Unless you feel, naught will you ever gain (Faust, J.W. Goethe)

Europe is now a place where diversity is celebrated. Where it has become the cornerstone of a developing common identity. Sometimes this is hard to understand. Sometimes it is hard work. But sometimes, it just comes naturally.

Two weekends, and two very different European experiences, made me remember an email conversation I had with an American friend in early 2002. Much like many of his countrymen and especially his colleagues within the Washington Beltway, he never really understood what happened in Western Europe after 1945, despite all the effort he put into it by writing foreign policy analyses and eventually even going to the LSE instead of an American university for a post graduate programme. He once summarized his main problem in a question –

“My question is that normally when identities form there is at least some level of an other that the identity uses to distinguish who is outside that identity or maybe who that identity is opposed to, in this case who is that identity?”


While he is ideologically firmly positioned as far away from Robert Kagan as Michael Moore is from Karl Rove, it’s not too difficult to figure what his point is. His troubles alluded to me how difficult it must be for governments of nations states who are still intellectually locked up in the rationality myth of zero sum strategic competition to think “European”.

Maybe the idea of a nascent European identity based on cherishing diversity – not a common outsider – is impossible to explain ? “Unless you feel, naught will you ever gain”.

Those who do feel will recognize it, even when it disguises as a 3-hour-long poetry reading in fifteen different languages that even the publicly subsidized elite tv-station 3sat decided to hide entirely from the public by broadcasting it from 1-4 on a Friday night. It was the fifteenth anniversary of the translation workshop “Poetry of the Neighbours – Poets translated by Poets”, which started out regionally but has silently become an internationally appreciated event.

Sure, listening to Bulgarian, Gaelic, and Norwegian poems last Friday night, I was at times closer than I would ever publicly admit to Bjoern Staerk’s submission that

“nothing beautiful or sensible should ever be written in Norwegian, if it could be written in English.”


But these are occasional lapses. I want (the appropriate amount of) Gaelic poems on German tv – that’s the diversity I treasure, the diversity that enriches our lives. Yes, sometimes this means hard work. Sometimes it means listening to poetry in languages no one in the audience will understand. But sometimes, it just comes naturally.

Last weekend, I went to a local cinema to watch a home video on the silver screen. Well, it wasn’t exactly a home video, it was a French movie, but it could as well have been. And not just for me – or for John, Chris, Sofie, Roberta and others who are good friends now but who were strangers when we all met one Thursday evening in Paris for our first Erasmus exchange programme party. I could have been a home video for about 110,000 European students more each year.

L’Auberge Espagnole“, emphatically tells the coming of age story, the life and love issues of a couple of young Europeans on their Erasmus exchange year in Barcelona. It is a film full of clichés, featuring French administrational hell as well as the young Brit who one day greets his sister’s German flatmate with a cheerful “Heil Hitler” and the eternal misunderstandings about the English pronunciation of the word most commonly used in French with reference to a university – “la fac”. But let me assure you – these are not just clichés – a penny for each time I had to explain that a “fac-otel” is actually a hall of residence, not some swinger-club, and I would be a rich man already.

“L’Auberge Espagnole” is a coming of age film not just for the flatmates – and not simply because more and more young Europeans have had the opportunity to spend an important part of their life together abroad. It is a coming of age film because it recognizes that there is something like a European identity growing out of these experiences as much as out of the efforts of poets who meet to read between the lines of other cultures, challenge Wittgenstein and thus expand our own limits of comprehension and empathy.

I know, these may be the necessary elements for an explanation of the developing European identity so difficult to understand for some. They are hardly sufficient. So, knowing that there is something out there, in the end, it is probably Goethe all over again – “Here now I stand, poor fool, and see I’m just as wise as formerly.”

13 thoughts on “Unless you feel, naught will you ever gain (Faust, J.W. Goethe)

  1. Tobias,

    “Europe is now a place where diversity is celebrated. Where it has become the cornerstone of a developing common identity. Sometimes this is hard to understand. Sometimes it is hard work. But sometimes, it just comes naturally.”

    Where do you suggest this fits?

    “FRAUDS against the European Union totalling more than half a billion pounds have been uncovered in the past year, according to official figures obtained by The Times, which show that fraud is far more widespread than had been thought.

