Do You Feel European?

“I love being English, and I don’t want to be a European.” — Gillian Duffy, “bigoted woman”

As UK voters go to the polls to vote on membership of the European Union, the woman most famous for being called a “bigot” by a sitting Prime Minister might seem like an unlikely political sage. But amidst the back-and-forth on share prices, hypothetical trade negotiations and bendy bananas lurks this question of identity. Can the EU work as a political project if people roundly reject any sense of European-ness? What does it mean to be European — if it even means anything at all?

To try and untangle this question of identity, we turned to our contributors — as well as a couple of others from across the continent — to ask them: “Do you feel European?”

Pete Guest, London, UK

Like most people of my generation, I have grown up European — far more so than my parents or my grandparents. My grandfather’s annual pilgrimage from South Wales to France was little more than than a booze cruise, but in his village it marked him out as a sophisticate; my half-Spanish second cousins were some strange and alien bilingual hybrids.

If you travel a little, maybe only to belt out ‘No Surrender to the IRA’ on a Marseille square, you’ll see our differences. If you step back further, you see with astonishing clarity the things that unite us — the values, the history, the mythology; even the shared frustrations with our political classes. A Brexiteer raging against the system that has left him or her economically disenfranchised has more in common with a Greek civil servant or a French steelworker than they do with their own leaders.

To be European is not just to submit to being governed by the EU; it is a shared identity that, whether you feel it or not, defines you. Rejecting the opportunity to continue to shape that identity is going to leave us poorer — financially, culturally and socially — and lead us into a crisis of uncertainty as we have to start afresh in figuring out what the hell Britain is.

Pete Guest is a journalist and contributor to Weapons of Reason. You can read his article from our Megacities issue here.

Francisco Serrano, Lisbon, Portugal

I feel more Portuguese than European, but I think the EU should be exactly that: a physical and moral space where people of different nationalities can share similar goals, but keep individual identities. The world needs more economic and political coordination, not less.

However, the current set-up of the EU doesn’t allow me to be a proud European.

As a system of regional integration it is deeply flawed; definitive decisions are hard to come by. And the constant delaying of decisions ends up working against the whole project, because decisions end up being taken in an undemocratic way. Additionally, witnessing the EU’s reaction to recent challenges, such as the debt crisis and the influx of refugees, has dented my relationship with the EU as an ideal. We cannot support autocracies abroad in the name of business, but refuse the people trying to escape them a viable solution to improve their lives.

The EU remains the best solution for Europe, but our leaders have so far failed us in improving the way it works. And it is exactly these failures that have allowed for the rise of extreme nationalist sentiment in many EU countries. The EU project will be impossible to advance until a better framework for common decision-making is established.

Francisco Serrano is an analyst for the Oxford Business Group and a freelance writer. You can read his article from our Megacities issue here.

Kristina N., Minsk, Belarus

There’s a joke about being European here. Mr Alexander Grigoryevich Lukashenko [the President of Belarus] always says that we are “at the centre of Europe.” So if you meet someone who thinks of themselves as a European, they’ll always repeat this line. Personally, I wouldn’t say that I feel European. I’ve been to Britain and I have quite a few friends who went to live in Germany. I wouldn’t say that we share the values of the UK or Germany. We are quite conservative, so it’s difficult to say we’re European. We’re closer to Russia.

Regarding the UK referendum on EU membership, people here don’t think anything, they don’t think about it at all. I wouldn’t say no one does, but people mostly concentrate on their problems in Belarus, so they don’t think about far-away countries. They don’t believe it will have any influence on our country, that’s why it’s not of interest to them.

Emile Chabal, Edinburgh, UK

I feel European, and always have done. For a start, I think Britain is part of Europe — so to feel British is also to feel European. But I am also profoundly connected to other European countries. Some of them, like France, are part of my own heritage, and others I know simply because I have friends there. Wherever I go in Europe, I feel responsible for what is happening and I feel like it is my continent. Europe is a messy, contradictory and problematic place, but it’s still a home.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that I am one of the rare people who teaches modern European history for a living. If I didn’t feel European and didn’t understand our shared history, what would I tell my students? How would I explain to them why my subject is important? The whole premise of my job is to make Europe intelligible — and for that you really need to believe that some kind of Europe actually exists.

