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The New Europe

Identity: How European do people feel?

Real AudioListen to the programme

Gabriel Partos presents Identity: How European do people feel? and gives his personal Comment.

Just how European are you? And do you sincerely wish to take on a European identity - assuming you don't already think you have one?

European symbols Well, to test your response, here's a simple quiz. What's the official anthem of the European Union? How many gold stars does the European flag have? And when do we celebrate Europe Day?

No prizes offered for the correct answers - which you will hear, subtly introduced, during the programme - other than the knowledge that you already are a good European.

But what is this elusive European identity anyway? Daniel Tarschys is Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, the 40-nation group which includes countries from Iceland to Russia: "Well, a very strong commitment to the individual, a commitment to social cohesion and solidarity, a state that is neither too strong nor too weak, respect for human rights, tolerance, these are some basic principles. The rule of law of course, the idea that government must be bound by legal principles and that people must be treated equally." The classic definition of European identity.

But Mark Leonard author of a forthcoming report by think tank Demos on this subject, says there are some other aspects of life which may sound more mundane but which have a greater and more immediate resonance for most people: "The things which have happened over the last few years which make people feel European is a massive convergence of patterns of consumptions and lifestyles. So that Europeans are going to the same places for their holidays, consuming the same products, watching the same films, eating the same food."


London busLondon is full of groups of tourists from Europe and beyond, and French, Italian and Greek restaurants proliferate offering some pretty good food. Now London's always been a cosmopolitan city - but over the past 20 or 30 years much of Europe- especially the cities and holiday resorts -- have taken on a similarly international identity. It's all been due to mass tourism, school exchanges and the ease with which you can now get a job in Europe.

Whatever definition we adopt - highbrow, political values or lowbrow, lifestyle -- the desire of those outside the European Union to share fully in this European identity has been one of the hallmarks of the 1990s.

Eastern Europe demonstrationThe great slogan of the East European revolutions of 1989 was to join - or rejoin - Europe. And the practical way of achieving this was through the European Union. The EU's public opinion pollsters have been tracking this trend. Anna Melich is head of this organisation, known as Eurobarometer - "Since the first years we are doing this Eastern Euro-barometer, the support was unusually high, I mean absolutely abnormal, people were just dreaming of this European Union, thinking it was heaven. The reality is approaching day to day and then people start seeing that it will be a shock."

In general those who are further away from this EU heaven tend to be less aware of the practical problems involved in reaching paradise. So Romanians - for whom membership of the EU is a somewhat distant prospect - are twice as pro-European as the Czechs who are due to join in five years' time.

EU MapBut that doesn't mean that Romanians are any less aware or proud of their national identity. In the Czech Republic, now approaching the threshold of EU membership, there's greater concern about the likely impact. Vaclav Klaus is a former Czech Prime Minister. Does he think a European identity can - and should - replace national awareness? - "No, no no no no no. I think we have to start with natural, spontaneously formed identities and I have the feeling that there is the identity in the family, there is the identity in the community of a city or a village, and then there's the identity of a state. I don't understand the identities bigger than the states. They are in my opinion artificial and I suspect it's in the interest of the European bureaucracy and cosmopolitan politicians, to speak about Europe, to try to suppress the nation state, and to start talking about regions."

Jaques Santer Mr Klaus is a Euro-sceptic among a nation of sceptics. But his accusations against the European bureaucracy are rejected by the President of the European Commission, Jacques Santer, who's from Luxembourg - "We always would maintain our nations, our own identities, our political identity and also our cultural identity. And nobody in the European Union even the most engaged federalist would not give up the role of the nation. Our objective is to have a federation of nations. I am coming from the smallest country in Europe, and I've never had the feeling that my own country lost its identity, its political and cultural identity. No."

Of course, the question is not simply one of national versus European identity. There's a much wider range of personal loyalties, as Emil Kirchner, the German-born professor of government at Essex University in Britain, explains: "I think identity needs to be seen not as a zero sum, black and white. Identity is situational. You support Manchester United when Manchester United plays Arsenal. You can then say I move on when England plays in the European competition. And I can equally say when Europe engages in competition with the United States as we have in the Ryder Cup in golf, we support Europe. And therefore identities change. It is not a fixed or rigid arrangement."

Indeed, one of these layers of overlapping identities is regional - meaning both within a country, such as Transylvania in Romania or Corsica in France, and as a group of states, for example, the Benelux, Central Europe or the Nordic countries. For some people the regional identity has a strong personal element.

Otto von Habsburg's regional identity goes all along the Danube starting from Germany, it goes right through Austria and Hungary. His forbears used to rule the Austro-Hungarian empire but who's lived much of his life in Germany and represents a German constituency in the European Parliament.

But in spite of his multi-national background and his attachment to Central Europe as a region, he's also a strong believer in regional loyalties in the more local sense - "It's the root again. You see it's exactly the same thing. Just as the national identity is the basis of the European identity, so the regional identity is very frequently the basis of national identity. In general one finds that those who are rooted well in their region and in its tradition, are also great patriots for their country."

Local loyalties come naturally to most of us; but the wider the area covered the looser the ties are likely to be. Education, both in the formal academic sense, and informally through the media, is the primary tool of bolstering these identities. The Europe of the 1990s has seen both closer European integration and the emergence or re-emergence of new nation states in the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

Much effort and money has gone into promoting both national and Europe-wide loyalties.

pupilsA promotional video has been used to help set up contacts between schoolchildren across Europe. It's named after the 17th century Czech philosopher and teacher,Comenius.

The Comenius project and other schemes have already contributed to fostering a more European identity. Children and young people are, in general, far more pro-European in their views than their parents' generation.

But old habits die hard and the media - particularly the sensationalist tabloid newspapers - tend to dwell on the traditional stereotypes of other nations and on the alleged absurdities of the EU's bureaucracy. Anna Melich is very concerned - "The media are very powerful because they have many many assets in their hands. They can say anything, because the news comes from so far away, from Brussels. And in some cases it is really madness about the information and of course this has a big effect on the population."


Of course, the European organisations haven't stood by idly without taking the initiative; there's been a huge amount of publicity over the years to promote a European identity. It's included information campaigns extolling the benefits of integration. And it's involved adopting the symbols normally associated with the nation-state, such as a flag , 12 gold stars in a circle on a blue background and celebrating the 9th May, as Europe Day.


Yet Mark Leonard thinks much of the effort has been wasted - "I think the problem with many of these attempts to make people feel European is that they've often been either very general and abstract, focusing on democracy and human rights and other things, which are important but they're not exclusively European values. Or else they've been fairly elitist and tried to construct almost an Esperanto identity out of bits of European culture, from Plato to Beethoven which doesn't really say very much to most people in Europe, and doesn't really have many implications for the everyday lives of Europeans."


So the solution might lie in publicizing the EU's more practical achievements -- things that appeal to the average European. Ease of travel across national borders; and tackling together cross-border problems, such as the environment, crime and drugs. Yet whether an information campaign based on such issues would make us feel more proud to be Europeans, is another matter.

Sir Leon BrittainThe Vice-President of the European Commission, Leon Brittan, is sceptical - "You can't legislate for peoples' feelings. Feelings arise over a long period of time, according to how they see things develop. If they see a Europe that is positive, that is open to the outside world, that doesn't seek to impose excessive regulation, that creates wealth, that cares for employment and that is doing good for the citizens, then over a period of time, people will feel an emotional attachment as well as an intellectual support for such a Europe, but without in any way feeling less affection, allegiance or loyalty to their own countries. I see no reason why you shouldn't have both."


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