“Why I am proud of being a European”
Tzvetan Todorov interviewed by Daniele Castellani Perelli 4 August 2008

You have often written wonderful words about European values. Does a European identity exist and what are the main European values?

Well, I actually think that one should not try to enumerate European values, because the European identity is an open one, it is changing, and because it can always include new ingredients as well. Nevertheless, the European identity is not something arbitrary. By this I mean that in Europe a specific status for differences has been created. This is really what characterizes Europe, compared to other major civilizations and groups such as China, the United States or even Russia, where there is always an attempt to unify even what is a very heterogeneous society within the same values and the same centralized organization. The specificity of Europe, and of the European Union in particular, is that it maintains the diversity of its members while providing them with a certain status, which means that first of all, there is of course an obligation of tolerance (we no longer wage wars against each other), but beyond that we elaborate our opinions by becoming capable of comparing and criticizing the opinions of our neighbours.

Finally, we also try to achieve the kind of State described long ago by Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the identification of a general will. The general will, the will of the whole community, and in this case of the Continent, can never means the uniform, homogeneous, total agreement of all members, but a set of perspectives taking into account even small differences, as well as major ones of course, between its members. And this specific status of diversity, plurality within unity, is what really characterizes Europe. So to my mind, one should not identify Europe within any substantial context, but rather in a way allowing these differing and changing contents to coexist.

Is there a moment in your daily life in which you perceive to be a European?

Definitely. In fact, most of the time I feel European, and this movement has become stronger ever since my native country, Bulgaria, entered the European Union, although I live really in France all the time and only rarely go back to Bulgaria. But I know that an important part of myself is determined by my childhood and early years that I spent in Bulgaria, and thus the inclusion of Bulgaria within the political entity of the European Union was an important step for me. In fact, I basically do not feel European but French, because that is the citizenship that I enjoy nowadays. When I have to cross a border and show my passport, it is a French passport and not a European one. But otherwise I feel much more a European, I am very proud of European tradition, although I have not contributed to its quality much, but I am proud to belong to this entity which is a plural and complex one. Of course Europe also has many dark pages and many dark sides, but I think that it is possible to construct a positive model out of European history, and it is in that model that I project myself into and I identify with.

Will there be a day in which we will define ourselves as Europeans and not as French, Italians and so on?

Well, I am not sure that this day will really come, because while we have citizenship or an identification with a cluster of values, we also have smaller attachments, and one of these attachments is a more cultural one, and cultures depend heavily on languages, and I do not think that we will ever speak “Europeanese”, a kind of mixture of European languages. We will keep speaking German, Spanish, French and Italian, and even English every now and then, like between the two of us today, but this implies that important characteristics of our daily experience will remain attached to this cultural identity and sometimes the belonging is even smaller than that identity. One can feel one belongs to Catalonia or to Sicily or to Piedmont, and I do not think this is something that we should try to eliminate.

Nowadays, a country is basically a space of solidarity, not so much a space of common values, because the countries belonging to the European Union all share the same political and moral values, the more important values, but we do not share the same solidarity space. By this I mean that we have social security, which is a kind of insurance for health problems or for pensions or education for our children. All these things are related to the entity of the former State and I cannot see why that State should disappear. I am not sure that having a one single social security system for the whole Europe would work better than the French, Italian or German social security systems. So I think we have to accept this belonging to different entities – some of them larger, some of them smaller – we will manage very well. Human beings are capable of adapting to this plurality of belongings.

So you do not dream of a European federal State.

Well, it is possible. I do not care about the name, but I believe I would be pleased to see greaterintegration in the judicial system, in the defence system. I think that it should necessarily be much more integrated than it is now. I hope there will be a greater economic integration because we need a degree of protection from the perverse effects of globalization, and this protection can only come from the European area and no longer from national states. So I think that there are all sorts of fields in which stronger European integration would be very appropriate and we should hope for it. Nevertheless, I believe that there are other domains more closely linked to language or to smaller communities, and we have to discover for each the best appropriate space without any dogmatic pre-decisions.

Do you think that there is a big difference between the European identity and the American identity? Or do you think this difference could be limited by, let’s say, Barack Obama’s presidency?

