Europe: Self-Alignment in Time and Space
No. 3 2008 July/September
Viatcheslav Morozov

Professor of EU-Russia Studies with the Institute of Government and Politics at the University of Tartu

Relations between Russia and the European Union have worsened in
recent years and this has provided the Russian community of foreign
policy experts with plenty to discuss. Much attention in the
discussion is paid to specific factors, the negative impact of
which is restricted to bilateral relations between Moscow and
Brussels. More often than not experts debate the accession of
former Socialist countries to the EU or interdependence in the
energy sector and the apprehensions that both sides derive from it.
Far less attention is given to EU identity and its radical
transformation after the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile, it was
precisely this change that brought up an overhaul of the security
practices determining relations between the EU and its neighboring
states. Also, the change predestined to a large extent the current
crisis in relations with Russia and resulted in a re-interpreting
of 20th century history and a redefining of Europe’s place in the
past and present.


The self-identification of any political community – whether a
nation-state or a supranational association like the EU – has time
and space dimensions as a rule. Any political ‘WE’ needs a common
history and a set of notions about the outside world. The process
necessarily has a third – ethical – dimension, as unification of
people around political objectives is always underpinned by the
idea of common wellbeing and a correlation of the collective past,
present and future with a certain system of values, which lays the
foundation for political unity.

In the first decades of its development as a political
association, the European Community was unique in that the
considerations of space played a subsidiary role in its
self-identification. Naturally, it had a formal institution of
membership and, consequently, a certain territory. More than that,
the very phrase the ‘European Community’ is indicative of claims
for a slice of a common historical and cultural heritage. But the
Community could in no way make claims for forming the core of
European civilization, i.e. for being the only or the main herald
of the European idea. It represented just one of the numerous
elements of the political space – the one belonging entirely to the
Western part of divided Europe.

The time aspect was the key issue in the discourse on the
European Union’s identity. The Community saw its mission in the
overcoming of the past; its rise and enlargement proceeded under
the slogan “Never Again!” – referring first and foremost to the two
World Wars and the Holocaust. Economic arguments in favor of the
Common Market never sounded totally convincing, especially for
countries like Britain or Sweden which were more oriented at the
global economy than the economy of Continental Europe. The economic
success of integration was important as an instrument for reaching
the political objective – preventing dictators from coming to power
who would kill their own citizens and threaten the rest of the
world with death and devastation.

Such an orientation of European identity encompassed an
important ethical element – it was built on self-critical
reflections of Europe’s past, including the historic significance
of the European idea. The very fact that the European civilization
had produced two world wars, concentration camps and totalitarian
dictatorships called for a critical reassessment and necessitated a
permanent revisiting of the lessons of the past.

Theoretically, European history can be interpreted in two ways,
and the ethical consequences of these interpretations differ
greatly. First, Europe’s past can be interpreted from the point of
an archaic understanding of corruption that presupposes that wars
and dictatorships – however catastrophic – are not at all
inevitable deviations from a predestined path; they are distortions
of the genuine essence of the European idea. In this case
reconciliation through integration is a rectification of accidental
errors and a reversion to Europe’s genuine essence.

Second, there is a more radical revision of history in the
spirit of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and its ethics rest on
absolute notions. From this angle, the disasters of the first half
of the 20th century are seen as something that underlay the project
of European modernity and are a consequence of prevalence – albeit
provisional – of Evil over Good in the European consciousness.
Ardent supporters of this theory include Zygmunt Bauman, who gleans
the root causes of the Holocaust out of the monologic rationalism
of the Enlightenment. If Nazism is a no less organic offspring of
the European thought than, say, humanistic science, then the
welfare gained after the defeat of Nazism appears to be dangerously
fragile. In this case, the “Never Again!” slogan suggests the need
for everyday vigilance and incessant work to prevent a return to an
ever-looming totalitarianism and not just a one-time recognition of
the dangers of totalitarian ideologies, which will smoothly advance
Europe toward a bright democratic future.

