What does it mean to be European, and what is Europe’s future? Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Ahto Lobjakas asked these questions of British historian and Hoover senior fellow Timothy Garton Ash in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, after the forum “Rethinking Enemies of Open Society,” presented on May 29, 2009, by the Open Estonia Foundation.

Ahto Lobjakas: What is Europe?

Timothy Garton Ash: It’s a place. It’s a history. It’s an ideal, a vision. And it’s a set of institutions, a complex set of institutions. You have the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] and the Council of Europe, but central to those institutions is the European Union, which is sui generis; it cannot simply be defined. In the terms of conventional political science, it’s an unidentified flying object.

So the place, the geography, and the history, the ideal, are all there, and all have to be taken into account. But when we’re thinking about politics, political action, then I think a part of our thinking is this extraordinary project of the European Union.

Lobjakas: What does it mean for a country—say, Estonia or Ukraine— to claim to be European?

Garton Ash: That’s a very good question. Because it’s clearly not a neutral term. I remember a magazine in Poland in the mid-1980s had a sort of humorous political dictionary, and under Europe it said—this is still under communism—“If we go into a restaurant and there is a clean white tablecloth and the waiter appears in less than ten minutes, we say, Europe.”

This will be familiar to all, this idea of Europe meaning civilization, prosperity, freedom—all those good things that went together in the idea of the return to Europe. And that’s true not just of Central and Eastern Europe. It was true of Spain and Portugal in their return to democracy. It was true of Greece. It’s true even of a country like Sweden, with Carl Bildt talking about the return to Europe. So it’s a very value-loaded notion to say, “We’re a European country,” with a lot of ideas and a lot of implications.

And that’s a good thing, as long as it doesn’t imply—which it tends to—that if you’re not European, you can’t be those things. So we have a difficult double act. We have to keep this sense of our values and standards without falling back into what are essentially colonial, imperial stereotypes of superiority.

Lobjakas: The notion of Europe you described, with reference to the Polish dictionary, corresponds exactly to the Russian term kultura—culture.

Garton Ash: Exactly. So I think it is a very interesting, as I say, double act that we have. We want to keep that idealistic sense of Europe, but, for example, Morocco asked if it could apply for membership in the European Union and was told it could not because it was not a European country. Now, as a historian, I have to say that I would not want to defend the historical claim that Turkey definitely is a European country and Morocco definitely is not. I think that seems to be a difference of degree, not of kind.

Lobjakas: Israel?

Garton Ash: Well, absolutely. [Israel is] in many ways more European than Turkey. So I don’t think you can justify this on strict historical grounds. You can justify it on pragmatic and strategic grounds, right? Because if you had an endless enlargement of the European Union, to include the whole of the Maghreb and the whole of the Middle East, it would cease to have any coherence, any unity, actually. The point is, if we say to Morocco, “You are not a European country,” that must not be taken to imply, “You’re inferior, barbaric, second-class.”

“We have to keep this sense of our values and standards without falling back into what are essentially colonial, imperial stereotypes of superiority.”

Lobjakas: Would you agree with the EU enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, who recently said he views the issue of defining the borders of Europe as a generational project—that each successive generation must make up its own mind about Europe? This doesn’t fit well with the Eastern European vision of Europe, for example, which tends to see Europe as a cumulative project.

Garton Ash: I don’t think I agree with this, if I understand the thought correctly, because one of my interests is cartography, maps. Maps are mental pictures of the world. And mental pictures of the world change with time, not only with discoveries but also with the way you see things. But the dividing line between Europe and Asia, and Europe and Africa—in other words, the borders of Europe—is one of the oldest and most consistent lines in history.

In the pre-second-century BC maps of Erastothenes, one of the earliest geographers whose maps we still have, you have a dividing line between Europe and Asia and between Europe and what they call Libya. Of course, it’s a mental dividing line, [but] it’s a very old mental dividing line, and there’s an awful lot of shared history that goes along with it.

So I don’t think that the European Union can or should become totally detached from the historical and geographical and cultural continuity of Europe. Actually, if we were starting afresh, I would be in favor of a special partnership with Turkey and a special partnership with Russia, rather than membership for either of them. They are the two great countries in which Europe, so to speak, does not end, it merely fades away—somewhere between Minsk and Vladivostok, somewhere between western and eastern Turkey, Europe fades away. Both of these countries are in-between countries in the important sense that they are Eurasian countries, and so they should have a special position.

The fact is that for forty-five years we have been promising Turkey membership in the European Community. We have repeated that promise many times. To go back on that promise now would, I think, send a disastrous message. But it’s a special case.

“The dividing line between Europe and Asia, and Europe and Africa—in other words, the borders of Europe—is one of the oldest and most consistent lines in history.”

