We need a ‘European’ identity

Mike Kielty 1 November 2007

e shall put it to the British people in a referendum, and campaign wholeheartedly for a yes vote.” The firm words of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in 2005 when asked about the new EU Constitution, the document that sets out the moral and political values on which ‘Europe’ will stand in the future, the document that should define just what it means to be ‘European’.

Brown signed this country up to that treaty without a referendum last week, asserting that a set of British ‘opt-out’ measures had rendered a vote unnecessary. Yet few can seriously deny that the Prime Minister’s argument is not tinged with hypocrisy. Just because this new treaty has been tinkered with, the promise of a referendum apparently now no longer applies. Even Brown supporters might see more than a coincidence in the fact that both documents just happen to be 63,000 words long.

Without getting too involved in the diplomatic paper-pushing, it is clear that political Europe is not in party mood right now. The community is ill-tempered and uncertain of its future direction and the same could be said of its citizens. After the series of votes against European reform in Holland and France in 2005, our leaders seem to have decided that Europe’s voters cannot be allowed to upset any further that most overbearing of institutions, the ‘European Union’. The EU president, Jose Manuel Barroso, argued at the time, “They must go on voting until they get it right”. Barroso’s denial of democracy may seem extreme enough, but Brown’s actions have now extended this to actually stopping Europeans from making their opinions known at the ballot box.

Europe has started the new century at its undemocratic worst, rather than celebrating the triumphs that all Europeans, whether we live in Cambridge or Krakow, appreciate everyday. The fact that students can ridicule (and of course admire) the scrawled graffiti of wartime American serviceman while downing pints in ‘The Eagle’ should not sideline the fact that we have not required such foreign military aid since 1945. The sixty years since the Union started have been the most peaceful in this continent’s history. Now comprising nations from beyond the old Iron Curtain and with nations on its borders desperate to join up, the EU is arguably the most successful example of peaceful regime change that history can offer us.

Most individual Europeans live better than before, but collectively we still regard both the Union and the idea of ever calling ourselves ‘European’ with suspicion, even ridicule. In all the British debates regarding Europe, the loudest voices are invariably to be heard from the ‘Bowler hat and Union Jack’ brigade, which now might even be taken to include the Prime Minister, whose assertion of ‘British values’ is an oily phrase that appears to be a stalking horse for a new intolerance. The idea of European unity, surely one of the monuments of the twentieth century, is disintegrating in the twenty-first due to the disillusionment of its citizens and the inadequacies of its politicians.

What Europe lacks is an inspiring vision of just what it means to be a ‘European’ in 2007, but this is the one thing that no modern politician – be they British or otherwise – seems willing to give. In fact, the one group that have attempted to frame ‘Europe’ as a dynamic, democratic forum has not been the political elite, but rather the ordinary voters through the assertion of their views at the ballot box. Whether those voters have been calling for more European integration or less, they have shared the desire for a better definition of our collective identity. The fact that politicians are now denying us the right to vote should only underline the need for us to take the lead in this debate that is so crucial to our future.

As Europeans we clearly know how to talk honestly; now we must recognise our common links. Holiday jaunts to Provence, a chat with your favourite Polish bedder or watching Champions League football on TV may seem trivial points of connection between nationalities, but they imply a common culture and history that transcends the differences in language and custom. If we continue to emphasise the false differences, to hide our own identity as ‘Europeans’, then we put at risk not just the over-streched ‘European Union’, but also the prosperity that we now take for granted.

Mike Kielty