Europe as a touchy topic

I recently launched PhDelicious, a collaborative blog mainly aimed at an attempt to create a sense of community among (PhD) researchers at the European University Institute (EUI), where I’m currently working on my PhD dissertation. To try and give a first stimulus to the site, I also contributed a blog post of my own, based on some unexpected feelings I personally had when the Euro was introduced here in Estonia (I’m from the Netherlands myself, which is relevant information for the following). I tried to keep it light-hearted and didn’t go into too much detail. My goal was to write a short, ironic, and slightly provocative blog post.

Interestingly, within the first few hours after publishing it, I received a comment from a guy named Ricardo, who passionately disagreed with me and took issue with some particular sentences I wrote. He replied with a comment and a blog post of his own. If you’re interested, I suggest you read both my original post and his reply. To me, Ricardo’s response is an interesting example of how these topics can be so emotionally laden, and how little people tend to challenge their own conceptions of ‘Europe’ and ‘Europeanness’ (even when they are accusing others of doing the same). Below is my reply back to him.

Hi Ricardo,

Thanks for your response to my blog post. I’ll go beyond being called an ignorant Western-European centred nationalist for the first time in my life under the guise of your contribution not being a ‘personal attack’. I think the topic and your response to my ironically and provocatively intended post are much to interesting to waste space on such petty accusations.

First of all, though you seem not to notice, we are largely on the same page regarding this topic. In fact, if you would have read my entire post instead of ripping one or two sentences out of their context, you could have appreciated the irony I intended (but to be sure, I’ve added a disclaimer in the original post for you).

I’ll summarize it for you. The general point of my post was absolutely not to argue that the Euro makes any country any more or less ‘European’ in any sense of the word. Actually, as I literally wrote: “I’m interested in Europe as a social construction […], and that goes beyond ‘just’ the political integration of large parts of the continent”, and: “I have been downplaying […] just how important […] political (and in this case monetary) integration has been to people’s conceptualization of ‘Europe’”. I also mentioned several times that I’m interested in people’s ‘vague’ conceptions of Europe, and not primarily in their political evaluations of the integration projects and/or the Euro.

However, to deny any importance of those projects to shaping people’s ideas of what Europe is would be very naïve. My point in the blog post was precisely that even someone like myself, who has done all of his limited research so far in Central and Eastern Europe, who is very much aware of the socially constructed nature of ‘Europe’ (or any nation for that matter), and who – when in his country of origin – consistently ‘defends’ non-Western European perspectives from the hegemonic perspectives from the West, is affected by institutions like the European Union, Schengen and the Euro. They matter to people’s perceptions of space, territory, and identity, whether we want to or not. Denying that I am also personally affected by such dynamics (as you suggest) would be truly arrogant, and would moreover lead to bad research.

I have news for you Ricardo, ‘Europe’ in any objective sense does not exist. Therefore, to speak of a “European essence” that was “washed away” makes no sense at all. Things like ‘Europe’ and ‘Europeanness’ are obviously social constructs without an objective basis to ground them on. And I fully agree with you when you say that no country is objectively more or less European than any other country. The thing is: (most) other people disagree with us, Ricardo. Some people strangely claim that Kazakhstan is not a European country (or ‘less’ European). Some also say that Russia is outside of Europe. Or Turkey. Or Georgia. And what about countries that fall outside of the conventional (but somewhat arbitrary) geographic definition of the continent? And why do we consider only countries as units of analysis here? The point is that different people (not only in different countries but also in different social classes, regions, ethnic groups, etc.) conceptualize those things differently. If you’re serious about discussing the topic, this should go without saying, I think.

Anyway, on a political level I really do share your frustration with the hegemonic Western-European definition of Europe(anness). In that sense you’re barking up the wrong tree. On a social scientific level, I feel that these are just very interesting, open questions. You’re absolutely right that people in general will respond differently to Sweden adopting the Euro than to Estonia adopting it. But the interesting question to me is not whether that is ‘correct’ or not (there’s no answer to that question), but why that is so.

In that sense your post is a very interesting observation to me. While you accuse me of being an ‘ignorant Western European’ (and while I’m ignorant in many ways, I think this isn’t one of them), your own implicit conceptualization of ‘Europeanness’ or ‘Europe’ appears to be a country’s degree of modernisation or level of certain economic indicators. I never claimed that Estonia is in any way ‘backward’, and I absolutely never would, yet somehow you assume that this is what I’m talking about when I’m discussing the concept of Europe. To me personally, ‘Europe’ does not equate with modernisation, ‘Westernness’, or economic development, and I never claimed that.

And thanks; your final (substantive) paragraph is exactly the kind of research I’m doing. If you’re interested, you can read more about the project on www.Imagining.eu (see www.imagining.eu/plan.html for a brief overview of the research design). Your comments on it are very welcome, and if you want to meet for a coffee in Tallinn (I’m in Tartu right now) or Florence some time I would be very interested in getting together! Also, I very much welcome another reply from you either in the comments on this page or on my original post.

