What is Europe?

Back in the high and far off days, the question was a geographical one – and as every schoolboy knew, it ended at the Urals. But it is not so now. With the proposal to extend the European Union still further to include Turkey, the question is most certainly not geographical.

Now that, in England, a man can be questioned for hours by the police for asserting that Islam is a wicked religion which oppresses women, and knocked off his bicycle in Amsterdam and ritually murdered by Islamists for the same, I had better be careful what I say.

Europe is defined, in my view, not by geography, but in part at least, in terms of iconic events and images. Here is the slideshow:

The conversion of Constantine; the coronation of Charlemagne; the defeat of the Saracens at Poitiers; the preaching of the crusade by St Bernard at Vezelay; the capture of Jerusalem; the conquest of Granada; the fall of Constantinople; the battle of Lepanto; the raising of the siege of Vienna.

A selective list, you will say, and with an obvious bias. But is it though? Those moments were defining, sometimes in improbable and roundabout ways.

Constantine established and Charlemagne confirmed the connection between Christianity and Romanitas which defined Europe as a distinct culture well into the nineteenth century. The coronation of Napoleon, and even more, the portrait of the Emperor by the young Ingres, reveal the Aufklarung (in its French Revolutionary form) finally submitting to the ancient imagery. (In an extravagant piece of political propaganda, Ingres portrays Napoleon in trappings borrowed from the Olympian Zeus, the God the Father of van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, and the coronation of Charlemagne).

Poitiers and Roncevalles not only gave birth to a whole genre of epic poetry, but, with the conquest of Granada, were the inspiration of the Conquistadores and the great American adventure (as Hugh Thomas has painstakingly shown).

The fall of Constantinople remains (and not only for Greek Cypriots) a defining moment. Can anyone who has read it forget the purple passage in Patrick Leigh Fermour’s Rumeli, when the humble successor of the Palaeologi sails triumphantly home to The City?

The fluid borders of East and West in Mittel Europa, have for centuries fuelled creative conflicts in Russian culture (the internal war between Moscow and St Petersburg) which Orlando Figes has delineated for us in Natasha’s Dance.

Europe, in short, has found its cultural identity in being Roman, in being Christian, and in being at war with Islam. And, despite political correctness, things do not seem to have changed much. The surface of European politics is one thing; the populist depths another.

Consider, by way of example, Holland, that erstwhile bastion of secular liberalism.

It is true that the Netherlands has been more successful than most European countries (even Scandinavia) in undermining Christian values. Marriage has been dismantled, homosexuality enfranchised, and the family demonised. But liberal values have also encouraged, or at least embraced. wholesale immigration, largely from the Mohammedan East (Turkey, North Africa, Indonesia)

Now that 47% of the population of Rotterdam is immigrant, the bien pensant Dutch middle classes, whose policies and values resulted in the present predicament, are emigrating in impressive and unprecedented numbers. A right-wing gay sub-culture (Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh were not merely victims of similar outrages, but also close personal friends) has emerged. It is opposed to immigration and (paradoxically) attached to its own version of ‘European Culture’. It looks like staying the course.

There is an obvious danger here. Gay sub-cultures notoriously veer from the far left to the far right: skin-heads and New Romantics, Burgess and Mclean and the Waffen-SS. Evacuated of Christianity (church attendance is Holland is at an all time low) the natural tendency of European culture is a fascist version of Romanitas, expressing itself through the historic antipathy to Islam.

So there it is.

Governments in Germany, Austria, Spain, France and Italy allegedly see the strategic advantages of admitting Turkey to the club; but they know that they will have severe difficulties in selling the idea to their respective electorates. They also know that those electorates are divided in their opposition. Some of the opposition even claims to be explicitly Christian. (How strange that MEPs who did not rise to the defence of Rocco Butiligone are now standing up for what they suppose to be ‘Christian values’!)

But by far the most vocal opposition is what one might call liberal/fascist. It comes from those who oppose any religiously inspired moral system, whether Christian or Islamic, because it is seen as a challenge to individual freedom and autonomy. For these people, the general agreement between Islam and Christianity about human sexuality, the family and the sanctity of human life is a cause of serious offence. They are on a collision course with both the value systems which have fought for the last millennium and a half for control of the European peninsula.

Who will win? What is Europe?

The Vatican, with its tetchy complaints about the absence of references to Christianity in the preamble to the proposed European Constitution seems to think that it knows the answer. It is Enlightenment Europe which will win the day. Christianity has run out of time in its erstwhile homeland.

I am not so sure. There are four possibilities.

The first is the gradual but inevitable Mohammedanisation of Europe – the reversal of Poitiers, Roncevalles, Granada, Lepanto and Vienna. That is certainly a possibility as Western birth rates decline and Eastern immigration soars.

The second is the final triumph of secularism over religion (Islamic or Christian) – second or third generation Muslim immigrants treating sex, marriage and faith with the cavalier insouciance of their post-Christian contemporaries.

The third is a Western populist backlash against Islam: fascism/racism with a post-Christian face.

The fourth is a dialogue between Christianity and Islam, such that historical divisions are comprehended, if not healed. The European homeland would then be left in sufficient peace to minister to its own internal wounds.

The last possibility, if not the most likely, is the most desirable. But the situation remains fluid. The talk at the moment is of a Christian Muslim alliance against the secularist onslaught – agnostic bishops and fundamentalist mullahs engaged in cautious co-belligerency. But the opposite is just as likely: post-Christian secularists and agnostic bishops fighting an increasingly aggressive and dominant Islam. (Richard Harries, after all, has more in common with Richard Dawkins than with Ayatollah Khomeini.)

What is Europe? We will have to wait and see. We can be certain only of two things: that just as its geographical fault line lies across the island where St Paul was shipwrecked, so its historical fault line appeared on Monday, 28 May, 1453.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark