What does European identity mean? What is distinctive about it? How can we assert it without falling into narratives of western superiority? Listen to the UK Remainers!
I did not always feel European.
I am a Belgian — probably the most European of all EU nationalities (what with “Brussels” so often being used as a synonym for the EU), I was born in Belgium and I grew up there. I lived there for 33 years.
But I did not look Belgian. I looked foreign. Especially in the summer. Our house smelled foreign. The neighbours would complain, of smells of rendang, laksa soup, and bakute. Nevertheless, we tried to blend in.
My father is Malaysian, and grew up in a small village of fishermen. He met my mother in Ostend. She volunteered in a centre for immigrants. If it weren’t for her, and that unpredictable, unexpected spark of love between them, he was going to be sent back. This was the mid-1970s. Europe was closing its doors. My father wasn’t a refugee fleeing war, he was simply looking for a better life in Europe.
Malaysia was a colony of the UK until it gained independence in 1963. In the 1970s, it was still dealing with the aftermath of colonialism and combating poverty. My father wished to move to Germany; he believed he could through hard work make a decent life. But he ended up in Belgium. He has been a bricklayer who indeed worked very hard — so hard it damaged his back and joints permanently at the age of 50. Our family struggled at times.
Our household had the work ethic of Asian households. My sister and I studied intensely. We play musical instruments (she plays the sax, I play the Renaissance lute). We read the canon of western classics while we were young teenagers. We visited museums in our spare time. I did well in languages and humanities. She excelled in STEM subjects. We both got PhDs (she in physics, I in philosophy and archaeology).
And all the while we had to hear we were not “true Belgians”, and more often, not “true Flemings” (northern Belgians). Common questions of people (mostly adults) who just only met me or who would only know me superficially would include: Are you adopted? Where are you from? No, I mean, where are you actually from? OK, you were born in Belgium, but where are your parents from? Oh your father’s from Malaysia, is he? Isn’t that somewhere in Asia? (or, more often: I never heard of it) Do you go back often? Don’t you miss it there?
We’re in the 1980s, a small village in Flanders, very white, very Catholic. I didn’t feel Belgian, and I certainly did not feel Flemish.
As European integration became more a reality in the early to mid 1990s, I started to self-identify more and more as “European”. When a teacher in my secondary school asked the class whether we self-identified first as Belgian or as Flemish, I said, proudly, I am European. He thought that was a cop-out.
Being European is not tied to a racial identity, in the same way as being Belgian or Flemish seemed to be, at least in my experience. Being European was not a narrow identity, but a broad tent where many different people fit, regardless of their religious belief (or lack thereof), the colour of their skin, the languages they speak.
Though I am a Christian myself, I never understood the idea that Europe would, or ought to be essentially “Christian”. There have always been non-Christians in Europe (including e.g., the Nordic religions), there was a historical presence of Islam in Spain and central Europe, and the Muslims who have made their home in Europe aren’t going anywhere. There are increasingly many agnostics and atheists of various stripes. Europe has been religiously diverse, and its future is one of religious diversity.
Rising anti-Muslim sentiment is worrisome because Muslim communities are an integral part of communities within the EU. They share European values. To ignore or belittle those communities is to deny they’re part of one big fabric, one body as it were, to use a metaphor that both Paul and neo-Confucian philosophers used. If we function as a body, we need to acknowledge all its members. We can’t afford to be numb towards some members of society, who are in fact part of our society, all European.
To see that Europe was not homogeneously white, not even in the Middle Ages, it is useful to follow the wonderful Twitter feed Medieval People of Color. Even founders of European thought were not homogeneously white and of European origin. Augustine of Hippo (345–430 AD), who shaped Western Christianity, was African, born of Berber parents.
What, exactly, is being European?
