< SWITCH ME >
European identity is a sandwich. That was one of the conclusions from the "Does Europe lack cohesion?" event organised by the Körber Foundation, Eurozine, Europa neuer Ideen e.V. and E&M as part of the series Europe@Debate. A sandwich because you can add different layers - such as local, regional, national or European identities - and because adding one doesn't mean you need to take out another. That is, European identity is diverse and not exclusive.
The metaphor was created by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić when Matthias Naß, International Correspondent for Die ZEIT and the panel moderator, asked the participants how they would describe the European identity they define themselves with. Drakulić brought up the sandwich, E&M's Julia Schulte mentioned politics as in the achievement of democracy and freedom of movement, and Saila Huusko, from FutureLabEurope, explained it was something she first felt when she was studying abroad in the US. The truth is, it is the eternal question in Europe, and the answers always seem to be highly dependant on metaphorical references like that of Drakulić's sandwich.
Philosophical symbols vs tangible experiences
In a previous article, Mourad Mahidi came up with the idea that European identity is a rooftop built upon national identities gathering the values they have in common. "It is more like a philosophical concept," he said. And looking at Hamburg's event, European identity was indeed seen as a set of values rather than tangible common experiences.
Drakulić and Schulte both agreed that all national identities are an artificial construction, and that what Europe needs is a leadership that takes those values and convinces the citizens to adopt the construction. "If big parties don't address this, nationalists or extremists will take their place," warned Drakulić.
"Travelling Europe" is what many students name as their favourite summer activity. But where is Europe? Geographically a broad approach still seems possible; politically and as a question of identity, borders are reached far quicker. This summer I tried to find Europe outside the EU setting. I travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country that has always been a passage for European nations, that has seen some of the most brutal crimes of the 20th century only twenty years ago and that is still struggling to reconnect the former warring parties. I wanted to see the process of reconciliation and the rapprochement towards the rest of "Europe" as it is carried out by our generation. Here is my quest for a European identity in a country that hardly knows its own:
Part 1: Beautiful and Damned – Mostar and the Herzegovina
The very first thing I notice about Bosnia and Herzegovina is that it is strikingly beautiful. Crossing the south western border from Croatia by bus, I am half expecting to see the same grey and slightly shabby buildings you still find in some Ex-Soviet countries. But the houses here are newly built, and with the rocky, richly green mountains behind them, you could picture being somewhere in Austria or Slovenia. Between the cliffs runs the bluish-dark green Neretva river; here rather shallow with sandbanks of white gravel. Behind the houses, vineyards climb up the hillsides. Open market stands offer fresh fruit at the sides of the streets.
But the image changes dramatically when the bus reaches the first town, Čapljina. The old multiple dwellings still show holes from shell fire. Colours are completely missing, the houses scream for renovation. Later I find out that the concentration camp Dretelj was in this area. The war has left its scars.
From here on, the war won't let go of me anymore. I made a resolution not to write about it and only investigate the future of this region. But I have to give it up before even unpacking my suitcase. Reaching Mostar, my landlady picks me up at the station and immediately starts talking about the fighting in the area, pointing out ruins and front lines on our way to the hostel. A war tour with her son is scheduled for the next morning. War tourism is what everybody expects me to do.
Bosnia and Herzegovina's economy never actually recovered from the war: today the unemployment rate is higher than 40 percent and the economy suffers from a lack of investment and too much bureaucracy and corruption. I try to order Mostarsko beer from a restaurant's menu - the waiter shakes his head with a sad smile because the brewery went bankrupt a few months ago.
"Mostar had five factories before the war, now there are none left," tells me Nino, our tour guide, who was six when the war started. Everybody here is an expert on the war, everybody has a personal story to tell and thus, with more and more tourists coming, they live off the war. But when I ask Nino why the war happened in the first place he shrugs and says with his slight stutter: "I don't know. Before the war we had everything: jobs, health care, free education. I guess the Serbs attacked."
Imagine Europe in ten, thirty, fifty years. Will we ever be able to build a European identity or will Europe turn into one large museum? Leire Ariz investigates what young Europeans in Brussels have to say about Slavenka Drakulić’s predictions for the old continent.
Carmen Păun is a volunteer for the European Youth Press in Brussels. Like many of the young people in the bubble, she came from Romania to study in a masters programme, and after several internships, settled for a job. She has a German friend of Chinese origin who once told her jokingly: "China can turn Europe into a parking lot."
Museums are for the past
It is a similar statement to that made by journalist Slavenka Drakulić, who was interviewed in E&M's latest issue. Her vision of Europe's future suited that of a theme park. "The continent will be flooded with tourists, mostly from the east, who look at the Old Continent as we now look at Babylon."
Păun is sceptical about the EU's future the way we know it, but doesn't believe Europe will be reduced to a tourist attraction. "Did Russia become an iconic park for communism? Not really," she says.
In general, people in Brussels tend to disagree with pessimistic views about Europe's coming years. It may be because people who come here usually do so because they are convinced Europeanists, or because many have academic backgrounds related to the EU, or simply because their work future is often closely related to that of the continent.
Carmen, Jeremy, Francesco, Mourad and Kaltrina - all five of the bubble-inhabitants I spoke to had amendments to make to Drakulić's prediction. Jeremy, a Belgian journalist, put it in a way that summed it up: "museums are for the past! European identity is in its childhood."
Ever heard of Council Regulation 36/2012? Wondering what 2011/782/CFSP refers to? Exactly. EU-Officials are struggling to foster people's interest in European affairs. Meanwhile, young people have become fully fledged Europeans on quite a different level.
The founders of InterRail got it right when they initiated the Europe-wide train pass that allows young people to travel conveniently across our continent. In 2012 they celebrate InterRail's 40th anniversary and still carry some 250 000 travellers each year. The idea is simple: Get young Europeans to explore their neighbouring countries. This is not only an affordable way to spend enjoyable holidays abroad, but it furthers the travellers' awareness of what binds people together in Europe. A conversation with a random foreigner tells you much more about a country than any political communiqué or travel guide. Exploring the similarities and differences between European countries through travelling is the most obvious way to find out what Europe really is. At the end of the day, a European identity can only grow from within the population, not through regulations and policies.
While governing politicians across Europe are pushing for further integration in order to overcome the debt crisis, the people are not necessarily so enthusiastic, as the success of Eurosceptic parties demonstrates (in the upcoming elections in France, Eurosceptic parties from the extreme right and the left are expected to gain about 30%). Worse, most European citizens know little or nothing about what is going on in Brussels. European representatives lead a shadowy existence, remote from the public. Apparently, the EU is an attempt at European governance without a people that is interested - without a "European people." This unbalanced situation does not exactly help to increase support for the European project.