European Identity - What the hell does that mean?

Article published on May 13, 2014
Article published on May 13, 2014

"Eu­rope lacks an iden­tity." You can read that in any in­tel­lec­tual analy­sis. But our author hit the streets and the cafés of Strasbourg, philosophising with real people on the ground. But what the hell is European identity, in the minds of the people? In the end, we found a com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor.

Once a year, the EU asks its cit­i­zens whether they iden­tify them­selves with their own na­tion or with Eu­rope. It asks for the pur­pose of es­tab­lish­ing a Eu­ro­pean iden­tity. But what does Eu­ro­pean even mean? What is iden­tity?

Di­verse au­thors ea­gerly try to sum­ma­rize these two words through lengthy es­says, but wind up writ­ing about democ­racy, about mu­tual val­ues, about his­tory and some­times even about Chris­tian­ity. But what do ac­tual Eu­ro­peans say when they're not pre­sented with a mul­ti­ple choice ques­tion­naire from the sta­tis­ti­cal agency Eu­ro­stat? What do they say when asked why they feel, and in some cases don't feel, Eu­ro­pean? What bet­ter place to find out than in a city that claims to be a Eu­ro­pean city?

It's a sunny af­ter­noon in Stras­bourg, house boats are an­chored along the Ill, bars and cafés line the river, peo­ple are sit­ting on lawn chairs and sofas, drink­ing, smok­ing, chat­ting. Next to me there's a black-haired, slightly plump mid­dle-aged woman sit­ting across from her mother, who has some­what hag­gard blond hair, she's slim­mer and has a few wrin­kles.

I care­fully try to inch to­wards the sim­ple ques­tion: "Is Stras­bourg a Eu­ro­pean city?" "Yea," is her im­me­di­ate re­sponse. Why? "Be­cause so many tourists from dif­fer­ent coun­tries come here. There are for­eign­ers every­where," says the daugh­ter. That's true, Stras­bourg is a tourist hub. But if they're for­eign­ers, then how can they be Eu­ro­pean?

"I know what you're get­ting at, but it's dif­fi­cult to an­swer. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, what does Eu­ro­pean even mean?" Yeah, ex­actly, what is it? Her mother chimes in and says it's the mu­tual cus­toms that all Eu­ro­peans share. And which ones would those be? "Good ques­tion." No re­sponse. Her daugh­ter in­ter­jexts, "I lived a few years in Canada. I re­ally felt like a Eu­ro­pean there. Every­thing there is some­how dif­fer­ent. When I'm in Be­ligum, I'm a Eu­ro­pean. But when I'm in France, I'm French."

Other re­sponses are sim­i­lar. A Russ­ian who moved to Stras­bourg says she's seen as a Eu­ro­pean when she's back in her home­land, but in Stras­bourg she's seen as a Russ­ian. The de­f­i­n­i­tion of Eu­ro­pean seems to be un­clear, an iden­ti­fi­ca­tion which they only seem to en­counter when they leave their home and fa­mil­iar cul­ture. Clearly iden­tity seems to be a form of de­mar­ca­tion. We and "the other."

Do you pri­mar­ily feel French and then Eu­ro­pean, or first Eu­ro­pean and then French? Both women re­spond, "French first." Does that mean that you care about the French first, be­fore you care about other Eu­ro­peans? Both re­luc­tantly re­spond "yeah." But in some east­ern mem­ber states peo­ple are dying of hunger and liv­ing in slums. Shouldn't they be given more im­me­di­ate con­cern? "Yea, I know it's bad to think this way, but peo­ple are dying in France, too," says the daugh­ter. Her mother con­tin­ues, "of course we have to think glob­ally, and when we do that, we have to make sure to take care of the weaker Eu­ro­pean coun­tries. We have to stick to­gether to sur­vive in the faces of China and the USA."

She's not the only one who an­swers the ques­tion in this way. 

