The history of Europe begins with a crossing over the Mediterranean – and not a voluntary one. It begins, in fact, with kidnapping, rape, forced exile, refuge, and resettlement.
Europa, a Phoenician princess, is forcefully removed from the shores of North Africa to Crete by the most powerful of Greek gods, Zeus. She accepts her fate and begets a new world – the Minoan civilisation – laying the foundations for all ancient Greece, and what will eventually be referred to as the European continent. At least, that’s how Europe begins as far as mythology is concerned.
This story is more than instructive. It will be repeated in many guises century after century. Its mythological attire will be stripped and replaced by ordinary life, in all its naked drama.
The waters of the Mediterranean are still being crossed today, in search of Europe. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station in Malta has rescued some 25,000 refugees from drowning since it was set up in 2014. Their survival stories, are also tales of brutality, kidnappings, enslavement, rape. They are histories of trauma and perseverance.
This is how Europe begins. And we need to recall this today, more than ever. It would put us all in the same boat, so to speak, emotionally, historically, politically.
This history is perhaps one reason why Irish politician Edmund Burke was able to write in 1796 that “no European can be a complete exile in any part of Europe”.
Europe is connected by a common history of exile, but also a history of finding home away from home. And that, as it happens, is also how the idea of cosmopolitanism comes about.
Cosmopolitan identity – the highest stage of individualism, according to Swiss historian Jakob Bruckhardt – begins during the Italian Renaissance, serving thereafter as the backdrop against which the story of Europe unfolds and, periodically, unravels. The Italian Renaissance invents artists and scholars who think of themselves as citizens of the world and “exult” in their freedom from being constrained by fixed residence. Dante is unequivocal about this – “My country is the whole world,” he said. As is Virginia Woolf, who, under the spectre of National Socialism, wrote in 1938: “… as a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world”.
It is certainly instructive to compare this with the cultural and political nativism of the current British government, which continues to avoid the question of European citizens living on its territory after Brexit – reducing their fate to a bargaining chip in Brexit negotiations, reducing them to mere strangers.
If there is one historical “law”, it is the law of movement. Permeability of borders and cultures is inexhaustible, and no walls are going to stop it. Territorial enclosures behind sealed borders are the exception, impurity the rule. And here, it is precisely the nation state that constitutes the apex of such exceptionality. This has always made it grotesque, fanciful, inhospitable and, at its worst, murderous.
The great royal houses and dynasties of Europe’s past, including the Windsors in the UK, who until 1917 were known more accurately as Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, are exemplary specimens of impurity – their power depended on it. For instance, in 1910 the soon-to-be assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the multi-cultural, Central European Hapsburg empire, listed 2,047 ancestors in his line of descent, of which 1,486 were German, 124 French, 196 Italian, 89 Spanish, 52 Polish, 47 Danish and 20 English, to name just the main ones. A rootless cosmopolitan indeed!
According to Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Europe is an “unfinished adventure” that is “allergic to borders”.
For centuries, that allergy took an expansionist, outward form. Europe was a net exporter of its people, under the banner of refuge from religious persecution, escape from poverty, pure curiosity, more sinister colonialism, and empire building, with all the dark and enlightened, lofty and vile forces exchanging leads.
The more authentic meaning of Europe, and perhaps that part of our humanity in the West today, that is quite literally missing in action, is to be found precisely there, dispersed among foreign lands and seas, through the histories of mobility, and certainly not in the staid, parochial, aggressive populism that only breeds politics of petrification and cultural inertia.
It is imperative that we sound a different tone about movement and mobility. Seeking of refuge, even when we are fortunate enough not to be refugees, strictly speaking, is a universal condition – not only the stuff of history, but the location where the search for the hearth of our humanity can begin in earnest.