You know, I think that Barack Obama’s programme and personality would appeal indeed more to Europeans than those of the current president, but this will not structurally alter the relationship between the United States and Europe that belong together to the West. I think we will remain allies, but “allies” does not mean having “identical views on everything”, the difference being precisely in the fact that the United States is a nation state. It is a unique state in which of course there are regional differences, but it has a single government, a single Senate, Parliament, language and so on, and it has by necessity a kind of policy for the world that is linked to its immense importance as a military, industrial and financial power. The European Union is a different story. It is this unique discovery of a capacity to bring together of 30 states or 27 states, so many of them, which have learned how to live together without being submitted to one in particular. Next year, we may elect as President of Europe someone coming from Luxembourg. This is a strong possibility, which will be quite a significant phenomenon and in a way I like that idea because it shows that the president of the European Union is not a new Napoleon, and of course even less a new Hitler giving orders to all the others. Someone who will try to find this general will that we were talking about earlier, this capacity to take into account all the differences, all the different points of view of the members.

I think also that our past is quite different from the past of the United States, and because of that we cannot probably have exactly the same attitude. The European continent has been inhabited for many centuries by people who settled there, and who were very powerfully aware of our past and our traditions. In Italy maybe more than anywhere else, but this is true of France and other parts of Europe as well, and of all countries to a certain degree. Whereas the New World, as we call it, is a land of immigrants, recent immigrants coming from elsewhere, and they are much more turned towards the future than the past. Now this has advantages in the case of the New World, but it also has some advantages in our case, in Europe, because the lessons of the past are much more present in our case. I am struck by the fact that European countries do not seem to be tempted by a new imperial project because – in particular France and Britain but also Germany, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Spain – have had a long colonial past, but they have drawn lessons from this experience, and are no longer tempted to dominate the world and control the China passage and the Middle East oil fields, or the banana plantations in Latin America. This is entirely beyond the horizon of European imagination, I would say. So I think that our future in the best perspective is the future of two non-identical allies with some common objectives, aims but also differences, and we can provide some balance to our allies as they can provide some good balance for us.

Tony Blair would be a sort of Napoleon.

Well, Tony Blair has a heavy story behind him, both as a political leader who submitted entirely the policy of his country not to the consensus of the European Union, but to the militaristic adventures of the United States. So I think this really is not a very good point for a candidate wishing to run the European Union. He also seems to have this idea that democracy can be imposed through bombing and occupying foreign countries, and I think this insight is very anti-European.

Islam and Europe. What can we learn from the clash between the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadors and should we have a dialogue with people such as Tariq Ramadan, who, although they are not always right as in the case of the Turin Book Fair, do however represent a Muslim democratic alternative?

The lesson from the Aztecs’ encounter with the Europeans is really a very sad lesson, because the Aztecs were basically exterminated and submitted, Centuries went by before a new Aztec identity could be reclaimed. So we must hope that encounters between large groups of cultures do not follow the example of the conquest of America, which was really a tragic encounter although it provided wonderful stories, but we can’t be satisfied just with that. In the case of the encounter between European and Islamic countries, I believe there is a preliminary point to make, which is that one should not identify the behaviour of hundreds of millions of people, or even more than a billion people, with their religion. So I do not think that there is such a thing as the encounter between the West and Islam. To me this is a already a way of formulating the encounter that vitiates and perverts the nature of the encounter. Muslims are not a special subspecies of the human race, entirely determined by their religion, compared to the Chinese, Indians and Europeans who behave according to all sorts of impulses and determinations.

So I do not think that there is a major problem consisting in how to accommodate Islam. On the contrary, we should try to forget a little bit about Islam and face the very real political, social, economic and demographic problems that we have with these parts of the world. This being said, I do not see a problem in talking to Tariq Ramadan or to any other person who is not attacking us with explosives or a bayonet. As soon as anyone accepts a form of a verbal dialogue, I believe one should be open to that dialogue, but I do not know how powerful an impact Tariq Ramadan or someone else like him would have and on whom… Maybe more on the populations of Muslims living in Italy, France or the Netherlands than on people living in Syria, Iraq or Indonesia. Really the situations are all too different, and Tariq Ramadan – one more word on him – is sometimes sort of identifying himself with basic democratic values, and in this case there is no difficulty in debating with him and we should be happy that someone like him is eager to enter such an encounter. On other occasions instead, he defends a much more theological attitude and, you know, if anyone puts his or her God in the first position, it is difficult to establish a fertile contact. Because, as Max Weber used to say, there is a “war of Gods” that cannot be solved. So as long as things can be brought to the human level, I think dialogue can be fruitful. If it is between the Gods, it becomes quite difficult.



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)