First my liveli­hood, and then oth­ers'

An at­trac­tive French woman un­lock­ing her bi­cy­cle sig­nals that she's in a rush, but as I con­front her with my ques­tions she stands still and mulls it over. Even she says, "of course I'm firstly con­cerned about the French, but we have to show con­cern for the oth­ers, too." A group of youths, some of whom aren't even 18, lend an in­ter­ested ear and try to give an­swers. In con­clu­sion: "our par­ents taught us that we have to think of the other peo­ple in Eu­rope, too."

In the end, every­one who was asked used the ex­pres­sion "we must." Not: "we should." Eu­rope doesn't seem to be a mat­ter of the heart, but rather a mat­ter of the mind. Those who think of Eu­rope are prag­matic, sober, ra­tio­nal and are con­scious to see its eco­nomic ben­e­fits. Maybe the mu­tual virtues of the En­light­en­ment aren't so far­fetched after all. 

What bet­ter way to test this the­sis than in a dis­cus­sion about Eu­rope. Twelve of my, for the most part young adult, friends ac­cepted my Face­book in­vi­ta­tion to dis­cuss Eu­rope in the stu­dent bar Le Char­iot on a Fri­day around 8 o'clock. Some of them work for Cafébabel, oth­ers are ei­ther friends or ac­quain­tances. Even here, with peo­ple who al­ready deal with the topic, the mes­sage is sim­i­lar; all but three peo­ple (my­self in­cluded) iden­tify them­selves firstly with their own na­tion be­fore iden­ti­fy­ing with Eu­rope. 

A thought: If one first iden­ti­fies one­self with one's own na­tion, be­fore iden­ti­fy­ing one­self with Eu­rope, can that then be con­sid­ered na­tion­al­ism?

No one says a word.

I had posed the ques­tion just a cou­ple of hours be­fore as I spoke with peo­ple in the Palais d'Eu­rope - the seat of the Coun­cil of Eu­rope - all of whom looked like im­por­tant peo­ple. With­out hes­i­ta­tion, a del­e­gate from the Kosovo par­lia­ment al­ready had an an­swer ready. "It's not na­tion­al­is­tic; it's ego­tis­ti­cal. But that's how every­one is. Every­one con­cen­trates on them­selves first be­fore car­ing for oth­ers." In the bar Le Char­iot, the first re­sponses ma­te­ri­al­ize. One of them says, "iden­tity has noth­ing to do with na­tion­al­ism. Just be­cause one might view one­self as French, doesn't mean that per­son's a na­tion­al­ist. It's only when one be­gins to mar­gin­al­ize other coun­tries or see them as lesser that you can speak of na­tion­al­ism." Na­tion­al­ism is, in other words, some­thing po­lit­i­cal, whereas iden­tity is some­thing cul­tural.

And no one who at­tended wanted to re­place this na­tional, cul­tural iden­tity with a Eu­ro­pean one. Ul­ti­mately, it's pre­cisely cul­tural di­ver­sity that con­sti­tutes Eu­rope. To think as a Eu­ro­pean ap­par­ently means to ac­knowl­edge the var­ied dif­fer­ences in Eu­rope, and pos­si­bly even be proud of it. After all, the motto of the EU goes: "United in di­ver­sity."

How­ever, in the con­ver­sa­tions on the street, it be­came clear that many Eu­ro­peans don't nec­es­sar­ily want sol­i­dar­ity, but rather that they need it. They main­tain a rather prag­matic and ra­tio­nal re­la­tion­ship to the idea of "Eu­rope." A re­la­tion­ship that's more of the mind than of the heart. They don't feel any pathos, don't have any pa­tri­o­tism, and don't have any love. 

Ehrlicher­weise müsste das Motto daher wohl lauten: trotz Vielfalt vere­int. 

In all hon­esty, the motto should rather go: de­spite di­vser­sity, united. 

his ar­ti­cle is part of a spe­cial se­ries de­voted to Stras­bourg. It's part of "EU-topia : Time To Vote", a pro­ject run by Cafébabel in part­ner­ship with the Hip­pocrène foun­da­tion, The Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion, the Min­istry of For­eign Af­faires and the EVENS foun­da­tion. The whole se­ries will soon be avail­able on the home­page.