Lobjakas: Do you think the European Union needs Turkey?

Garton Ash: I do. I absolutely think that in the European Union we have to start thinking strategically about our place in an increasingly non- European world. We already have a multipolar world—with China, with India, with Brazil, with South Africa, as well as with the United States and Europe—and we have to think about our strategic position in that world. And Turkey would be crucial to have. A democratic state in that location, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, with a majority Muslim population, would be a huge asset for Europe.

Lobjakas: Robert Cooper, the right-hand man of EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, explains very well what makes Europe unique in the world—that it’s a nonhegemonic empire, with no dominant force inside, that seeks no outside domination. As it extends its influence, as it comes into contact with other powers—Russia, the United States, China—it is under pressure to become something else, to count as a power in the “real” world. Do you see a danger here of external ambition contaminating the EU’s internal purpose?

Garton Ash: There was a very interesting presentation given by Fyodor Lukyanov, the Russian foreign policy thinker, who said, “You know, if the EU starts really seriously stepping into Ukraine and Moldova and Belarus, then it will encounter ‘real politics.’ ” And that was almost a veiled threat.

What do you understand by “real politics”? There is clearly now in Eastern Europe a competition between two empires—Russian and European, the EU. I don’t think we have to change the rules by which we play in the EU. We just have to remain true to ourselves—that is, to mean what we say, and what we say is, “If you qualify, if you meet the Copenhagen criteria, if you live up to certain standards, then you have a prospect of membership.”

The trouble is, many if not most member states—certainly West European member states—don’t mean it any more. And people in Moldova and Belarus and Ukraine understand that. And that’s why our soft power, our power to attract, has diminished so much—because we don’t mean what we say, because we don’t have a real commitment to our own philosophy of the voluntary empire.

Lobjakas: Where does the United States stand in all this, in relation to what Europe is and does? How much does Europe need the United States?

“If we were starting afresh, I would be in favor of a special partnership with Turkey and a special partnership for Russia, rather than membership for either of them.”

Garton Ash: My last book, Free World, addressed exactly that question; it said we cannot take the West, in the sense of the geopolitical unity of North America and Europe, for granted any more because we no longer have the single clear and present danger of the Soviet threat to hold us together. Therefore, let’s look again at the world, look at its major strategic challenges, such as climate change, the north-south divide, the rise of China, and see what our interests are and how they coincide with American interests.

If you go through that analysis, as I did, you come to the conclusion there are very few big things—whether it be relations with Russia or China, energy policy, climate change—that we can do on our own. We need each other, the United States and Europe. The logic of that is absolutely clear.

Lobjakas: Would you agree that there is a sense in continental Western Europe that a country would need to have played a role in European history to claim a place in Europe? That seems to leave many of the smaller countries almost without a role or recognition, whereas Russia, for example, has clearly played a part in Europe’s history, politics, and culture.

Garton Ash: I think it’s true to say that in Europe there are big countries that obviously behave like big countries and there are small countries that behave like small countries, but there are also big countries that think like small countries and small countries that think like big ones. So, that, too, is possible.

Lobjakas: What examples of the latter do you have in mind?

Garton Ash: You can argue about the definition of small, but I think that, for example, countries such as Sweden or the Netherlands actually played a major role in the formulation of European foreign policy. You may say that’s partly because they have a memory, albeit centuries back, of a large past, of a larger great-power role. But Switzerland, for example, in its own way, actually plays a major international role. I don’t think we should be too deterministic about this. I don’t think that we should conclude that history and geography determine your future.

“Our soft power, our power to attract, has diminished so much—because we don’t mean what we say, because we don’t have a real commitment to our own philosophy of the voluntary empire.”

I also think that the European Union itself provides an opportunity for small countries to think like big ones. Nothing is to stop an Estonian or Slovenian or Slovak foreign minister or prime minister from behaving as Belgian and Luxembourg foreign ministers and prime ministers have behaved—and they have played a major role in the institutions of the European Union. The first step is to have the imagination to think big.

Lobjakas: A very topical issue in much of Eastern Europe is the communist past of their countries, the crimes of communism, as it were. There’s been a push to have the European Parliament take a stand, but it hasn’t come to much. So while the eastern countries accept that Nazism should be condemned, the western part has not acknowledged communism as evil. How important is it for Europe to reach a united stance on this?

Garton Ash: I think it’s a huge mistake to try to legislate historical truth, to say the past should be remembered in this way and may not be remembered in that way, that this has to be described as genocide and that may not be. This is the business of historians and journalists and writers and ordinary people. But I think it is perfectly appropriate to try to develop a common sense of where we are coming from.

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