Monday, 20 August 2012 09:30

European identity is in its childhood

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Imagine Europe in ten, thirty, fifty years. Will we ever be able to build a European identity or will Europe turn into one large museum? Leire Ariz investigates what young Europeans in Brussels have to say about Slavenka Drakulić’s predictions for the old continent.

Carmen Păun is a volunteer for the European Youth Press in Brussels. Like many of the young people in the bubble, she came from Romania to study in a masters programme, and after several internships, settled for a job. She has a German friend of Chinese origin who once told her jokingly: "China can turn Europe into a parking lot." 

Museums are for the past

It is a similar statement to that made by journalist Slavenka Drakulić, who was interviewed in E&M's latest issue. Her vision of Europe's future suited that of a theme park. "The continent will be flooded with tourists, mostly from the east, who look at the Old Continent as we now look at Babylon."

Păun is sceptical about the EU's future the way we know it, but doesn't believe Europe will be reduced to a tourist attraction. "Did Russia become an iconic park for communism? Not really," she says.

In general, people in Brussels tend to disagree with pessimistic views about Europe's coming years. It may be because people who come here usually do so because they are convinced Europeanists, or because many have academic backgrounds related to the EU, or simply because their work future is often closely related to that of the continent.

Carmen, Jeremy, Francesco, Mourad and Kaltrina - all five of the bubble-inhabitants I spoke to had amendments to make to Drakulić's prediction. Jeremy, a Belgian journalist, put it in a way that summed it up: "museums are for the past! European identity is in its childhood."

Perhaps because of that underdeveloped stage, all five also have trouble finding a concrete definition for it. "It is more a philosophical concept," says Mourad, a 29-year-old board member of the European Youth Forum. Carmen defines that philosophy as "diversity," agreeing with the EU motto "unity in diversity," while Jeremy states that it is a set of values that are preached internationally and are not reduced to the European territory. Only Kaltrina, a 24-year-old Kosovar living in Brussels, emphasises the individuality of identity by explaining that it is the result of personal experiences. "The European identity is a sum of individual identities that are rooted in a territory and in nations that still remain stronger than the European collective."

European identity - a common roof?

But how far does the European diversity go? How does it relate to immigration? And enlargement?

For Jeremy, the fact that it is a set of universal values makes it possible to integrate all cultural identities. "European identity builds a common roof above all the other ones," says Mourad. For them, the integration of immigrants is not only possible, but even beneficial. Being confronted with those who are different reinforces values like respect and tolerance, which are the very essence of the EU from its birth onward. It is also for this potential benefit that all five criticise the models based on assimilation. 

Carmen believes that, in terms of enlargement, the EU has learned something new with every member that has joined, but concedes that those countries who founded the EU established the rules of the game, and the newcomers have to abide by them. Kaltrina agrees: "Some cultures tend to dominate in the EU, which is a source of potential conflict."

Francesco, a 23-year-old Italian student of Economics and International Relations, thinks the solution for this conflict between unity, meaning a real pan-European feeling, and diversity, protecting all other identities, lies in Ancient Rome. "The imperial citizenship was an addition to national identities. Becoming a citizen didn't depend on ethnicity or language, but on sharing a set of values and behaviours."

In her interview, Slavenka Drakulić said that the building process of that identity and the corresponding institutional framework can't be left to politicians. "They are not really concerned with public interest, but their own careers." And it is at this point that opinions among the five Brusselians vary the most. The idea of what Europe should represent is somewhat easily agreed on, but coming up with the right strategy to put it in place... That's the tough part.

Mourad says that while some politicians were key in the early years of Europe's unification, "now it is time for civil society to push them to look further than the next electoral date."

On the other hand, Francesco thinks that the masses have never been the real reason for change. "It is always organised minorities that lead the change and mobilise them." If this fails in Europe, it is firstly because of the deficit in the institutional framework, but also because of the lack of rituals and symbols. "We have rituals like the Eurocup, but they stress the competitive nature of Europeans; not the common belonging to a community."

Which brings us back to the initial point of European identity, and the question about its future. Kaltrina stressed the idea of a broader Union with stronger institutions that keeps the fight against poverty and social inequality as its flagship issue. Jeremy dreams of a Federalist Europe with an elected President and a unitarian voice. Mourad points out the crossroad moment we are at, hoping that the outcome will be a "true" Union, while Carmen is sceptical about it and predicts more regional alliances based on cultural and territorial closeness.

The most detailed prediction comes from Francesco. "I see a core of countries together in a federation," he says, "a  welfare state which is declining but has not disappeared, and a clear political cleavage between pro-European and anti-European parties." And for him, that is the optimistic outcome. One reached after a painful, yet necessary process. "Transfer of sovereignty has always been a matter of violence. There have always been sovereign wars or revolutions to cede it. And in this sense Europe is trying to subvert history. It is complicated and painful, but we must succeed to proof forever that violence is unnecessary and people can build empires on ideas."

If there is one - what do you think European identity will look like? Who will shape it and how? Let us know what you think in the comments and we will discuss your ideas and questions with Slavenka Drakulić at Europe@Debate on September 13. You will be able to follow the debate via live stream here.

Europe@Debate is organized in cooperation with Körber Foundation, Eurozine – Europe's leading cultural magazine and Europa neuer Ideen e.V.

Last modified on Tuesday, 21 August 2012 18:21

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