What is Europe, Anyway?


That is a loaded question in the current economic crisis.  Or is it trite?  Whatever it is, I was at a soirée with political scientists the other evening and I realized I could pose it without being ridiculed. Several of the experts there confirmed that there are plenty of ways to ask and think about this question that do not necessitate deep knowledge of political theory and political systems, which, let’s face it, I do not have.

I have some knowledge about psychology and I have some personal experience and those things are sufficient for this post.  The thing is, there doesn’t seem to be a Europe really.  The concept of Europe is a conversational and a self-definitional device as far as I can tell. Beyond saying something loosely informative about the continent that you are actually standing on, “Europe” does not narrow things down in a way that directs action.  There is no language, “European.”  Knowing that you are in “Europe” does not help you order any particular food, suggest a typical dinner hour, or bring to mind a definite type of clothing or music or weather.   Even if you used the concept to brag to your friends -- “We are going to Europe next summer” --  no one would be able to picture anything vivid about the trip.  If you were going to Zurich, you would not even be able to spend your Euros. 

In conversations with people in the countries of Europe (there you go; a fuzzy a geographic usage), I have heard the following type of sentences:  “Hmmm, you have to work with the French?  Do you actually like them?” (coming from an unselfconscious Dutch person), or “it is certainly easier to assimilate to life in Sweden than life in France” (coming from a person in Sweden), or “When I was living in Germany, I had to cross the border (with France) in order to do my grocery shopping,” (coming from a person in France).  I never heard anything like “Europe sure makes good mustard,” or, “I just got married to a European person.”  I never heard the question, “How are the real estate prices in your part of Europe?”

When being employed from the outside, the concept of “Europe” gets used to make inferences that are unsound.  People planning trips think that if their trip to “Europe” (actually one or two countries) was fantastic, then their next trip to “Europe” (two other countries) will be equally fun.  If both trips were fun, this should be in large part attributed not to “Europe” but to these particular people’s ability to plan and execute travels, or their ability to find pleasure in all sorts of places.  Similarly, infrastructures, systems, and solutions are attributed to “Europe,” when very often there is no such infrastructure, system, or solution at that level of abstraction. 

In fact, I rarely heard mention of Europe in daily conversation until I announced that I was moving back to the United States.  And then I heard, from people all over Europe, “You mean, you would leave Europe?????”  I wasn’t living in Europe, I thought to myself.  I was living in France.  Right?

Indeed, one of the main meanings and usages of “Europe” is the “definitely-not-the-United-States” one.  In a study of “emotions on behalf of groups” (i.e., emotions that arise because something happens to a whole group of people of which you are a member), social psychologists showed that when they told Belgian university students just three days after the events of 9-11 that the study they were participating in was about “Westerners versus Arabs” those students reported more feelings of fear and other negative emotions than when they were told that the study was about “Europeans versus Americans.”  That is, in the first case, the Belgian students thought of themselves as a member of the same category as Americans.   So they felt fear and anxiety about the terrorist attacks: It could have been them.  When, in contrast, students were subtly led to categorize themselves as separate from Americans, the reported fear was lower.  

This kind of manipulation of identity is used instinctively by politicians in acts of consensus building.   We see it and we’ll see it happen again on the European Continent (!) as Mrs. Merkel and others try to solve the economic crisis.  When it comes to who finances who though, probably more than manipulations of category boundaries and contrast categories will be required.