At the Edges of Europe: Britain, Romania and European Identities
27 July 2015, 12:00 am
In their relationship to Europe, both Britain and Romania are situated at the continent's edge, but that is where any list of comparisons between the two countries usually ends. Certainly, both countries are members of the European Union, but their respective responses to the European Union differ markedly. Polls conducted by Eurobarometer consistently put Romanians among the most enthusiastic supporters of the European Union, and the British (along with the Greeks) among the least. But what are the historical roots of Romanian and British attitudes towards Europe and the European idea?
27 July 2015
Prof. Martyn Rady
In their relationship to Europe, both Britain and Romania are situated at the continent's edge, but that is where any list of comparisons between the two countries usually ends. Certainly, both countries are members of the European Union, but their respective responses to the European Union differ markedly. Polls conducted by Eurobarometer consistently put Romanians among the most enthusiastic supporters of the European Union, and the British (along with the Greeks) among the least. A conference held at SSEES on 10-11 July teased out some of the historical roots of Romanian and British attitudes towards Europe and the European idea.
A complicating factor is that Romania lacks stability as a historical term. While Romanians have lived in the region of modern-day Romania for several millennia, the Romanian state is a product of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its north-eastern and southern parts, Moldavia and Wallachia, had been vassal-states of the Ottoman Empire. They were united in a personal union under a common prince in 1859, recognized internationally as conjoined and independent in 1878, and elevated to a kingdom in 1881. The other part of modern-day Romania, Transylvania, had historically belonged to the kingdom of Hungary and Habsburg Empire. It was, together with other parts of eastern Hungary, formally joined to Romania by the terms of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.
Transylvania's history differed markedly from Moldavia and Wallachia's. As part of Hungary and thus of the Habsburg Empire, Transylvania had experienced a Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. It knew of the rule of law, administered at least in name by an impartial judiciary, and its parliamentary institutions were precociously developed. Transylvanians were frequent visitors to Western Europe, particularly to England and the Netherlands. All this was in marked contrast to the experience of Moldavia and Wallachia, where there was an 'Ottomanization' of government under princes appointed by the Sultan, and where fashions, social organization, religious affiliation and political practice were more akin to the Turkish Balkans than to the West European experience.
If one was to draw up a check-list of the historical markers of European identity (a hazardous and uncertain enterprise) then one might reckon that Transylvania scored seven out of ten, and Moldavia and Wallachia three. Britain might get five or six. Critically acting on the minus side in all four cases is the absence of a Roman Law Reception in the early-modern period. As a consequence, the intellectual and legal underpinnings of absolutism, of anti-parliamentary bureaucratic politics, and of legislation by code and decree were missing. What Paul Koschaker (Europa und das römische Recht, Munich & Berlin, 1947) defined as the cement of European identity never took historical hold in the countries at its edge. As Tom Gallagher explained at the conference, this is why Britain has a Common Law, a vigorous parliamentary life, a distrust of top-down solutions and of ministerial bureaucracy, and antipathy towards legislation by governmental octroi (although this is being worn down). Since the institutions of the European Union are notably 'Romanist' in conception, their anti-democratic features magnified through adoption of the French Napoleonic model, it is not surprising that there should be considerable suspicion in Britain of Brussels and its methods.
Romania, although never experiencing a Roman Law Reception, has never had good government. During the eighteenth- and early-nineteenth centuries, the princes appointed over Moldavia and Wallachia plundered the treasuries and imposed increasing taxes. Most had bought their titles from the Sultan and he had to be reimbursed. Transylvania was dominated by its Hungarian gentry, who paid little heed to the political demands of the majority Romanian population. In the twentieth century, the government of Romania was marked by corruption and nepotism, and the country's democratic life eviscerated by successive dictatorships of generals, a playboy king, fascist stooges and Communist thugs. Political life after 1989 continued to be informed by graft and clientelism. Romanians remain suspicious that the latest arrests of high-ranking officials for bribery may in fact be just score-settling between political factions. As a consequence, Romanians are ready to invest trust in the European Union as some sort of guarantor of the rule of law and as a defence against their own government.
Participants in the conference were alert to what was distinctive about Romania's history, their country's involvement in some of the larger trends of European development, and about possible links with the British experience. Papers thus included much of interest from a comparative perspective on subjects as diverse as Palaeolithic burials, late Roman coin hoards, chancelleries and writing-practices, literary representation, and diplomatic and artistic exchanges. A repeated point, hammered home by Adam Zamoyski, was that all countries depend on national mythologies for their cohesion. Britain and Romania have their fair share of these. Both countries also went through similar processes of 'nation building' via a 'folk revival', and at much the same time: Cecil Sharp thus has his counterpart in the work of the sociologist and ethnographer, Dimitrie Gusti. Both also tend to 'nostrify' the distant past, converting medieval French-speaking kings into national monarchs or making antique pottery shards 'proto-Romanian' in style. Yet as Alan Sked argued, Europe itself has been remarkably unsuccessful in developing symbols of belonging and in fostering a sense of common European identity. What it has done is simply transplant the institutions of the nation state-flag, directly-elected parliament, passport, anthem, diplomatic service and so on-onto a larger territory, while all the time decrying the nation state and promoting itself as a 'post-national' polity. What the EU has not done is create a sense of community, whereby (as the Greek crisis painfully demonstrates) the burdens of one set of people are readily shouldered by another.
The Romanian participants at the conference all spoke excellent English, even though for many this was their visit to Britain. Their achievement in this regard may tell us something about the developing European identity. Not just in Romania but throughout the continent a common culture is emerging, which may in turn develop into a sense of shared space and burdens. That culture is Anglo-Saxon. It is underpinned by the English language, by a popular culture of music and TV dramas that is mostly Anglo-Saxon and Atlanticist, by an intellectual and academic milieu that looks for its inspiration no longer towards France but to Britain and North America, and by the continued popularity of London as a tourist destination, place of work and conference venue. If the European Union survives its current sclerosis and a European culture eventually emerges, then that culture will be one that is heavily infused with a British content, and which looks towards the Anglo-Saxon edge as its main point of reference.
- The conference was held at SSEES and organized by Martyn Rady (SSEES) and Alexandru Simon (Romanian Academy, Cluj-Napoca). It was funded by Cluj-Napoca International Airport.
- Martyn Rady is Masaryk Professor of Central European History at UCL SSEES