In 2004, the critic George Steiner delivered a lecture entitled ‘The Idea of Europe’. It has many faults which are partly a product of the ambition implied by the title. Theories of nationalism have focussed on the role of modern structural factors in the production of national consciousness. Some have posited the inevitable ideas of nationhood. In truth, nationhood is a fragile entity and is now seen first and foremost as a ‘discursive project’. If Europe is to succeed, it needs to be more than a social consensus, or a set of fiscal and monetary rules. It must be continually written and told into existence. If the central apparatus of the European Parliament and Commission is to accelerate progress towards ‘ever closer union’, it must set about the production and dissemination of stories and ideas that show what it means to be European. Whether Britain wishes to be a part of that story is another matter.
In the context of intensifying pressures on the European project, Steiner’s answer is increasingly relevant. “Europe is made up of coffeehouses, of cafes”. “They are a place of assignation and conspiracy, for intellectual debate and gossip, for the flaneur and the poet or metaphysician at his notebook”. Steiner continues: “It is open to all, yet it is also a club, a freemasonry of political or artistic-literary recognition and programmatic presence”. If one were to map out the idea of Europe, the map would concentrate around the coffeehouses of Milan, Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam and Brussels. And whether the ideas were those of Voltaire, Rousseau, Baudelaire, Marx, or Sartre, they have all been united by their genesis in the cafés across Europe.
If Twitter maintains the illusion that it is possible to make contact with the famous, it is but a pale imitation of the coffee house ideal. The grand tradition of open discussion played out in secular, public spaces accompanied by coffee or something stronger has provided much of what is good in the history of European ideas. If the central apparatus of Europe is to tell a story, I can think of no better example than this. The terrorist outrages of Brussels and Paris have struck at the heart of this European idea. On November 12th, two gunmen opened fire into a café in the bohemian Bataclan district of Paris.
When a jihadist screams that he ‘loves death more than you love life’ or criticises the decadence of western society we must remind ourselves that this is newest form of an old challenge. The history of Europe can be divided roughly into those who value the freedoms of the café and those who hate it. The anti-intellectualism of early twentieth century fascism and the modern anti-intellectualism of Islamism are mutations of the same totalitarian disease. Our response has so far been inadequate in the face of this threat. It is not enough merely to be against the use of violence. Europe has to be for things too. The cover of Charlie Hebdo in the wake of the Paris attacks sums up the best of Steiner’s idea of Europe: “Ils ont les Armes; On a Le Champagne!”
Beyond the compromises of ordinary political life, there are certain unifying ideals that the EU has always promoted: tolerance, respect for human rights and democratic participation. These have, of course, been dogged by a certain abstraction which makes them hard to define. Symbols are needed to make any framework of ideals comprehensible. What better than the café? It tells us to embrace freedom in every sphere in the same way as those who oppose us embrace tyranny in every sphere. If there is something tangibly European, it is perhaps this: revelling in artistic freedom, as in sexual freedom, as in political freedom as in all, and to see no contradiction between them.