European identity is a sandwich. That was one of the conclusions from the “Does Europe lack cohesion?” event organised by the Körber Foundation, Eurozine, Europa neuer Ideen e.V. and E&M as part of the series Europe@Debate. A sandwich because you can add different layers – such as local, regional, national or European identities – and because adding one doesn’t mean you need to take out another. That is, European identity is diverse and not exclusive.
The metaphor was created by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić when Matthias Naß, International Correspondent for Die ZEIT and the panel moderator, asked the participants how they would describe the European identity they define themselves with. Drakulić brought up the sandwich, E&M’s Julia Schulte mentioned politics as in the achievement of democracy and freedom of movement, and Saila Huusko, from FutureLabEurope, explained it was something she first felt when she was studying abroad in the US. The truth is, it is the eternal question in Europe, and the answers always seem to be highly dependant on metaphorical references like that of Drakulić’s sandwich.
PHILOSOPHICAL SYMBOLS VS TANGIBLE EXPERIENCES
In a previous article, Mourad Mahidi came up with the idea that European identity is a rooftop built upon national identities gathering the values they have in common. “It is more like a philosophical concept,” he said. And looking at Hamburg’s event, European identity was indeed seen as a set of values rather than tangible common experiences.
Drakulić and Schulte both agreed that all national identities are an artificial construction, and that what Europe needs is a leadership that takes those values and convinces the citizens to adopt the construction. “If big parties don’t address this, nationalists or extremists will take their place,” warned Drakulić.
On the other hand, Naß suggested that even if all identities are a construction, national identities are felt through tangible experiences like the support of a national football team or the idea of drinking a common beer brand. And if Europe lacks these, is it possible for the common citizen to feel a shared identity? Do we need the creation of more tangible experiences that link us to the European community, or a strong elite that implements the values in all layers of society?
ACCESS TO DEBATE AND TRAVEL
According to Huusko, “we are all aware of what European values are, but there is no pan-European dialogue about them.” This means we can’t feel confident in Europe, on the contrary we feel a sense of insecurity, which lends impetus to the rise of nationalists like the True Finns, in the case of her homeland. The feasability of this type of debate remains a tough question, due to the lack of common platforms and the linguistic differences.
In the case of the three panelists, how did they get access to the Hamburg debate and how did they reach “a European state of mind?” The key: they have all travelled. Julia briefly studied in the UK and has recently travelled to Bosnia, Saila also lived in Bosnia, studied in the US, and is a frequent traveller to Africa; and Slavenka lives between Croatia, Italy and Austria.
They all agreed that being confronted to the idea of “the other” is a key part of the process to build one’s identity. We define ourselves from X region in our country as opposed to all the others. European identity is the last layer of all the possible identities, and while most citizens have been confronted to the idea of other citizens from neighbouring countries, not so many have experienced the non-European other. However, Drakulić clarified the difference between experiencing the other to bring clarity to who you are, from using the concept only to strengthen the borders that separate people. “In the case of nationalisms, it is dangerous when a country’s identity is exclusively built through opposition to the other.”
Considering on the one hand the high philosophical content of European identity and on the other, the need for debates and travels as key experiences, I wonder if every citizen can relate to European identity, or if it’s something reserved for an educated elite. As Huusko pointed out, “how many of us have had the opportunity to travel?”
Many in the audience didn’t seem to have had it, but judging by their questions at the end of the panel, they relate to Europe as an ideal for a better future. Europe has always remained a refuge for hope in those countries where citizens have felt disappointed at national politics. And as Julia said, “if our parents’ generation was able to have change, not only in a continent that was divided in West and East, but also in the divided country that was Germany, why wouldn’t we go further in the next one?”