Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Where Is Europe?

by Frank Jacobs

New York Times

January 9, 2012

Where is Europe? You might as well ask: What is Europe? For it is a concept as well as a continent, and the borders of both oscillate wildly. For the ancient Persians, it was that small stepping stone separating them from Greece. In the Middle Ages, it became virtually synonymous with Christendom. A relatively recent and generally unaccepted theory sees Europe spanning half the globe, from Iceland to the Bering Strait, nearly touching Alaska.

Take the most common present-day usage of the term “Europe,” shorthand for (and synonymous with) the European Union. The external borders of this supranational project are well-defined, and in some cases well-defended. But they remain movable, having consistently shifted outward over the last half century. From a core of six founding members in the continent’s west, this “Europe” has expanded to comprise 27 states, as far east as Cyprus.

That still leaves quite some wriggle room between concept and continent, which by some estimates includes as many as 51 countries. For those in between, the difference is clear and uncontested. Even non-E.U.-members like Switzerland and Croatia, close to the continent’s geographic core, will readily admit that they’re outside “Europe” (but only if you include the quotation marks). The interesting difference is that the Swiss overall are happy to remain outside, while the Croats generally can’t wait for July 2013, when they’re slated to join the Union.

This gap in Euro-euphoria is a symptom of a curious kaleidoscopic quality of this supranational “Europe”: Everybody is looking at the same thing, but everybody sees something different. For the Swiss, who have a long history of non-alignment (and a shorter one of being confidently rich), joining “Europe” would entail few benefits. By contrast, for the non-“European” remainder on the Balkans, similarly encircled by member states, joining would be almost more of a moral vindication than an economic relief. Like the countries of the former Eastern Bloc before them, membership would confirm their Europeanness.

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