Can Europe Make It?

Nations are like ingredients: they need to breathe fresh air on their own to spread their true flavour

Christoph Heuermann
10 March 2014

My last article dealt with the issues of free migration. Yet the basic question is not about the existence of borders on the European map, but about those anchored in our mind and soul - our identity. There is certainly a human need to create one's own borders - to shape an identity - which differs from other individuals. This identity may solely rely on one's own accomplishments, but will more often be connected to a greater collective, be it the hometown community, city, state, nation or even greater constructions.

One of these great constructions is the European Identity. It is shaped by spanish sangria and german beer, french croissants and italian ciabatta, greek gyros, british fish & chips, polish vodka and hungarian wine, not to mention dozens of other regional specialties. Who so ever mixes all these ingredients into one big pot knows that the outcome won't be very tasty – though on their own, every ingredient itself is.

Ingredients are like countries: they need to breathe fresh air on their own to spread their true flavour. If however forced together in one big melting pot, there could possibly be an explosion. Just a hundred years ago this happened in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire: a typical melting pot of diverse countries and cultures. Regarding the voluntary actions of individuals, this melting pot was a good thing: the diversity made its capital of Vienna a prosperous city with the top scientists and artists of the age. Though in its periphery, the greater collective forcefully repressed the minorities, which eventually led to the outbreak of World War One.

While European integration has brought huge improvements in the conditions of life for its citizens, it should not be regarded as a path which, once pursued, is irrevocable. There is, as such, no path dependency in the integration process; therefore there is no need for further shifting of competences into one centralized organ, as I already argued in my article about European Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Apart from the consequences of centralization there is still the problem of the identity of the centralized organ. It might consider itself the united voice of Europe, but it is just a poker game played by nations. The smaller ones bluff, the bigger ones play their aces. Poker is not about luck, and neither is politics. The big players will eventually win. No surprise, that Germany with its major allies is positioning itself to dictate European politics, while small countries have to follow suit.

Speaking of a common identity by settling citizens of different countries in one city and generously rewarding them for crazy regulations does not solve this problem. Brussels may be the melting pot of today's Europe, but it is certainly not the new Vienna - though one likewise probably loses sight of what happens in the periphery. Drowning immigrants at its southern borders, revolution at its eastern borders. To the west, it expects its further unification with the United States from the Free Trade Agreement, while it struggles to incorporate the northern countries. Iceland wants to remain independent, while Norway is unlikely to join the European Union. England, always struggling with the continental Europeans, continues to act obdurately on major issues of European politics.

A common European identity is not even in sight - it cannot be as long as attempts are made to try and enforce it. The youth won't consider themselves Europeans by having to visit the European Parliament. Students won't consider themselves Europeans after an Erasmus exchange semester. Professionals won't consider themselves Europeans after doing business in its countries and retired seniors won't consider themselves Europeans by moving around in search of the best climate. They will stick to their nations, their states, their communities. At best, they do not need any collective identity to rely on, but find their identity in themselves.

Doubtless, some people consider themselves Europeans, probably benefiting substantially from its political machine. This is in principle not bad. Every individual is free to choose his or her own identity. However, like nationalism there is the danger of Europeanism. Nationalism has already brought us untold sorrow, what about Europeanism? New wars provoked by its fantasy to be a great power? Oppression of civil society in the name of tolerance? Economic depression by saving countries without solving their problems?

One thing is for sure. Nationalism on an even greater scale can't be the answer. Better think small. Small is beautiful. Small is colourful. Small is the individual. Europe's task is to create the conditions wherein individuals can thrive, not to create collectives. The answer on emerging nationalism is not more nationalism, it is recognizing the individual apart from tax IDs.

Neither Europe nor its bureaucrats own its citizens, we own ourselves. Encouraging everyone's own identity as an individual will wither away borders and secure peace. European integration has to serve this purpose, not counteract it. Idealistic? Maybe! However, repeating errors of the past won't help either. It will destroy Europe and its accomplishments. Unfortunately, history is the best teacher but with the worst students!

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