Special Report: Being European

Rebecca Hawketts - TCS Reporter 8 June 2009

Its five years since the European Union underwent its first great wave of eastern enlargement. In the run up to the accession in 2004 of eight former communist countries and the further accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, many politicians and leaders of EU member states justified eastern enlargement with rhetoric of reuniting a divided Europe. It was the duty of western Europeans to make up for previous wrong-doings and re-build the kinship ties and community that Europeans share.

Whether or not these assertions were merely rhetoric masking different motivations has been intensely debated. But at present, particularly in times of national recessions and mass job losses, pro-Europeans are calling for the need of a shared European identity with renewed vigour, in order to take EU integration and enlargement even further. Without a sense of ‘Europeanness’ the EU dream of an ‘ever closer union’ will drag to a dismal halt.

But what does ‘being European’ mean? Living in the UK, we can at times seem particularly detached from the former communist countries that joined in 2004, not just geographically but culturally as well.

Here at Cambridge University however, European culture and diversity can be found in many places. Many students – benefiting from equal fees for all EU students – come from all over Europe, including growing numbers from the most eastern countries. Adrian Tuchel, Chairman of the Cambridge branch of The New Europe Society, estimates that in addition to the number of EU students and college staff, almost a third of University Fellows are of European origin. The expertise of European academics has been important over our 800 year history and of course, the university welcomed and provided a home to many who escaped from their own countries during political unrest and times of persecution.

For Mr Tuchel, it is through cultural exchange and travel within the eastern European countries that shared European feelings and identity will become more apparent to young people in the UK. He warns of how Europe is still too often divided into categories of east and west: “There is no old and new Europe, there is only one. It is time for the younger generations to break this ‘wall’ and learn more of each other.”

Liz Davies of Emmanuel College believes that being a member of the EU is something that young people in the UK don’t concern themselves with: “It’s easy to brush off the EU as something that we’re just part of that doesn’t make a massive difference to our lives.” When visiting Poland she recalled: “I got much more of a sense of how much it meant to ordinary Polish people to be part of a pan-European community.” In Warsaw one afternoon, her group was given an impromptu tour of the city by a man eager that they really understood the monuments and the sights of Warsaw and what they meant to the Polish people. He’d only recently returned to Poland after working in a bank in Monte Carlo but told Liz his memories of how both under Nazism and Communism some of his classmates had simply disappeared or been forced to leave. In his youth he’d learnt French and Russian and he’d picked up some English from the BBC. Liz described him afterwards as ‘the most European person’ she’d ever met.

Perhaps, then, Adrian Tuchel’s notion that through travel and cultural exchange we can learn more about our fellow Europeans is the most valuable way to gaining a greater sense of ‘Europeanness’

Rebecca Hawketts – TCS Reporter