Friday, 6 January 2012

6 January 2012

If you’re travelling abroad, and someone asks you where you’re from, what do you say? England? Scotland? Britain?

I usually say England (or even London – everyone has heard of London). What I never say is Europe.

Ask an Indian, or a Chinese, where they’re from, do they say Asia? Would a Kenyan, or a Nigerian, say Africa? I doubt it.

On the other hand, the Indians and the Chinese don’t share a common currency; nor is there an Asian Union. We Europeans are different, at least in theory, because there is a common currency, and there is a European Union. Whether we really feel European, though, is a moot point.

According to a provocative article in the latest issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “the European Union was built on the myth that we are one people with one common destiny.”

The Brussels-based journalist Gareth Harding writes: “The British view of the state's role is very different from the French view. The Greek or Italian concept of law is very different from that of Sweden or Denmark. Latvians have a very different view of Russia from Germans. What an Irishman is prepared to pay in taxes is very different from what a Dane or Belgian will allow.”

He quotes the Dutch writer Geert Mak: “There is no European people … There is not a single language, but dozens of them. The Italians feel very differently about the word ‘state’ than do the Swedes. There are still no truly European political parties, and pan-European newspapers and television stations still lead a marginal existence. And, above all: in Europe there is very little in the way of a shared historical experience.”

You may remember that in one of my newsletters last month, after the drama of the Cameron veto in Brussels, I asked whether the EU has perhaps become “too unwieldy, too stretched as a concept and too unbalanced as an economic entity, to survive the immense stresses to which it is now being subjected?”

Harding’s question is a broader one: he suggests that the current debt crisis, and the doubts about the future of the euro, “encapsulate a broader breakdown of Europe's dreams of a united future.

“Rather than bringing the European Union closer to its citizens, the currency has widened the gap between rulers and ruled. Instead of ushering in a new era of prosperity, the euro has condemned millions of Europeans to decades of penury. And far from bringing together the peoples of Europe, it is on the verge of tearing them apart.”

But there is, of course, another side to the story. Over the past 60 years, most of Europe has experienced an unprecedented era of peace: Germany has invaded none of its neighbours; and no fewer than nine nations that had been subsumed into the Soviet empire are now free of those shackles.

The EU should certainly be given at least some of the credit for that, as it should for the rapid democratisation of what used to be Eastern Europe, and for Serbia’s and Croatia’s achievements in opening up a new chapter after the horrors of the break-up of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The prospect of being able to join the EU was a powerful incentive in both Belgrade and Zagreb as they emerged from those bloody conflicts.

But in times of economic hardship, people always look for someone to blame. There are growing signs of anti-foreigner sentiment in many northern EU countries (the “foreigners” include both migrants from north Africa as well as those from eastern Europe), while in Italy and Greece, for example, corrupt or ineffective political elites and bankers seem to bear the brunt of the anger.

Harding may well be over-stating it when he suggests that the current crisis is on the verge of tearing the peoples of Europe apart. But the strains are there for all to see –and they represent a huge challenge to the EU’s leaders as they try to navigate their way through 2012.

I’m going to be in Cairo next week, to take a closer look at the impact of the Arab uprisings. I hope you’ll listen out for our reports next Thursday and Friday.

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