The Spanish Apartment – The making of a European identity

There are hardly any films on European identity or even historical events from a European angle. The Spanish Apartment (L’auberge espagnole) is perhaps the only film about Europeans within the context of the EU. It is a commercial comedy, in which young people study and work in a EU state other than their own. They are the Erasmus generation. The film relies on national stereotypes and is too superficial to even consider that some young people (or even older people) might feel European. Given the paucity of books, newspapers’ articles, films & TV suggesting a European identity, it is quite miraculous that some people identify with Europe, and yet they do.

Research shows that there is such thing as a European identity (see Thomas Risse; Michael Bruter; Checkel & Katzenstein). According to researchers at Zurich University: there is a cultural European identity, which differs from a political European identity. European identity differs from country to country and even the meaning of Europe differs for those with a European identity. Crucial factors in constituting such an identity are people’s transnational experiences and personal or business relations. Researchers found that whilst the superficial layer of European identity has suffered from the eurocrisis, the underlying sense of belonging has not.

European identity exists alongside a national identity. Research shows that Europe represents a post-national cosmopolitan identity that does not deny national identityScholars argue that “political parties asserting more traditional nationalist identities and policies have directed their dissatisfaction against immigrants, foreigners and, sometimes, the EU. Those who participate in ‘Europe’ are more likely to develop a European identity, while those whose economic and social horizons are essentially local are more likely to assert nationalist identities.”

Ethnic minorities in the UK are also more open to the EU. A 2007 study in the UK observed a dichotomy between white Britons and Britons of of South-Asian origin. It found that: “indigenous white British respondents, who displayed a strong sense of national identity negatively correlated with European identity. In contrast, the South Asian respondents displayed positive feelings of identification on all three levels, and a British identity that correlated positively with European identification.”

I asked a few of people on twitter in the most unscientific way whether they felt European and with what they associated Europe. Not one person mentioned the economy. Instead, they broadly confirmed the research. Most saw European identity alongside other identities (including national identity). Their European identity is often dependent on and associated with their transnational connections or the possibility of living and working elsewhere. Shared values, history, and culture were prominent in their responses. People said that being European meant ‘enhancing their understanding and tolerance’ because of the meeting of people from all over Europe. Someone said he was ‘emotionally British, spiritually European,’ with Europe representing all things he values, such as ‘art, literature, music, friendship.’ Another that European represents ‘modern civilisation and culture‘, which began in Renaissance Italy.

All said that Europe was about ‘embracing other cultures’, ‘a common sense of identity with neighbours’, an ‘enrichment’ and peaceful coexistence. Someone mentioned feeling interconnected with others across Europe, partly due to having lived in other countries and being able to speak other languages. Someone said: ‘It means I am at home anywhere from London to Ljubljana, Bristol to Berlin. And feel at home there.’

On Question Time, Michael Gove made a mistake that nobody noticed. He said that ‘tragedy’ was a word coming from English literature. It isn’t. It’s a word from ancient Greek theatre. Gove’s parochial nationalism forbids him to see Europe as a whole. Brexiteers have framed the entire debate in transactional terms, but being part of Europe is about sharing a Europe of culture and values. It is the Europe for which WWII veterans say have fought. The best moments in European history were not moments of national retreat, but of cultural exchange. The EU is grounded in our shared culture and values. Those who say they ‘love Europe and hate the EU’ are like misogynists saying they ‘love women, hate feminism’.

The EU is not a nation-state in the making. It might appear paradoxical that the idea of a unified Europe is concomitant to the rise of the nation-state; yet many of those who sought to build the nation dreamed of Europe alongside the nation. Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian ideologue of the nation who fought in the Risorgimento, but also believed in a Europe of republics. In 1847, Victor Hugo talked of a ‘United States of Europe’ at the International Peace Congress. In 1867, a mere six years after Italy was declared an independent nation-state, Giuseppe Garibaldi, General in the Risorgimento, attended the congress of the League of Peace and Freedom in Geneva alongside Victor Hugo and John Stuart Mill. Europe came together only after two devastating wars.

The idea of Europe was, therefore, to be always ‘beyond’ nationalism. To think of the European project as a project for a unified nation state is therefore to misunderstand its premise. The EU’s motto ‘unity in diversity’ cautions against the imposition of homogeneity, typical of the nation-state (see post on the nation). It is not about melting into one, but being united in diversity. The EU anthem, the best in the world, as one of my respondents said, is about friendship, not borders.

The EU is the only example of an entity that seeks democratic international governance. This has been obstructed mostly by national leaders who want to cling on their power instead of ensuring more democracy. However, to think that the EU needs to become a nation-state (or superstate) to be able to function shows a reliance on a 20th century paradigm. If we want Europe to be about respect for diversity and cultural exchange, then politicians need to value cities, regions and the EU alongside the state. Yet, if we seek a EU that is trusted by its citizens, we need our national media to become less parochial, and we need to have a European media making possible effective scrutiny of EU institutions and bringing the EU closer to its citizens. If we want the EU to live up to its values, need film-makers to tell our story.

This entry was posted in European Union, nation, race/diversity, transnationalism/postnationalism, UK and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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