Both of these interpretations could be found in the discourse on
the European Community’s identity during the Cold War, and scarcely
any of them prevailed over the other. Yet most importantly, in
building Europe’s identity through opposition to its own past,
there was no need to draw up the image of an external enemy (which,
in Karl Schmidt’s philosophy, is the starting point for setting up
a political community). In other words, European integration did
not have to erect an impenetrable frontier between the Community’s
internal sphere and the outside world. It did not need radical
differences of space, since the line of antagonism that set into
motion the entire mechanism of building a united Europe was drawn
between the present and the past of a political entity which was
brought into existence this way. Europe re-created itself, as it
did not want to repeat its own fatal errors.


Many researchers – i.e. Thomas Diets and Pertti Joeniemi – have
pointed out that there has been a radical transformation in the
discourse of European identity after the end of the Cold War. The
new identity relies on an idea – often implicit and sometimes
clearly articulate – that the Europeans have succeeded in
overcoming their past, that it is impossible to repeat it, and that
the main task is to ensure security by shaping an adequate policy
for rebuffing external threats. Take, for instance, the European
Security Strategy endorsed by the Council of Europe in December
2003. It is based exclusively on outside threats while the
possibility of a conflict between states inside the EU – formerly
the centerpiece of attention – has simply vanished. This form of
structuring political reality, according to Thomas Christiansen,
makes the EU a finalite politique; i.e. an already accomplished
project and a materialized utopia.

Thus the time and space dimensions of identity change places:
the political community is now being construed in precise
conformity to Karl Schmidt’s theory, i.e. through opposition to an
external enemy, while the reassessment of history is receding
backstage. If previously the past stayed inside the EU’s political
space, setting the benchmarks for evaluating current events and
forecasting the future, today it is forced outside the boundaries
of the “community of European democracies.” Europe, a continent
that regained itself through critical assessment of its own
history, now sees its past beyond its borders. This viewpoint
suggests that unlike the Europeans, who have gotten through to “the
end of history,” the EU’s neighbors are still far away from
implementing the democratic ideal. If earlier the ethical dimension
of the European project was pegged to the time factor, now it is
pegged to the factor of space. The EU’s critical reflections about
its own moral essence have evolved into a feeling of superiority
over its neighbors.

One of the consequences of this transformation is that the
emergence of a European superstate may turn out to be a far less
distant prospect than many think. A transition from self-critical
reflections to moralizing means that the EU has lost the uniqueness
it had in comparison with the standardized political subjects of
the New Time, i.e. with sovereign nation-states. This creates
prerequisites for forming the idea of common wellbeing, which in
essence forms the basis of modern states. It is precisely the
conviction that “our” political order – albeit far from always
being perfect – is still better than “their” customs and habits
that provides the grounds for unification and for forming the very
same demos, the absence of which is always pointed out by the
critics of European integration. But the key role in it is not
played by the feeling of community among members of a political
organism. It is played by the presence of a clear and unproblematic
borderline separating the inner world where the political ideal has
been generally accomplished and the outside world that is still a
long way from this ideal.

While previously Europe regarded itself as an entity needing
protection from its internal forces, now it perceives the
unpredictable external world as a menace to the EU’s well-regulated
and comfortable internal space. If this understanding of security
continues to grease the construction of a border between Europe and
non-Europe – and the situation of a “global war on terror” leaves
us no chance to think otherwise – the pan-European political
identity will continue drifting closer and closer toward the
standard nation-state model.


One more crucial issue pertaining to the transformation of the
EU’s identity concerns the time frame of this process. Why did it
fall precisely in a period after the end of the Cold War and, in
all appearance, become a fait accompli by the time that the
countries of Central and Eastern Europe joined the EU? No doubt,
“the syndrome of victory in the Cold War,” which Russian diplomats
and politicians regularly make references to, did have a role in
it. The fact that after the collapse of the Soviet Union
practically all of its former allies streamed to the EU and NATO
put an end to the debates on comparative advantages of the
capitalist and socialist integration. One cannot help admitting,
however, that these debates were never taken seriously on the
western side of the Iron Curtain. They were mostly conducted by
Soviet social scientists, who did not always discuss them

Unlike the U.S. that could make claims in earnest to being the
victor in defeating “the evil empire,” the European Community never
stood at the forefront of the fight with Communism. On the
contrary, the Soviet Union’s supplies of oil and gas to Western
Europe (contrary to Washington’s objections) gave an additional
lease of life to the Soviet system and laid the groundwork for
today’s energy sector interdependence between Moscow and Brussels.
It is well known that from the very start the U.S. built its
relations with the outside world from the position of a “city upon
a hill” predestined to bring happiness to the world. As for the
Europeans, their mission was introvert, and the collapse of the
Soviet system could hardly set the scene for a total revision of
the EU’s part in history.