If it is not tied to race, or creed, if its people are so diverse in their cuisines, languages, and social structures what is it? The EU struggles with this question, trying to eek out an identity with such initiatives as the House of European History (pictured below) and its anthem of Beethoven’s ninth symphony. In this, the EU competes with decades, centuries of state-funded propaganda of “state building”. To build Belgium — an uneasy alliance of different linguistic communities (Dutch, French, and a bit of German) it was necessary to dig up and glorify semi-legendary Belgian heroes such as the Gaelic warrior-prince Ambiorix. I fear the efforts of the EU to shape an identity are too little, and insufficient against the widespread Euroscepticism. While Brexit has lessened anti-EU sentiment, it has not gone away.
There is a worry that “European” becomes synonymous to superiority, as in that dismissive phrase, “the west and the rest”, those industrious Europeans who through their science, their Christianity, and their technology, managed to subdue and overpower the rest of the world. Some authors like Niall Ferguson thinks we should recall the great superiority of our European, western past so as not to be overshadowed. Initiatives such as the Western Civilisation degree at the University of Wollongong buy into this nostalgic, and mistaken, picture of Europe. But as Catherine Coleborne says:
“Western civilisation is a concept partly based on the belief that the world can be divided neatly into west and east, for example, the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, and those of Asia and Islam. However this denies centuries of complex systems of trade, communication and cultural exchange between different peoples.”
She cites the enduring links with the Ottoman empire and the Western European peoples and cultures. The idea of “western civilization” grew as recently as after World War II, a way for “historians to reassert the dominance of western nations because it allowed the Anglo-American victors of war to tell their story as having a longer history.” Other historians, such as Ian Morris, think that western domination (of recent history) is a matter of historical luck, not because of some inherent cultural superiority.
I feel conflicted about Europe. I love it, but am also infuriated by it. Europe faces big existential challenges, such as climate change, the refugee crisis, the squeezed middle class, and an ageing population. Being connected in a larger whole is a way to deal with those problems comprehensively. The individual nation state, that successful construct of the modern period, cannot deal with tax evading millionaires and huge corporations. Perhaps the EU can.
Living in Brexit Britain, I have seen a most unusual thing, namely that my love for Europe which I put down in part to a lack of perceived belonging within the narrow constraints of the nation state or region, is much more widespread than I thought. English people with the proverbial four English grandparents feel European, and worry about their EU citizenship being taken away without their consent. You can be a deeply rooted person within a local community, and feel European. You can be (like me) someone who feels conflicted about their nationality and not very rooted, and feel European.
Perhaps Remainers can help us identify what a European identity is. The EU should listen to them, listen to their laments, their worries, their fears of what they are about to lose — before it is too late. What are they saying?
1. Europe is a peace project. It is about building lasting ties of unity between diverse nations, where war cannot be ever a live option again.
2. Europe is cosmopolitan. Precisely because the different nation states are so diverse, Europe is a wide range of people, customs, cuisines. And while many people of Europe will only travel to other countries, the EU offers the possibility for ordinary people to still settle permanently in other countries. Plumbers. Nurses. Hospitality workers. Students who fall in love while studying abroad on the Erasmus scheme. Pensioners on modest incomes wishing to find a milder climate. These are not elite workers on high wages. Elite workers on high wages can find jobs anywhere, regardless of visa situation (I am still surprised, coming from a modest, working class background to be in this demographic, but I am. I have had several invites to apply for senior positions including in Ireland, Norway, the US. I would need a visa for the US, but my education and skills open many doors for me. But most people do not have this fortune). The UK now wishes to restrict EU workers who wish to settle permanently to an income threshold of at least 30k. They are selling this as making sure we do not jump the queue. But they make life more difficult for British employers, and for ordinary British people who want to try to make their life elsewhere.
3. Europe is forward-looking. The model of the nation state fitted the 19th century, but the model is not working anymore. It is not working because the very rich, by influencing policy and by tax evasion do not pay into the system, whereas others are getting squeezed. The EU does take on big corporations like Apple and Amazon, I would say much more vigorously than the US does. The consumer protections are stronger. This strikes me as distinctively a project of the EU.
Overall then, the EU is a project for people. For ordinary people, regardless of skin colour or religious belief, or nationality. It is a project of people power.
We should cherish and treasure it.🔷
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(This piece was originally published on Medium. | The author writes in a personal capacity.)