Dear friends who love the European Union,
I used to be, just like you are now, a very passionate Europhile and I was full of enthusiasm for the idea of a united Europe. Having grown up with the teachings of history from half a century earlier still very present in my mind, I thought that the European Union was the only thing that could save Europe from another catastrophe and the reemergence of nationalism. But not only that: I just thought that the whole thing about the European Union was a very great, even noble, idea. I though I would be very proud to be able to call myself a true European, a citizen of Europe as the cradle of modern civilization, a fortress of enlightenment and progress.
After having lived for 10 years in a different European country from the one I was born, I have come to think otherwise. It is not because of a lack of principles. It is because abstract ideals and practical human realities are always very different things.
I have spent the last years in a country, Germany, that after having committed his good share of atrocities in the past, has converted to the European cause so entirely that the whole European project would be unthinkable without Germany playing a significant role in it. Some critics believe, and probably rightly so, that the whole idea of a European Union is a German project. Germany, in particular after the reunification of 1990, has become not only the economic leader, but the moral force behind the European Union, especially for how it lead Europe in the aftermath of the long economic crisis that started in 2009 and for many European countries became acute and almost unsustainable in 2010 and 2011.
Brexit was a day of mourning in Germany. The Germans felt themselves betrayed and could not understand how one could possibly want to leave a community like the European Union that theoretically stands for everything that is good and modern in our contemporary world. Why were the British leaving? Is it because they are, after all, just a bunch of racists? At times, it looked like nobody could come up with a better explanation than that. Somebody else spoke of the nefarious influence of the omnipresent Russian propaganda on the British vote. Not many people came out saying that sounded too absurd.
Germany sees itself now as the perfect embodiment of these most progressive of Western values like tolerance, freedom, democracy and absence of racism. Nobody in 2018 would ever dispute that tolerance, freedom, democracy and absence of racism are good things. So these are actually the most fundamental European values. But do these value provide a foundation for a common European identity? Does a common European identity exist? Cannot a country, a nation, share these common values, without necessarily signing up to this fabled common European identity?
Because, what is actually European identity? And can there be a European Union without a European identity? Or would it be the task of the European Union have to create and promote a European identity? Is it enough for some 20-year-old to have spent one semester abroad doing his Erasmus to become, all of a sudden, a complete European citizen? In my country of origin, Italy, young people, in spite of everything, are extremely open to the world and full of enthusiasm for Europe, the European Union and the whole European project. The Italian esterofilia, a love for all things foreign, of course has very much to do with a typically Italy inferiority complex. Young Italians have come to distrust and resent Italian politics so deeply that they imagine they only salvation can come only from the outside, from Europe. This is one of the reasons why hundred of thousands of young people under 30 have fled Italy. The economy has still not recovered from the crisis that started in 2009. And even before that, prospects were not never exactly rosy for young Italians. How did it come to this? Germans say it is because Italy spent beyond its means. Italians say it is because they did not have an independent monetary policy.
There is probably something that comes close to a sense of European identity when you visit a large European city and you go to some sort international meet-up. You will meet a crowd of urban, twenty-something, decently English-speaking and relatively well educated young people, all for sure, very open and cosmopolitan, curious about the world and other people and, very likely, they are going to love the European Union … because anything else would be retrograde and possibly racist. Racist is probably not even the right world in this context, since theoretically all European people should be of one race, but for lack of a better word, this seems to be the reasoning and the view adopted by those who react very sensitively to any opposition or criticism of the idea of a European Union. What can possibly be wrong with many countries being “united”? Is it better to be “united” rather than being “disunited”? Why would you want to be “disunited”? If European identity, embodied in the instituion of the European Union, sees itself as the repository of sacred European values like human rights, equality, tolerance, inclusiveness and justice, does it mean if you oppose a more extensive European Union, you must be by definition against human rights, equality, tolerance, inclusiveness and justice?
When the European Union was first ideated, in the 1950s, at a time when you could still smell the smoke coming from the ruins provoked by the devastation of World War II, nobody was taking seriously the idea of trasforming what was going to become the European Union as the European equivalent of the United States, a United States of Europe. It was a simple commercial association between free nations, conceived to ease the cooperation and commerce between neighbouring countries. If somebody ever thought of building a United Europe based on some sort of historical European identity, this was certainly not the main idea behind the whole project.
Don’t get me wrong. Free circulation of people within the EU, free trade and that fact that it has become easy for people to make experience in a different country and get to learn other interesting and different people and some foreign languages is indeed a wonderful thing. The thing within the European Union is that it is made of different countries populated by different people. They can live in harmony but people and by extension countries cannot be forced to live in perfect harmony.
Sometimes the feeling is that in a country like Germany, probably the greatest single supporter of the inevitability of the European Union, people just appear to think: why cannot these Greeks, these Italians, be more like us, like Germany, serious workers, instead of having fun and spending more money than they have? At the same time, Germans, ever the romantic dreamers, appear to think that if only the Portugal or Romania could be a bit more like Germany, we could build a real supernational, above the national egoisms, republic of Europe. A republic! For the whole of Europe! One democracy for all. What could possibly be wrong here?
The problem is exactly that the Bulgarians, Italians, Spaniards, not even the Finns, the Poles, the Latvians or the Czech, they do not want to be more like Germany. They cannot, because they are different and they have been different peoples for many a century. And they want to be ruled differently and by different people. A politician of the personal qualities of let’s say, Angela Merkel, would hardly be popular among voters in Central Italy or Andalusia.
As for identities, of course they can always change and nations can be absorbed and created (all nations are up to a certain extent artificial creations), so one day maybe there could be a Europe made up of European nationals, but one must be aware that these processes may take up to several generations. The Soviet Union worked at the creation of a new Soviet identity for seven decades, but in the end it collapsed because, as it was said, you could not possibly force somebody from Estonia, with the Baltic states being among the most advanced and richest areas of the Soviet Union, to live in the same country as somebody from Tajikistand, the Soviet poorest backwater. Was the Soviet idea of unity less pur and noble that the idea of a unity promoted by Europe? Maybe. It certainly appeared to have a more solid historical foundation and even came close to have a common language shared and spoken by most people across the Union. In the end, it collapsed anyway.