The EU became convinced of its infallibility as a result of the
enlargement. Prior to 1995 – that is, before the accession of
Austria, Finland and Sweden – the admission of new members was
effectuated on the basis of more or less equitable agreements, but
during the process of eastwards expansion Brussels had the
domineering position toward the candidate countries. It is not
accidental that the problem of criteria for selecting “worthy
candidates” from those who were yet to make improvements at home
arose in the 1990s. The EU worked out these criteria at the 1993
summit in Copenhagen. The very existence of postulations working
one way bestowed on the EU the role of a model to be copied from
and reoriented the ethical dimension of the European identity from
the temporal to the spatial plane.

Furthermore, the 1990s furnished the EU with an opportunity to
monopolize the European idea and to engross the role of its main
promulgator. Apart from the sentiments of the accomplished utopia
(finalite politique), the Europeans also felt that Europe had
reached a limit in terms of geographic enlargement (finalite
geographique). From 1958-1992, the European Community represented
only a part of the continent – albeit a significant one – in the
geographic and cultural sense, but as the new decade began, many
Europeans developed a conviction that practically the whole of the
European cultural and historical space, except for the marginal
cases like Norway, Russia, Croatia and Switzerland, was now within
the sphere of the same political and legal modus operandi, in the
formation of which Brussels played a decisive role. More than that,
this outlook suggested that countries in the periphery of Europe
were either striving to get into the EU (like Croatia and the rest
of the Balkans; Serbia is an exception but it, too, will stop being
an outsider in time) or simply did not deserve the status of
complete European countries (it is becoming increasingly more
obvious that the Europeans have assigned precisely this role to
Russia and, very likely, to Ukraine). Europe became integrated –
that is, according to the Latin origin of the word, the Old
Continent regained its previous wholeness. This, too, fortifies the
Europeans’ feeling of “the end of history.”

It should be noted that the postulated coincidence of cultural,
historical, political and legislative borders created prerequisites
for fixing the meaning of this notion. Throughout the 20th century,
Europe was a discursive arena of some kind where different
interpretations of European legacy clashed with one another. Any
national identity – or, broadly speaking, political identity –
could project itself onto Europe then, as the Europeans traced
their own roots in European heritage. As a result, the integration
project as such turned out to be open both for participation of
different countries in it and for multiple interpretations of its
primary objectives.

The arrival of the Copenhagen criteria and a hegemonic structure
(which they represent) eventually put an equation mark between the
European idea and a real political order – existing “right here and
right now” and not as an imaginary ideology projected onto the
future. The finalization of the European idea – and not the EU’s
inability to absorb new members – actually caused the decision to
stop EU enlargement and build relations with neighbors proceeding
from the impossibility of their accession to the EU in the
foreseeable future. It was not the ostensible “inedibility” of new
Europeans that caused the “indigestion.” The reason lay in the
order of things that took shape in the 1990s – it demanded that the
new states be “swallowed” and “digested” instead of being accepted
as new and equal partners.

Last but not least, as we have said above, a new understanding
of security arose in Europe at the revolutionary moment when the
Cold War ended. The new list of threats does not name the internal
menace of totalitarianism (as the initial version of the European
project did) or actors of international politics that would be
equal in terms of status and power (like in the classical realism
of the Cold War era). Instead, it centers on the instability caused
by the collapse of the Communist system. Coupled with the September
11 syndrome, this understanding of threats has brought up a
security policy based on a simplified version of democratic world
theory, which considers the political systems to be different from
Western democracy as threats per se. This vision of the world
underlies the European ‘neighborhood policy,’ which de facto uses
Copenhagen criteria to the countries surrounding the EU, whether or
not they have any prospects for becoming EU members.

