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On Course with European Identity

Pieces of a European puzzle, photo: Cemre/flickr

South Wales is not renowned as a symbol of European identity. Indeed, if you were fortunate enough to watch the drama unfold at the 38th Ryder Cup last week – the biennial golfing contest between Europe and the USA – you might have missed the phenomenon occurring beyond the playing area.

Yes, what might just have passed for a raucous band of Brussels bureaucrats on tour was, in fact, a crowd of 50,000 European golf fans (many of them British) bedecked in blue and yellow – many literally wrapped in the EU flag – cheering on their team with endless chants of ‘Europe, Europe’. For this supporter, bred on a British media diet of fear and skepticism regarding the Brussels ‘takeover’, the passionate display of ‘europeanness’ was faintly startling.

Put the tournament in its proper context as the one event where Europe is represented as a single team and with a television audience of one billion people (making this the third largest sporting event in the world) and you’ll understand why President Barroso of the European Commission was positively giddy as he opened proceedings.  Remember, this is also from the perspective of a country where 71 percent want a referendum on EU membership, and of a Union to which less than half its members’ populations feel any attachment.

But what does it say about European identity when its most fervent popular expression is in a sport characterized by birdies, bogeys and bunkers?

Well, firstly, the challenge of sustaining a European identity has got harder since the end of the Cold War – when the shared political and ideological narrative that had sustained postwar integration for three generations collapsed. At the same time, the need for a strong narrative has increased in order to supplement far less emotive economic ties – and so to legitimize major developments in legal integration, a Eurozone, and an (ever-expanding) 27-member Union.

Secondly, the lack of identification with the EU underlines the ongoing failure to achieve political consensus on the fundamental questions of what, and where, is Europe.

The membership of European institutions illustrates the lack of a coherent rationale for defining who is ‘European’. For instance, the OSCE and Council of Europe includes states such as Tajikistan on the Chinese border, while Israel participates in European football tournaments and cultural events like Eurovision. Look to the EU, which to many serves (inaccurately) as a by-word for Europe, and the picture is no clearer – with some pundits asking half-seriously why, if Turkey is a potential member, why not its neighbor Iraq?

EU leaders have previously tried (and failed) to provide the logic for integration by retelling European history as a kind of mythological path to nationhood – so making official ‘EU symbols’ out of Greek goddesses. Not only does such an approach fabricate identities that were not shared beyond geographical proximity, it puts emphasis on commonalities that did exist, such as Europe’s Judeo-Christian roots. This only encourages polarizing policies and leads European togetherness to be formed in negative terms – in opposition to an ‘other’, whether that be the US (under George W. Bush), Islam (since 9/11) or, increasingly, immigrants.

Last week’s popular conception of Europe follows the Australian model of how sport can foster identity – precisely because it serves as a positive metaphor for the European project, where different nationalities pool their talents to challenge the might of a superpower. The lessons also support the highly persuasive argument that pro-European sentiments can only be maintained by focusing on a common future rather than the tenuous links of the past. This approach puts shared goals at the heart of European identity and as the rationale for further integration – goals that could be defined as ‘freedom, peace, law, prosperity, diversity and solidarity’. We can therefore embrace the very real differences past and present, and so use the past to evaluate progress from the (very recent) dark chapters in European history, rather than as a means for laying the theoretical groundwork for a ‘United States of Europe’.

Ultimately, depending on your view, you will either see the EU motto of ‘unity through diversity’ as a bold vision for binding different traditions, histories, languages and cultures; or as a sorry acceptance of intractable divisions. Perhaps, while we wait for consensus, the EU might be advised to invest in some true ‘shared interests’.

More golf anyone?

One Response to “On Course with European Identity”

  1. I was born a protestant in Northern Ireland and lived there through the peace marches and early riots of 1968 /69 I have always lived with the issue of identity. Who am I? My upbringing was clearly not Irish, but if I was a “Loyalist” who was I loyal to? Certainly not the British Government since my county men were ready to declare total independence from the British whenever they thought power sharing was going to be forced on them in the 1980’s by Harold Wilson . They did go on strike and managed to almost completely ruin the county they said they were protecting.
    Peace or as close as we can get to peace only came about when the leaders from both sides ,held out a vision of a shared ,prosperous and peaceful future and rejected the political dogma of the past that relived and rekindled old battles , fears and prejudices . EU has to do the same, it can only be about a shared vision and the politicians have to have the courage to stand up and explain this.