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Europe

Despite Expansion, Europe Still Can't Define "European"

What do Kazakhstan, Israel and the north-eastern corner of South America have in common? Some people count them as European. So why do other countries fail to make the grade?

Hands under an EU flag

Europe's identity is constantly shifting

Kazakhstan, despite being in Central Asia, is a member of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). Israel is in both UEFA and the Eurovision Song Contest -- competing in the latter rather more successfully in recent years than, say, France or Britain.

And the South American area of French Guyana is legally a province of France, which makes it officially a part of the European Union.

Of course, critics would say that it takes a lot more than just joining a European organization to count as properly "European."

But the problem with that criticism is there is, in fact, no commonly agreed definition of "European" to confirm it.

And that is far more than just a linguistic problem, because for some countries, the question of whether or not they count as European is a vital matter of foreign policy.

Exceptions to the rule

The Bayazit Mosque in Istanbul

Not everyone believes Turkey belongs to Europe

Take Turkey, for example. Both the North Atlantic Treaty which created NATO in 1949, and the various treaties which created the European Union, state that "any European state" which follows their rules can join.

But while NATO invited Turkey into the club as long ago as 1952, the EU is still arguing whether it is sufficiently European to join -- with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for one, saying it is not.

A similar row broke out in July 2003 after Italy's famously unpredictable Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi started his six-month EU presidency by saying that Israel, among others, should join.

Israel does not "fulfill the geographical criteria" for membership, one Brussels official retorted icily.

Diverging definitions

At present, there are three main theories as to how a country's Europeanness, or lack thereof, should be defined.

Some authorities say that, as in the case of Israel, "European" should be interpreted in a strictly geographical sense to mean "somewhere between the Atlantic and the Ural mountains."

But that argument falls apart as soon as you consider that Turkey, with a small but significant part of its territory in Europe, is still not accepted as European, but that French Guyana is.

Others say that "European" is more of a cultural term, a combination of Greek, Latin, Christian and humanist traditions.

That does justify the exclusion of Turkey, with its culture based on Ottoman Islam. But it falls down every time EU and NATO leaders call Albania and Bosnia, with exactly the same heritage, European.

Winning friends and influencing people

A map of Europe

Growing all the time...

A final argument is that "European" means "based on European values" such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

They are certainly values which European leaders talk about a lot.

But any map of Europe based on those criteria would look pretty moth-eaten, as it would feature gaps over countries such as Belarus, Russia and even, arguably, EU members Bulgaria and Italy.

In fact, given the lack of expert agreement on what such a popular word really means, the main definition of "European" in diplomatic circles these days seems to be, "someone we want on our side."

And with Europe desperate to make allies in a world of superpower politics, readers from Mumbai to Melbourne should take heart.

Don't worry if nobody has called you European yet -- it's probably only a matter of time.

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