Emile Chabal is a Fellow in History at the University of Edinburgh.

Mat Youkee, Asunción, Paraguay

“And what should they know of England who only England know?” Kipling’s question is a perfect invitation for expats to pass smug judgement on the homes they left behind. As a long term resident in South America it’s unsurprising that I long for Barcelona and Lisbon ahead of my London suburb. I also lived in Bulgaria in the year it joined the EU and was proud to belong to a Union that gave that put-upon country so much hope. I have traveled frequently to Istanbul and have witnessed what the erosion of European Enlightenment values can do. I’m European in a philosophical and geopolitical sense. But I don’t have to live with the reality. I’m unaffected by immigration, by unemployment, by the feared Brussels bureaucracy. Living abroad can certainly bring perspective but it can also lead to an idealised and nostalgic vision of Europe or England, until you’re just another washed-out hack, nursing a Cuba Libre by the Caribbean and jabbering on about Kipling as if he were relevant.

Mat Youkee is a freelance journalist and analyst who contributed to the Ageing issue of Weapons of Reason

Sophia Epstein, London, UK

I was cycling around Berlin once when the sky started bucketing down on me. I ran into a pub to escape, and an elderly woman inside offered to pop home to get me a hair dryer. She couldn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak German, but we were both willing to make enough hand gestures to constitute a conversation.

I didn’t grow up in Europe, I spent most of my childhood in Asia. But yes, I feel European. And it’s not because I can say ‘cheers’, ‘proost’ and ‘santé’ or because my Austrian grandmother only left because she was Jewish. It’s because there is a place here for everyone. In amongst the eclectic mix of medieval castles, reflective skyscrapers and bog-standard terraced houses is a beautifully dysfunctional group of completely different human beings.

I’m writing this as I’m sat on a return flight from Amsterdam, one of my favourite cities and a place where — though i’ve only been three times — I never feel like a stranger. It’s either romantic or naive, but I think of Europe as a family — and, as imperfect as it is, I know there will always be someone here willing to lend me a hair dryer.

Sophia Epstein is a freelance journalist who often writes for Wired. She contributed to the Ageing issue of Weapons of Reason.

Edvinas K., Moscow, Russia

I absolutely feel European. I am Lithuanian, I feel European and I feel that Britain is European and an important part of the European Union. I believe in the project of greater integration, and together we — Britain and the EU — can move forward, stronger.

Relations between Russia and the EU are chilly. The EU, and Britain, would be much weaker if the UK was to leave. So it is in the interest of nationalist politicians in Russia for the UK to leave.

Maybe there is one Baltic migrant in the UK out of a hundred who doesn’t really contribute. But the vast majority do, I am one of those people.

Valerie Garwood, London, UK

I definitely feel European, but it’s a bit harder to say what that actually means. You can hold more than one identity at the same time: it’s not that I don’t feel British, but I feel European. I think it’s probably to do with the ease of movement, being able to visit other European capitals, as well as our shared history.

I’m aware as I say this that it’s not very concrete. I think this has been part of the trouble with the referendum. The people who want to leave are somehow more positive and concrete about it than people who want to say. In some ways, the British identity thing is tricky for people born in England, like I was. The Scots and the Welsh have very clear cultural identities. With the English, particularly if you’re on the left, it’s always felt a bit dodgy. What can you point to that you feel positive about that’s specifically English, rather than British? I’ve always felt that Europeans are more socially progressive, more liberal, more relaxed.

There was a time when people felt that Europe was getting a lot more things right than we were. Things like having a more relaxed attitude to life and being less obsessed with work. But I was probably thinking of a narrower group of countries: Italy, France, Spain. Now Europe is a much bigger thing, and I’m probably more ignorant about the culture of the recent joiners. I know nothing like as much about them, culturally or historically.

Valerie Garwood is a Labour Party activist in South East London.