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Opinion | The Europeans
There probably isn’t anyone that was really looking forward to Denmark taking over the EU presidency, given the mess the government has made for itself. But since no-one can stop the march of time we might as well just make the most of the situation. With this in mind, I sat myself down on a bench at Rødovre Shopping Centre on January 2 and began to read ‘Europæerne’ (the Europeans), Per Nyholm’s two kilo tome of a memoir that I just moments before had picked up on sale at Arnold Busck.
The presidency is one of life’s dull obligations, and the book seemed to be an appropriate starting point for me, given Nyholm’s intimate knowledge of Europe and his 30-year career writing for Jyllands-Posten.
“I don’t understand the opponents of the EU,” he writes. “I find them laughable, grotesque and provincial – unfit for the 21st century.”
There I was. Sitting on a bench as one of the unfit, and becoming ever sceptical – no matter how laughable and provincial that might sound in Nyholm’s ears. Surrounded by other euro-sceptics (and maybe even some romantics) so caught up in a book about Europe inspired by a man’s fantasy – and his passionate frustration about the European cacophony that it wasn’t until Paw Sko, Matas and Hunkemöller began lowering their gates and the polite but firm guard asked if I shouldn’t be on my way now, which was how I came to think of what constitutional author DG Monrad once called ‘popular peculiarities’ to describe our cultural identity.
Before I go on, I should note that Nyholm’s book is fascinating and incredibly handsomely compiled, packed with unruly thoughts, factual knowledge, personal observations and countless idiosyncrasies – all accompanied by Carsten Ingemann’s photographs that fall somewhere between art and kitsch.
All day long, the shops had been humming with life, and at one point between 4 and 5pm, I foolishly thought the financal crisis might be over and that hope was still alive. Off I went, Nyholm tucked under my arm, stopping along the way at Terrasse Caféen for a pint and a few pretzel sticks, a cup of coffee and a spontaneous detour to Rødovre Church. The original church was demolished by Sweden’s Karl X Gustav’s occupation of Copenhagen, but another was built on the same site by Frederik III. And it was outside the church, Rødovre’s oldest building, that I had a close encounter with the essence of Nyholm’s EU fascination: that the union has replaced war – European war – with Pan-European peace, even in the states of central Europe.
This is true, narrowly speaking, but we shouldn’t discount the role Nato has played. Nor the role the market has played in the spread of a mellower, civil and materialistic culture that has made peace more profitable than war. And there’s one other thing I feel Nyholm discounts when he’s trying to explain the need for peaceful co-existence: that European history – not just in the 20th century but the past 500 years – is for many countries and their populations a history of loss.
And not just for the imperial powers of Spain, the Netherlands and the UK – but just as much the Poles, the Scots and even us Danes, for whom 1864 became a national nadir.
The EU is as little a universal explanation for peace as it is a universal solution. As Nyholm notes about Holy Roman Emperor Charles V: “Charles wanted to unite Europe, but Europe didn’t want to be united.”
The Holy Roman Empire may have been the closest we’ve ever come to a united Europe, but as once famously stated, it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. To be continued.
The author is a historian, author and columnist.
Originally published by Jyllands-Posten newspaper.