The politically correct parlance used in the European strategic
documents barely hides the fact that the EU perceives the countries
along its perimeter as a source of threats. The only way to remove
those threats is to spread the Western-European model of liberal
market democracy to neighboring countries. Thus, according to a
remarkable definition made by German economic expert Georg Vobruba,
the main content of the EU’s current policy is “expansion without

What has been said above leads to the conclusion that the EU’s
relations with the outside world are now marked – more explicitly
than ever before – by an imperialistic tint. A United Europe is now
far less concerned with making its internal space homogeneous (as
witnessed in the restrictions imposed on migrant workers from
recently absorbed countries) than with projecting its own power on
the outside world. This policy merges perfectly with a
consolidation of the borderline between the internal and external
spheres. It is hardly possible to deny the usefulness of drawing a
line of contrast between the empire and the Westphalian-type
nation-state as ideal models, and yet we should stress the
following. The rise of the European empire coincided with the EU’s
loss of uniqueness as a political entity and the obvious transition
to building its own identity and political system along the model
of a sovereign territorial state of the New Time. This once again
confirms the thesis that scholars have put forward many a time;
namely, that empire and Westphalian-type statehood do not deny, but
rather augment each other.


Russia has no choice but to deal with a new European Union – new
not only in the sense that it has engulfed a large number of
countries whose historical experience is vastly different from Old
Europe. Of paramount importance is the specificity of the historic
situation in which the latest enlargements took place, as well as
the consequent radical change in United Europe’s
self-identification. The objective truth is that, irrespective of
anyone’s ill will, in the most crucial aspects the EU’s new
identity stands in opposition to Russia’s identity.

In the first place, this has a bearing on the security policy
aimed at eliminating threats by making neighbors democratic, and
Russia’s position in this sense is far from unique. Abounding
research in parts of the world as different as the southern
Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Equatorial Africa shows that
the extremely formal approach by the U.S. and the EU to the “export
of democracy,” their efforts to apply the same institutional
solutions everywhere and mistrust for local political processes
breed mass dissatisfaction and problems even for those activists
who sincerely accept Western values. But Russia, a country with a
sizable defense potential and a growing economy – regardless of the
driving forces of that growth and the prospects it has – acts as
the most outspoken critic of the liberal world order today. Once
again, this role also pertains much more to the policy of
self-identification rather than to the “objective” balance of
forces. Today’s Russia sees itself as a successor to the state with
a 1,000-year history and as a great European power – with the
“Golden Era” of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev serving as
the benchmark for redefining the standards of a great power. That
is why Western chatting about the demise of sovereignty sparks
Russian protests, all the more so that – as has been justly noted
by Russian leaders – the West has no plans to become dissolved as a
political subject in the unified space of the global world. By
speaking out from the positions of “common human values,” the West
(the U.S., the EU, individual Western countries and international
organizations) actually cloaks its sovereign actions using the
logic of “common sense.” Indeed, if democratic values meet the
interests of all and sundry, the choice of democracy loses its
political pith and turns into a purely technical issue.

However, this depoliticizing is false, since in a situation
where democracy is made equal to human rights all opponents to
democracy immediately turn into the foes of humanity. To use the
terminology of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, this
“ultra-political” moment is especially typical of the global war on

Russia offers its own version of universal “common sense,” in
which the central role is given to state sovereignty as the most
obvious self-organizational principle of the international system.
It is not surprising therefore that the European policy of
expansion without enlargement triggers strong protests from Moscow.
Russia rejected the European ‘neighborhood policy’ right from the
start, was greatly suspicious of the ‘color revolutions’ in Eastern
Europe and did its best to defend its internal political space from
EU and Western influences in general.

One of the reasons for the EU’s uneasy feeling about Moscow’s
conduct is that Russia vehemently rejects the European logic of
conditionality. Although the EU has decided against further
enlargement for now, it continues to peg its neighborhood policy to
the old model: it continues to set requirements that the partners
should comply with in order to get financial aid, access to
European commodity markets and other benefits in return.

