistics, religion, or values. The EU famously does not have a constitution to lay out its values, on which there is no consensus between member states in general, and after an initial wave of democratisation, some of the Eastern member states of the EU are now becoming increasingly un-democratic. The absence of consensus leads to divisions from within, which is detrimental to a Union that seeks to become an independent and bigger actor in international politics.

This division in values largely follows a former historical split. As the legacy of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain divide the continent, Europe’s history is split in two. This is still visible today: within the EU, there is still relatively little space for the distinctive modern histories of the Eastern members. Where Western member states struggle to find ways to face their colonial and imperial histories, Eastern member states attempt to give a place to national identities and the trauma of the Soviet regime.

Lastly, there is an argument that is not so much geographic as it is demographic. In a Union consisting of nation-states, some of which having colonial histories, the question of who exactly sees their own histories reflected in a common European history needs to be addressed. The historical contributions and experiences of both women and people of colour are largely excluded. Especially this latter group has voiced discontent publicly in the last two years, leading to the removal of various statues associated with colonial regimes. Despite the EU’s commitment to equality for all its citizens, little has been undertaken so far to enhance the history of the EU with diverse perspectives, when this is perhaps one of the best examples of why past and present influence one another. 
Macron’s initiative to work on a European history narrative came at a time of an internally divided European Union. Internally split between democracy and autocracy, values of individualism, freedom, and national and international identities, the EU continues to struggle to find a common ground for all its member states. However, after a couple of years in which Euroscepticism became the leading trend of the continent, the Russian war on Ukraine appears to be a turning point. The victory of the left-wing Svoboda party in Slovenia, as well as Macron’s own re-election show a new focus on European unity.

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