The EU is the real protector of national identities

A northern European who has long made their home in England reflects from Austria on the odd unease that the English still have with expressions of national identity

Alex Paterson
3 April 2017

What are the unproblematic expressions of English identity? (CC licensed)

I am writing this note from a holiday in Austria, just as my adoptive home - I moved to England many years ago as a young adult - has formally decided to hand in Article 50. It is interesting reading the German and Austrian press, and seeing the news from here. From the Kronen Zeitung (an Austrian tabloid) to the ever-serious Frankfurter Allgemeine, the tone is factual and calm. They are largely commenting on “higher things,” like what will happen to Europeans in Britain,  and whether Britain has an independent judiciary and can be relied on to protect the rights of minorities in the future. Most importantly, the impression from this corner of its press is that Europeans really believe in Europe. It is not a transactional matter for them. It has a real existence for them as perhaps it never had for many in England.

There seems to be a wide German consensus that May cannot cherry pick, that the separation terms must be agreed on first, and that Brexit will be about Europe’s future unity.  There was a frosty reception to May’s mentioning security 11 times in her letter. And the German-language newspapers emphasize that showing emotions is not the way to go. There is a job to be done untangling Britain, and it must be done professionally and in such a way that the unity, indeed the concept of Europe, is only minimally damaged.

In the ORF (the Austrian national broadcaster) hour-long programme on Brexit on March 29, Nigel Farage got more airtime than anyone else. While they had bought rights to Laura Kuensberg’s BBC programme and scissored in from that, it was interesting what they added: interviews with Bulgarian labourers and Austrian City workers in the UK, as well as interviews with pro-European English and Scottish people (including the British civil servants now trying to stay in Belgium).

The TV programme added data on how easy it is to get a European passport for the British in Europe, interviewing British nationals who are now getting second passports. It spoke of how hard the Home Office is making it for Europeans—the 140 year back-up, the 85-page form (they had a lawyer explaining its impossibilities). One Austrian banker made an important observation: now, as the banks move to Europe, the employees with EU passports will be sent there first and preferentially. So there’s a sort of pragmatic “nationality sorting” already being planned in the City.

A few words only about trade in the ORF Brexit programme, and no interest and engagement of any kind with England’s “Empire 2.0” plans. Instead, German-speaking Europeans mostly seem to see Brexit as an expression of xenophobia, ethno-nationalism, and anti-immigration. It is seen as an alt-right phenomenon: as plebiscite majoritarianism, where the “wahre Volkswillen,” “the true will of the people” is used by populist demagogues to silence more consensual democratic norms.

The German press and TV  link May to Trump, and even Erdogan and other hard men. It is not lost on the Germans that the AfD is the only German party supporting Brexit – alongside Putin and Trump, Le Pen and Wilders. TV and press here also show great compassion for, and attention to, anti-Brexit British people.

Perhaps what most surprises the English in this reaction is that in recent years, the Germans have found a new joy in being bodenständig (natively and innately linked to their Heimat) and volksnah (folksy, down-to-earth). Many Germans are (finally) able to take an uncomplicated pride in their pre-industrial folk traditions—festivals, dress, food, architecture and so on. And they do so in a benign way, like the Norwegians or the Scots. Trachten (traditional dress) is for everyone (in our hotel, for a Middle Eastern girl working at the reception). Just like kilts are for everyone. (A special kilt was recently created for the orthodox Jews of Scotland, and I remember a Jamaican taxi driver proudly showing me his wedding photo--he looked splendid in his kilt, his Scottish wife next to him). Such folk traditions manage to signify both rootedness and openness at once. They are not so much invented traditions as unfolded traditions, allowing all in, and providing a bridge between incomer and oldtimer.

This relaxedness about place and folksiness, perhaps most striking in the southern German-speaking realms, is something that seems to be happening all over Europe. I have long thought that soon Europeans will mostly all be wearing folk dress at fine occasions (as they do at PhD ceremonies at Uppsala university, as a legitimate alternative to white tie). All over Europe, including Scotland. But not in England.  My daughter recently graduated from her senior school in England wearing a folk dress from my family’s ancestral parish. Her English friends were defaulted onto on an awkward white dress the school had designed, while her international friends wore their gorgeous national costumes, and the Scottish boys looked a treat in kilts. The school ran a clunky “where are you from” questionnaire to approve each teenager’s choice; that became the moment—the first moment really—when one of my daughter’s impeccably Anglicised friends affirmed her German Jewish ancestry—of course she wanted to wear a dirndl, rather than the meaningless default the school had created for its English pupils!

The invisibility of Englishness may well be at the heart of what has happened in England this last year. Perhaps Brexit came about because the English inchoately felt they had too few traditions, too little real outlet for their identity. Or perhaps they felt that their traditions and identity--the notion of how to be English--had been too entangled by class--hijacked by the posh. Tweed plus-fours, Oxford colleges, London clubs and the Eton wall game is no comfort to most people. The most hallowed ritual enactments of Englishness are highly class-exclusionary, and really for men only; they take place on semi-colonized grounds like the Highlands; and center on  master-servant relations--loaders and beaters, fishing ghillies and stalkers.

What else exists--what other outlet there is to skillfully, elaborately and symbolically re-enact and thus construct a national identity--is fairly patchy and, with the exception of gardening perhaps, rarely practiced: it has few sanctioned outlets. Why is England so different from elsewhere in Europe in that regard? I don’t know: was it that early industrialisation, crueller even than its later forms, crushed the folk cultures as happened nowhere else to the same extent?

Perhaps, if you feel secure in your heritage, and are happy to affirm it, you can more easily be a good European. And perhaps also,  you are then more willing to offer it to others, to make the symbols of your identity available to those who have elected--or been forced--to make a home “elsewhere”. There’s a joy in that - we’re more and more mixed-up now, and so our “heritage” is more merrily self-willed and hand-picked. But it is no less real and heartfelt for that. Secure and confident Europeans make elective national identities a joyful game, a fluid yet rooted reality.

So maybe what we have in England is the lack of a secure identity - as elaborated and enacted in activities, dress, food, music, festivals, and, ultimately, meaningful political institutions. Maybe that lack is what makes the English cling to their anti-immigrant and “take back control” stance.

A friend of mine just married a Latvian. She enthusiastically knitted us all traditional Latvian gloves, while making birch wine and going berry and mushroom hunting. These are all childhood things for her. It is a core part of her, and a joy to her. But “foraging” had to be re-invented in England, promoted by the BBC, and perhaps was nothing more than a passing fad.

Does Europe’s history put it in a position today that allows it to enjoy the expressions of  national and regional traditions without the paranoia, jealousy or repression so characteristic of English expressions of identity? It is Europe today that can offer peaceful respect between cultures and peoples, stable democracy, and real, visceral and positive attachments to place. Perhaps, in a wonderful twist of history, Herder’s vision of the Volk is finding a safe realisation in the sharing of national sovereignty that wider Europe offers.

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