If Britain does indeed vote ‘Leave’, and the gradual disintegration of the European Union were to gather pace, what would be left of ‘the idea of Europe’? What sense of collective identity and purpose, if any, predated the EU, and would it be strong enough to survive its breakup?
The extraordinary complexity of European history and its multidimensional culture makes the character of any such common identity notoriously hard to articulate. But in these uneasy times, amidst the swirl of dark fears that the collapse of the EU would presage the dissolution of any wider sense of a shared ‘Europe’, it is a question worth asking.
One classic answer, George Steiner’s newly republished 2004 essay The Idea of Europe, cuts through the infinitude of words that have been written about the pragmatic merits or otherwise of the EU – the transparency of its democratic and bureaucratic processes, the rights and wrongs of freedom of movement, the minutiae of its economic policy – to the deeper question of precisely what entity the EU represents: what is Europe, and why is it worth preserving?