What is it to be a European? was a question Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson posed at a well-attended Culture Weekend organised by ECR, the European Conservatives and Reformists, in Split in Croatia 31 March and 1 April. His answer was that the notion of Europe had come into being mainly as a result of two major events: in 732 when the French, led by Karl Martel, defeated in Tours the Arab forces which had marched north from Spain, and in 1683 when Polish King Jan Sobieski and others defeated outside Vienna a Turkish army which had been dispatched from the Balkans. This suggested that one part of European identity was Christianity, with its respect for human beings as all created in the image of God and all equal before God. Moreover, Europe was unlike the Roman Empire, Gissurarson argued, in that the continent had always consisted of many different jurisdictions, big and small, which meant that unpopular individuals and minorities could often find a haven somewhere. Indeed, diversity was another important part of European identity, a rich tapestry of different languages and cultures.
Gissurarson recalled how Edward Gibbon had contrasted modern Europe with the Roman Empire: ‘The division of Europe into a number of independent states, connected, however, with each other, by the general resemblance of religion, language, and manners, is productive of the most beneficial consequences to the liberty of mankind. A modern tyrant who should find no resistance either in his own breast, or in his people, would soon experience a gentle restraint from the example of his equals, the dread of present censure, the advice of allies, and the apprehension of his enemies. The object of his displeasure, escaping from the narrow limits of his dominions, would easily obtain, in a happier climate, a secure refuge, a new fortune adequate to his merit, the freedom of complaint, and perhaps the means of revenge. But the empire of the Romans filled the world, and when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies. The slave of Imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drag his gilded chain in Rome and the senate, or to wear out a life of exile on the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen banks of the Danube, expected his fate in silent despair. To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly.’
Gissurarson held that conservative liberalism, as described in his book Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, could metaphysically best be understood as the self-consciousness of the European Spirit when it has realised and accepted with pride what it is. The four main elements of conservative liberalism were private property, free trade, limited government, and respect for traditions. It was true that this political position had been ably articulated by David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century, and by Michael Oakeshott in the twentieth century, but also by thinkers outside the Anglosphere, for example by French conservative liberals Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, Frédéric Bastiat, and Bertrand de Jouvenel, by Italian scholars such as St. Thomas Aquinas and Luigi Einaudi, and by Nordic thinkers such as Snorri Sturluson, Anders Chydenius, and N.F.S. Grundtvig. Indeed, the strong liberal tradition in the Nordic countries had enabled them to survive decades of social democratic dominance in the twentieth century without a significant loss of freedom.
Others speakers at the Culture Weekend included the ECR Secretary-General Antonio Giordano from Italy, Gary Kavanagh from Ireland and Dr. Barbara Kolm from Austria.