Best wishes,
Jeroen RQSTAC6YDMWV

About Jeroen

Jer­oen Moes is a PhD researcher at the European Uni­ver­sity Insti­tute, Florence. His research focuses on con­cep­tu­al­iz­a­tions of ‘Europe’ across the con­tin­ent with in-depth case stud­ies in Esto­nia, Italy, and the Neth­er­lands. He employs a meth­od­o­lo­gic­ally mixed approach by com­bin­ing large N stat­ist­ical ana­lyses with small N in-depth qual­it­at­ive research. More on his research pro­ject can be found on the ‘Ima­gin­ing Europe’ web­site (www.Imagining.eu). View all posts by Jeroen

5 Responses to “Europe as a touchy topic”

  • Ricardo

    I have made no attack on you; I picked the sentence I wanted as an example, that doesn’t mean I disagree with everything you wrote. Actually, I was not so much interested in the whole of your post, I just wanted an illustration. The sentence you provided was of great value to my aim: a social science PhD researcher admiting to a prejudice in a clear way is something rare. And brave. What is not so brave is turning sincerity in an a posteriori declaration/disclamer of irony. Irony requires some ability. If that was your intent, ability turned out to be lacking. There were absolutely no emotions in my post (can you give an example?), which contrasts with the autobiographic type of yours (and your so personal reaction, feeling personally attacked and so on). It is not European issues that are touchy: it is European individuals, some more than others (again, you have just provided an illustration by your insistence that I attacked you). To be absolutely clear: I started with your sentence, used it as an example, and wrote a post directed at some prejudices in GENERAL: I was not aiming at the prejudices that YOU (now, ex post) say you don’t have, and I believe you don’t have (and really wouldn’t care much if you did). As Europeanness being equated with modernization, you should have understood I was exposing a contradiction: very often the same public/published oppinion that puts so much importance on that is the very same oppinion that complains that this or that country has yet to prove it deserves to belong to Europe. Actually, I don’t even think that national wealth is important for Europeanness. Finally, I disagree with ” ‘Europe’ in any objective sense does not exist” but I guess this should be a matter of semantics, etc..

    • Jeroen

      See, Ricardo, I think you did make it personal. That’s ok – I can take it, but by using words and phrases like “ignorant”, “lack of knowledge”, “prejudice”, “plain and simple hard discrimination”, “racism”, “pure and simple ignorance and nationalism”, and stating that this “INCLUDES PhD students from any prestigious European university…” (a university I think you know very well, by the way), you can hardly claim that you’re not making it personal. These are also examples of your ‘emotional’ response as I see it. Anyway, as I said right from the start, I don’t really mind such big words, and since I am genuinely interested in the topic, and I genuinely thought your response was interesting, I didn’t go into it any further.

      Also, I didn’t “change” anything regarding irony / bravery. I never intended to be brave, and the irony (see this post for reference ;)) intended was also mild at best. I think it could have been clear to you as a reader (but perhaps my style was confusing) that this was a short observation of my personal response to the introduction of the Euro in Estonia. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s also why I took issue with your misrepresentation of my view, as it is important to me not to be portrayed as some ignorant nationalist who is blind to non-Western perspectives (in contrast to your post, mine was clearly attributed to me as an individual). I mean, if you just want to make some point: fair enough. But you explicitly referred to my post and to me personally. You could have easily made your point on arguments alone. Moreover, I didn’t change my position “ex post”, as you suggest: it was right there from the beginning (see my reference in the main post above).

      Anyway, I’m not interested in making this some sort of argument about who is emotional about what, and which one of us is the most ignorant. As I said, though, I would honestly be very interested in discussing the topic with you in more detail, and that invitation still stands. If you have any substantive comments, I’d love to read them in the comments here, or you can drop me a line at [email protected].

      And now, let’s bury the hatchet, shall we? When I’m back in Florence I’ll buy you a beer in Fiasco and we can discuss the semantics of whether ‘Europe’ exists indeed! ;)

      Oh, and the answers to your quiz (here) are Sigmund Freud, Jean Baudrillard, and Norman Davies (very popular in Poland, where I did my Erasmus). Did I make it to the first 5 for the chocolate bar? ;)

  • Ricardo

    About making it personal: how many persons are there doing a PhD in social science in “any prestigious European university”? It’s only you? “But you explicitly referred to my post and to me personally”: explicitly referred to you personally? Totally untrue!!! The only explicit reference to you was my statement that I don’t know you!

    About emotional response: if one is talking about racism, discrimination, ignorance, one has to write “racism”, “discrimination” and “ignorance”. These are not “emotional terms”. Actually, they are used by social scientists as that: cold, scientific terms. That was the way I used them. “Big words”? No, in many cases – including European issues – proper words.

    Smoking the peace pipe: thank you for the beer; your Ritter Sport will be sent.

    • Jeroen

      Well, apparently you weren’t talking about me when you referred to those PhD students, and I misinterpreted the fact that you introduced your text with my post into thinking that you meant me. Apparently you meant to say that all PhD students at ‘prestigious’ universities are potentially ignorant racists (well, no surprise there, then ;)).

      And again: I don’t take issue with the words racism, discrimination, ignorance, etc. What I took issue with was the fact that you used them to describe my position (at least, that’s how I strangely interpreted your text).

      Anyway, as I said: I have no interest in discussing the rhetorics any further. I’m interested in the topic, and I thought your perspective on the concept of Europe and Europeanness was interesting as an ‘empirical example’.

      I’m sure you’re a very nice guy, Ricardo, and this was all a misunderstanding. I’m looking forward to sharing that beer and a Ritter Sport! :)

  • Kizzie Defaber

    Good blog! I actually love how it is easy on my eyes as well as the details are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post was been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which really should work! Have a good day!

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