In a controversial speech, Klaus Welle MEP, the Parliament’s Secretary General said more was needed to foster a collective European identity. This was a bold and blusterous statement, but he makes an interesting case. Is this the right attitude for Europeans, a collection of separate peoples with embedded cultures forged over thousands of years, or pointless and hopeful federalism?
During his tenure as Secretary General, Welle has generated some interesting ideas. He commissioned the Parliamentarium, the ultra-expensive visitor centre in the Parliament complex in Brussels last year, suggested buying an iPad for every MEP. He makes bold statements, but this is all part of his remit. He has been charged with the exceptionally hard task of making the European Parliament matter to ordinary EU citizens.
If he can make the citizenry feel more European, this will help him battle apathy measured by low voter turnout. In 2009 voter turnout in European elections averaged 43%; the lowest ever with some member states below 20%. His suggestion of fostering a European identity is flawed though and unlikely to succeed.
Against this backdrop Welle’s suggestion is well intentioned, but ignores the feeling and passion amongst people that national identities create. While it is possible to feel generally proud of European (nee Western) culture, people, especially in the bigger EU countries will always see themselves as a national first. A British MP told me recently “I am Welsh first, British second and European third”. Imagine how aggrieved a proud Parisian would feel should they find a Slovakian boasting about that famous European painter Toulouse-Lautrec. They would feel the same way as the Swiss would if a Portuguese person claimed William Tell as their own. This attitude is exeplified by French plans to build a Napoleon theme-park.
Europeans are too diverse and culturally/linguistically entrenched to feel European above their own nationalities, but this is not to totally reject similarities or reasons to be proud of Europe. There are of course strands of history that can be celebrated, but the inconvenient truth is much of Europe’s history is more about rivalry than unity. It’s only since World War Two ended we’ve started to properly work together as a continent and it’s this recent work, leading the world on human rights, climate and development that should be celebrated, not trying to manipulate history and shoehorn a culture that doesn’t fit on to already sceptical Europeans.
What would an EU identity look like anyway? Apart from football and decent cars there aren’t many components of a European culture that everyone could agree on, especially in a union of 27 states. But this is to be celebrated as nowhere else on earth do you have such an incredibly vibrant mix of cultures, languages and cuisines all bound up in one relatively small geographic area. The fact Europe is so tolerant and appreciative of its individual cultures and not imposing on others is a key strength in Europe.
If you leave the continent, you’ll see European history is lumped together as one narrative for students in North America and Asia. They generally teach the major themes, such as the renaissance era, religious wars, revolutions leading up to the rise of empires and the ‘Great Power Wars’. The teaching is very thematic looking at how issues affected things cross border, not paying particular credence to individual nation states.
Contrast this with history teaching in Europe and it’s a different story. Each nation state will have a deeper understanding of their own member state history and often fail to link these events to other countries and appreciate the interconnectedness. For example if studying in the UK, you will learn how Henry VIII adopted Protestantism in order to ditch his wife, totally ignoring how Luther’s thesis was revolutionising religion across Central and Western Europe. In Italy, the Risorgimento is studied in minute detail, but minus the analysis of how Cavour and Garibaldi were inspired by other unification movements on the continent, let alone material and political support from France. There is a good argument to have European history taught in schools, but alongside national histories, giving students the balance of the general trends and the minute detail to understand their own past and the way nations interact with each other.
Welle’s idea is fundamentally flawed. For most people, the charm of Europe is in the differences and variety. Yes, of course there are obvious similarities such as religion, the belief in liberal democracy and the welfare state, but we should celebrate our differences. If Welle really wants to get more people to vote, he should look at real principles affecting the EU, such as getting the elected EuroParl the power to propose legislation instead of the undemocratic Commission rather than gimmicks like this.