Saturday, May 7, 2011

The other West

If asked to name a central European country I would go for Germany, Austria or, above all, Switzerland, sandwiched right in the middle of the great nations. So I was astonished to read Norman Davies's comment in Europe: A History that the 'dead centre of geographical Europe' is actually Lithuania.

Lithuania! I could have believed Poland or the Czech Republic but in my mind Lithuania was one of the old USSR states, squashed up on the far eastern fringe of Europe against Russia. My mistake was in forgetting that Russia is by far the biggest country in Europe. Most of Western Europe could be squeezed into European Russia alone.
I'm still a little sceptical that Lithuania is really the centre, though it looks it in this map:

It showed me how mixed up I was about the nature of Europe. To me it was a collection of significant central states like France, Germany and Italy, surrounded by smaller and weaker states like Portugal, Ireland, Latvia, Hungary and so on. Instead I see that Europe is mostly the Old East. Greece, Serbia and Ukraine are the central states, Germany and France are peripheral.

One reason for my confusion is that lots of Cold War-era maps simply cut off chunks of the uneventful Soviet East, so that Europe seemed to be divided roughly down the middle by the Iron Curtain:

Comforting, maybe, but inaccurate. Really most of Europe was east of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War:

Davies points out that even in ancient times there was confusion about the eastern limits of what was known as Europe. For centuries people referred to the River Don as the border; only in the 18th century was that shifted hundreds of kilometres east to the Urals.

Even the Urals make an arbitrary border as peoples and nations (especially Russia) poured easily across it. A glace at a world map shows all the continents distinctly divided by seas and oceans with Europe-Asia being the only exception. Eurasia is a natural-looking continent: Europe is simply its western peninsula.

This matters because of the way people use words like 'Europe' and 'West'. Sometimes 'Europe' really means the European Union, at other times it means quite different things like, lately, the European NATO members intervening in Libya. I wrote about this confusion for New Geography, pointing out that both left and right-wing pundits were generalising about a Europe which does not exist, using it as a social democratic alternative to the US.

Europe is troubling enough as a concept, but the West is just baffling. Is Poland Western? It is a member of the EU and, unlike Ireland, of NATO. It is Catholic-majority and democratic, although two decades ago it was part of the 'Eastern Bloc' of Communist countries.

If Poland is Western, how about Kosovo? Muslim-majority, poorer than Yemen or Nicaragua, but democratic and an official potential candidate for admission to the EU. Then there is industralised Russia, and the highly developed democracies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - each with Buddhist heritage but strong military connections to the US and relatively liberal governments and cultures. There are further shades of grey in Latin America, whose Christian-majority democracies are usually excluded from discussions of 'Western' policies.

The main problem in all this is that there are specific organisations like NATO and the EU, as well as specific groupings of countries like the alliance of states that became involved in Libya. Yet outsiders aren't always to spot these distinctions. Instead the entire West or Europe get blame or credit for the actions of a few states. The British Islamist organisation Muslims Against Crusades complain about 'the West's continued interference in Muslim lands' for example. How odd this must be for Swiss people, unquestionably Western but unaffiliated with NATO or EU and peaceful since 1815.

Words like 'Western' and 'Europe' can be useful but only so long as all parties understand to what they refer. We can discuss the arrival of Westerners to 19th century Japan so long as others understand the nature and nationality of those arriving. We can discuss Western values only if it is understood that we mean liberalism and not fascism, imperialism, Christian fanaticism, communism and all those other anti-individualist ideas that developed here. Europe is a manufactured concept, with no natural border. The West seems mainly to be a set of vague modern ideas about individual rights, liberalism and democracy, ideas alien to Europe for most of its monarchial past. So, be careful! The West has no policies since it does not exist as any kind of organisation. There are no European attitudes, common to all 850 million inhabitants of the European subcontinent but not shared by others.


  1. the most interesting EU member has to be Cyprus, geographically Cyprus is nowhere near Europe and the encylopaedia I used to read had it in Asia, yet here it is an EU member and more interesting is Northern Cyprus,which is recognised by Turkey only and people living there need a Northern Cyprus passport to cross the green line dividing Cyprus yet as far the EU is concerned, the area and the people residing there are EU members with free movement, strange.

  2. Excellent example, Rohan. Israel is another weird one, clearly on the Asian section of the Eurasian continent but in popular culture often included with the Europeans. Israel participates in European Cup Football, and sends competitors to the Eurovision Song Contest.

  3. I think the European Cup Football is two-fold firstly, they have a higher chance of World Cup qualification due to the high number of world cup slots for European countries (that is why Australia qualifies under the Asian football federation rather than the Oceania one) and secondly any qualification group will have at least one country that will refuse to play against israel.


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