However, unlike Turkey, Russia is not seeking EU membership even
in the remotest future; it does not need financial aid today; and
limiting the access of Russia’s major export item – energy
resources – to the European market is a hard thing to do due to the
absence of alternatives there. This does not mean, of course, that
Moscow does not need anything from the EU. The two sides are
interdependent in the energy sector, but contrary to the dogmas of
neo-liberal theories, the latter factor does not generate stimuli
for cooperation. The reason is that the projected benefits of
cooperation fade away in the minds of each side against the
background of threats that it perceives by adopting the terms
specified by the other side. Russia is ready to cooperate only if
the EU recognizes its status as a sovereign European power and
refrains from interfering in its home affairs. Brussels fears that
cooperation with Moscow in such conditions will undermine its own
sovereignty, since it will fuel authoritarian tendencies in
Russia’s political development. Add to this a poor understanding of
the logic of each other’s actions. Each of the sides has a sincere
conviction that its notions about security are universal, and hence
it suspects the other side of hypocrisy, double standards and even
the purported willingness to achieve its objectives to the
detriment of the partner’s interests.

Differences in the interpretation of past history make up one
more stumbling block in Russian-EU relations. Naturally, this
problem is greatly influenced by the position of the former Soviet
Baltic republics and Poland – countries that forged their
self-determination and reunification with Europe by fighting
Moscow’s imperialism. Other European countries are more inclined to
see nuances in their relationships with Russia, and it is their
position that constitutes the pan-European consensus. Still, this
consensus differs radically from Russia’s officially adopted
version of its own and European history on a number of points.
While Russia views the victory over Nazism as a paramount source of
national pride, the pan-European version of the history of World
War II sets it aside as a topic for critical reflections on the
Europeans’ own past. Russia has an extremely painful reaction to
attempts to draw parallels between Nazism and Stalinism, while most
Europeans believe that the interpretation of 1945 as an
inconspicuous, perfect moral triumph is totally unacceptable. As we
have said above, this is linked to the understanding of Nazism
(fascism, Francoism, etc.) as an offspring of European civilization
as such. It cannot be otherwise, since the ancestors of many of
today’s Europeans “fought on the wrong side” and they cannot throw
these memories to the trash heap of history. Also, many Europeans
are unwilling to forget Stalin’s labor camps, Soviet military
domination in Central and Eastern Europe, and the events of 1956 in
Hungary and of 1968 in Czechoslovakia. The Europeans talk about all
these events not only in terms of the Soviet Union’s “sins,” but
also as a general moral responsibility for what happened.

The assessment of the end of the Cold War and the
transformations of the 1990s offer an almost mirror-like reflection
of the debates on World War II. The EU views them as moments of
triumph, as they form the foundation for European pride and a
feeling of moral self-sufficiency. On the contrary, for Russians,
the collapse of the Soviet Union and the painful reforms of the
1990s are grounds for critical self-reflections about their past
and previous illusions, errors and miscalculations.

Vladimir Putin has said on many occasions that the credit for
the end to the standoff of military/political blocs in Europe
should go to the Soviet Union and that the decisive steps of the
Soviet leadership, which got the people’s support, put an end to
the Cold War and opened the doors to today’s united world. This
vision suggests that the events of the late 1980s and early 1990s
could in no way be a capitulation. However, Russians are equally
unready to regard these events as a triumphant march of democracy
and an untroubled “return to the realm of European civilization.”
They have had too many hopes that have blown up and have too many
grievances against those with whom they began to build a common
European home two decades ago.

* * *

The conflict between Russia and the European Union is much more
profound than a mere collision of pragmatic, rationally formulated
interests. The disagreement relates to the self-identification of
both political subjects in time and space, which in turn has an
inseparable link to ethic problems, to the understanding of good
and evil, and to the perception of threats to security. Even if the
political leaders on both sides prove able to realize the logic of
each other’s actions and show readiness to meet each other halfway,
they will have to explain to their parliaments, media, experts and
voters the importance of concessions.

Our vision of ourselves and the world around us appears to be a
very inert system, if one views it as a social phenomenon. And if
either side perceives the conflict through the prism of security,
it looks far more difficult to change the existing set of
priorities. Still, there is no other way to go: we are destined to
cohabit in a new Europe, which means we must learn to adjust to
each other. Since attempts to build a united Europe from Vancouver
to Vladivostok have so far failed, it is important that we develop
a mutual recognition of the right to have our own understanding of
modern threats and challenges. We must learn to coexist while
accepting differences as a norm. We must first recognize the right
of the other side to have its own opinion and only then make
attempts to convince the opposite party that its truth is not