Sunday, October 13, 2002

What is a European?

There is a good piece by A.S. Byatt in today's New York Times Magazine (via Arts and Le^H^H^H^H^H^H Philosophy and Literature ) on the question of what is a European and just why Europeans feel about things the way they do.

Personally, I am unable to take the reflexively anti-EU positions that many American bloggers seem to take, or that British Euro-sceptics seem to take. Yes, the EU is undemocratic, inclined to over-regulate things, at times idiotically bureacratic, and the Common Agricultural Policy is the most insane piece of government policy on the face of the earth, with the possible exception of the American war on drugs. Reform is obviously needed.

However, the European single market is an immense achievement. It is possible to fly extraordinarily cheaply within the European Union, due the deregulation of the internal aviation market that exists as part of the single market. Could the individual EU countries have managed this individually? No way. I can buy cheap groceries from a discount supermarket in London that have been imported from other European countries rather from expensive British suppliers. Would this be the case without the single market? Again, no way. Movement of people between European countries is much easier because of the EU's requirement of freedom of movement for EU nationals. Professional qualifications are transferrable between European countries. Individual governments love to use these sorts of laws for under the table protectionism, and the presence of the EU makes this a lot harder. If the EU was not there, these things would have happened to an extent, but not to the same extent. You can criticise the EU all you like, but credit where credit is due. People sometimes tell me that "that would have happened anyway" but I am not sure you can say this. (I also find British anti-EUism somewhat suspect, because it often comes from the most appalling landed gentry Tory types, who I can't stand).

From the article

Younger Europeans take Europe for granted in a matter-of-fact way. They travel constantly across it on cheap interrail tickets, and they study as exchange students at other European universities. My own daughter in Newcastle -- a far northern English city that sees both England and Scotland as ''foreign'' -- shared a student house with a Frenchwoman, a West German, an East German and two Belgian hitchhikers, who were picked up in Spain -- by another friend -- and slept on the couch for six months. Young Europeans intermarry and produce bilingual children. Some of them go to McDonald's and some of them join antiglobalization protests and travel in buses to support Jose Bove, the French proponent of local produce, against American imports of beef with hormones. Our local French supermarket is in fact European. The voices you hear speak Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, French and English. The French peaches in the market are labeled with tiny circles to show their color -- ''yellow,'' ''gelb,'' ''giallo.'' In France and in Germany this summer the euro seemed to be an uncomplicated matter of fact -- the currency. By the end of the summer most Europeans were grumbling bitterly that its introduction had been a cloak for price increases. It unifies at a practical level, more than symbolically.

This I think is very true. Younger people are much more "European" without thinking about it than are older people. Trans-European laws and systems are there, and younger people, who are much more mobile than their older compatriats, take advantage of them. The biggest soccer matches are in the "European Champions League". This was once a brief competition in which the champions of each European country played each other to find a winner. It is now a league in which the best European clubs (including multiple teams from the bigger countries and often none from the smaller onces) play each other endlessly from year to year. This seems perfectly natural. I think there is a common culture of media, and experience, becoming more and more the place with younger Europeans, who are more mobile than the older generation. It may be almost that they are sucking in an anglophone rather than a European culture. London is certainly full of people like this, and a couple of years there seems almost a rite of passage for well educated, upwardly mobile Europeans.

There was only one thing all the Europeans I talked to had in common. They would all say, ''When I am in America, I know I am European.'' In Europe they notice local differences, but seen from the distance of the States, it is suddenly the whole state of being European that grips them. One person said to me, ''I thought I knew from books and television what the American way of life was, but when you are in it you realize you don't understand it at all.'' This feeling isn't necessarily, or even mostly, antagonistic. America has the fascination of the Other. I don't think European perceptions of America are helped by the ubiquitous presence of dubbed American soaps and B movies on European television. American mouths moving in American shapes and producing French sounds in French voices are cultural zombies, and misleading.

My experience is a different one. I am an Australian. I first came to England in 1991 to study at Cambridge. On the way, I had a couple of weeks in the US. This was my first time in the US, and my first time in Europe. Australia was part of the British Empire and at school I was taught a fairly Britain-centric and Eurocentric view of the world. I expected London to be familiar and comfortable. I did not really expect America to be familiar and comfortable. Oddly I found things the other way round. America is in many ways like Australia. Homes on large suburban tracts of land. Large cars. Strip malls. A McDonald's on every corner. Modern architecture and an absence of older buildings. Large indoor shopping malls and derelict high streets. Skyscrapers. Britain on the other hand was different. It was far less familiar than I was used to. (I was surprised when I got to London and found an absence of skyscrapers, because I simply could not conceive of a large city that did not have them at the centre). Europe has gained some of these things in the years since. There is now a McDonald's on every corner here as well. London has a few skyscrapers, firstly built a way out of the city at Canary Wharf, and now some being built closer in. These things were symptoms of underlying structure, however. And despite a few changes on the surface, the underlying structure hasn't changed much. And the nature of the shopping experience is completely different. I have since learned to love London in particular, but the fact that Europe is "different" never really goes away.

I spoke to Enzensberger in Munich and asked him if he felt European or German. He replied that there were no such people as Europeans -- Europeans were far too idiosyncratic, entrenched in their ways and their languages and their histories; it was impossible to generalize. He then thought for a moment and said, ''On the other hand . . . if you took me up blindfolded in a balloon and put me down in any European city, I would know it was Europe, and I would know how to find a bar, and the railway station, and a food shop. . . . ''

By these rules, Britain is European. A European has no trouble finding the railway station, a bar, and a food store in Britain. An Australian and an American sometimes do, although they have no difficulty finding the equivalents (which generally do not include railway stations) in each other's countries. These rules do apply in Britain, which is why I never can agree when someone tells me Britain is not part of Europe. To me, Britain feels European. To my heart of hearts, Europe remains "other", and Britain remains "other", in a way that America in a lot of ways does not.

During the gulf war, I happened to be in a German monastery with a group of English and German writers and scholars. We divided, not by nationality, but by age. The young were passionately antiwar, as they have been brought up to be. Those who remembered 1945 and its aftermath saw the analogy between Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and Hitler, and spoke unhappily of the imperative to avoid appeasement. Just after 9/11, I was in Frankfurt. I found myself defending the coming strike against the Taliban to an angry and idealistic Austrian TV cameraman who had just spent eight weeks with Afghan refugees and believed nothing justified the loss of innocent lives. I do not know a European -- and that includes the British I talk to -- who is in favor of a strike on Iraq. They do not accept the rhetoric of the ''axis of evil,'' or the connection of such a strike to the fight against world terrorism. The old know what war does to people and cities. The young believe that aggression is simply bad. The 85 percent is dwindling, at least at this time.

I am unusually pro-American, even as Australians go, but I have found a big disconnect on this one. I am generally in favour of the strike against Iraq. I was unequivocally in favour of action against Afghanistan, and if it ever comes time to remove the house of Saud, I shall be overwhelmingly in favour of this. I remain utterly outraged by the attacks of September last year, and I am not sure how much of my pro-war position comes simply from wanting revenge for this. My British and other European friends mostly are reflexively anti-war. A lot of the time I simply stay silent, as my friends are on the whole good people, and it isn't worth the argument. The disconnect between Europe and America is large on this. I saw September 11 as an attack on my civilization, and an affront to me personally. A lot of Europeans didn't. Ultimately, from this comes the difference. I think they are naive not to see the attack this way themselves, but the difference is a big one. I don't think being reflexively anti-war is viable at this point. It has led in some instances to the appeasement of monsters and to the demonisation of friends.

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