The dark heart of a European Christmas


'European Christmas' by Chris JohnstonThe etymological root of the word Europe is the Phoenician ereb, the darkness after the sun has gone down. Here in France light leaves us early and the darkest time of the year is before Christmas.

The landscape out my window looks dirty. Northern skies are grey, any sun that dares come through the clouds is weak and the place seems tired out by summer frivolity and autumn trauma. The economic woes of the continent reflect on my window where naked trees wait for a giant white dump from the skies to cover everything in sight.

Nietzsche said only money could unite Europe and in 2010 Angela Merkel stated, 'If the euro fails, so will the idea of the European Union.'

Europe is the home of universalism. It's also known for imperialism, nationalism and utopian projects. It's the land on the hunt for transcendental light. The European obsession with universalism justified its colonial ambition, wrought havoc across the globe, and established Europe's wealth.

The EU was a panacea for Europe's nationalist and imperial history. Europe's universalist tendencies were vested in the experiment with an internationalist supra-national body, and all hope was pinned on the common currency as the saviour able to transcend internal differences within the continent.

The 'idea' of Europe has baffled philosophers and commentators for centuries and the question wasn't going to vanish because global markets ordered it to. The emphasis on the euro as the forerunner in the race towards EU unity was at the cost of the hard work of governance and grappling with difference — the real work of politics. Now the grand visions and optimism about the EU lie in debt fragments and the same question returns to haunt — What is Europe?

The idea that economic unity, without difficult political engagement, can magically create equality and community has served to reveal, not only the racism that persists against immigrants from outside Europe, but also the hold France and Germany have upon the 'peripheral' EU nations.

Perhaps Europe, following neo-liberal fashions, ran too hard towards fiscal unity and neglected its divided history. Underlying this is a suspicion that some elements of European thought contain a constant temptation towards hubris that requires an 'other' to support it's superiority complex — the imperial tendencies haven't magically vanished but are manifest within Europe's borders.

Roberto Dainotto argued in 2007 that 'the idea of the defective Europeanness of the south has shaped the policies of a two-tiered Europe' and that the Eurocentrism of nations like France and Germany occurred within the margins of Europe itself. Attempts to homogenise Europe would never succeed unless the balance between north and south was structurally and culturally addressed.

From the beginning of the EU the southern nations have been known as PIGS: Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Dainotto argues that the inability of their northern cousins to integrate the 'peripheral' nations into the 'idea of Europe' meant the southern nations persisted as European in theory only.

In 2011 this divide manifests fiscally and the north points the blame at the south, very easy to do with men like Berlusconi, and in neo-liberal economic terms this accusation makes sense, but denies larger, more haunting questions.

The problem of the impending failure of the eurozone is that the unspoken hierarchy, where the 'hot', 'passionate' and 'irresponsible' south is culturally inferior to the 'cool', 'reasonable' and 'restrained' north, might have been entrenched in EU governance structures. No common currency could eradicate this systemic bias without the support of a more inclusive notion of EU citizenship and slower fiscal policies.

Now some commentators and politicians have called for the formalisation of a two-tiered EU, saying it is necessary to save the 'whole' continent, as well as the 'idea' of Europe. The EU is a grand experiment in a new kind of citizenship as well as an attempt at economic unity. Citizenship and economics are not synonyms. Economics might try to run ahead but the slow questioning citizen, regardless of origin, is the true barometer of unity.

As Christmas approaches, the air in France feels fragile. Winter will be frugal. Europe is a complicated place and the threat of death and disintegration are constantly on the European mind. Not natural optimists, they cling to grand projects in order not to fall backwards into a bloody nationalist history.

Face to face with failure, nations like France and Germany will be tested as to whether their commitment to universalism and visionary projects transcends neo-liberal economics.

It's the darkest time of the year and by afternoon our windows are black. The trickle-down unification fails with the light, but when the snow falls everything seems equal. Landscape covered in white creates the illusion of unity.

Speaking as an Antipodean, snow might look pretty, but it's a trick. Living with it requires sheer hard work performed by a slow and humble shovel. 


Bronwyn LayBronwyn Lay is an Australian writer living in France. She has a legal and political theory background and is currently a PHD candidate at the European Graduate School. 

Topic tags: Bronwyn Lay, EU, Europe, Christmas



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I love Bronwyn's poetical delivery. But may I dare introduce the KISS PRINCIPLE to the Eurozone debate? Let's approximate that before Greece entered the EU and adopted the Euro, the exchange rate was One Hundred Drachmas to One Euro, and at that time the cost of One Litre of Patrol was Fifty Drachmas. But in Germany the cost of one litre of petrol was One Euro. Immediately after EUROZONATION, the price of petrol DOUBLED in Greece. The tourists gradually stopped coming.....How many Aussies do we know, who now holiday in Greece? The answer is practically zilch and the same is true for Spain and Portugal.These are countries whose great export was historically tourism. The EU and the Euro have sent them all down the gurgler.

Claude Rigney | 12 December 2011  

It seems some writers seem to dwell in the past and cannot look at the present or into the future. Germany for example did not have any colonies for almost 100 years. Germany is now one of the most open and democratic countries in the world. It seems whatever Germany tries, losers try to blame history for their losses. For a long time the “Mediterranean lifestyle” has been romanticised. The fact that this lifestyle often was based on corruption, nepotism and tax evasion was forgotten. In Germany virtually all children are taught about the crimes and mass murder committed in the name of their nation. In Italy, there is virtual silence about the organised mass murder in Abyssinia. In Britain, the crimes committed under Queen Victoria in countries of Africa and Asia are absent in most history books. Some communities have decided to overcome corruption and poverty and to improve their way of life. Singapore and South Korea had risen from poverty and war devastation to become some of the powerhouses of this world. In contrast we see many resource rich countries in Africa becoming poorer each year. This has nothing to do with France or Germany or the fact that these countries were colonies. It all has to do with corruption and selfishness, which are the common part of the economic decline of countries of Southern Europe. Most countries are now fully independent and the time to blame others for their short comings has past a very long time ago.

Beat Odermatt | 12 December 2011  

Thoughtful, beautifully written piece, Bronwyn. You raise important and evocative questions about a union that began as a grand idea and has become obsessed with money, trade, regulations, bureaucracy and now Machivellian interference in the rights of member democracies.

Mary Ryllis CLark | 12 December 2011  

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