    “The number of suspected cases has risen by nearly a fifth in just one year to 3,440, with fraud being discovered in almost all the institutions of the EU and all its funding programmes. In the last financial year alone, 252 cases of fraud were proven, leading to 230 cases being sent to court.” – from: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-906426,00.html

  2. This fits in that ‘the thing called Europe’ has very little to do with ‘the monstrosity called the EU’. ‘Feeling European’ has nothing to do with constitutions, foreign policy, norms, bureaucrats with sticky fingers, or a circle of stars on a field of blue.

    At least the fraud is being brought to light. And as bureaucracies go, compared to the one in Washington, the one in Brussels is fairly cheap.

  3. “In the last financial year alone, 252 cases of fraud were proven, leading to 230 cases being sent to court.”

    As opposed to say, the US, where the frauds are discovered, proven, and the perpetrators then sent home with a slap on the wrist. Or did I miss the imprisonment of someone, anyone, from Arthur Anderson, or Enron, or anyone running a mutual fund, or anyone involved in forex trading, or anyone ripping off California via energy prices?

  4. From my perspective, being European is to understand that identity is not destiny. That not being the same is not a shame. It is to discard the idea that “nation” and “state” must coincide. Now I am aware that a lot of people that live on Europe soil are not Europeans, rather contrarywise they hate those ideas that I’ve just written. Some of these are individuals who stand, or at least fear, to loose their grip (probably delusional) on power that the current political configuration gives them.

    So, I do not understand what moves Bob. Some of its posts are (IIRC) quite objective, and I’ve no problem in subscribing them. However other, like the one he posted on this thread seem rather to focalise on some of the problems that are inherent to any society, and predicate them as an exclusive feature of the EU.
    It seems to me that this is a peculiarly British trend. I would welcome “euroskeptics”, were it not because that label is disingenuous to says the least. A lot of them are Europhobes, or even Miseuropeans: enemies of Europe. They do not want that the peoples of Europe be able to enjoy both their diversity, the kaleidoscope of cultural viewpoints, and the power that union through coordonation would allow them.


  5. I’ve no interest in commenting on the matter of graft in the EU vs. graft in the United States, which seems an odd point to argue about (“ha ha, our corrupt economic elites are caught more often than your corrupt economic elites!”). But Tobias’s larger point about the emergence of an admittedly-difficult-to-articulate “European identity” both fascinates and concerns me, especially when connected to Scott’s comment above that the “thing called ‘Europe’ has very little to do with the monstrosity called ‘the EU.'”

    Consider Tobias’s response to his American friend’s question about who is (and isn’t) included in this new kind of European identity: to him (unless I misunderstood his post), to not understand how said identity is indistinguishable from “cherising diversity” is to locked within the “rationality myth of zero sum strategic competition.” But I don’t think that’s the case–you don’t have to be some kind of Robert Kagan-Samuel Huntington-type realist to acknowledge that the whole original point of identity, long before it become an opportunity for subjective expression and recognition, was political: that is, it was about locating where was (and who was, and what was) the “polis.” Where is this city, and where is that one, and which one am I in now? In that sense, European identity can’t help but be, along with all the other important cultural markers which Tobias notes, also a matter of identifying a European location, a collective European space, a linguistically and/or historically and/or culturally connected commonality. This point was made pretty strongly, I think, by Habermas in his recent calls for European unity.

    But Habermas, and others who have discussed the emergence of just such a European “community,” have tended to see the EU as the near-perfect embodiment of it, for all the best reasons: it is (supposedly) post-national, evolving in accordance with broad universals rather than particular interests, removed from history and thus old allegiances. (As Antoni writes, it is supposed to be about separating nations from states.) And yet Scott calls this organization (though perhaps he was quoting someone else) a “monstrosity”–a sentiment widely shared, if polls are to be trusted, by a huge percentage of Europeans (particularly those outside of the French-Benelux-German core). If the EU (and the whole matter of “constitutions, foreign policy, norms, [and] bureaucrats,” as Scott puts it) really does have nothing to do with “feeling European”–if being European is not only post-national, but even “post-political,” or at least aspires to be–then the identity which Tobias and Antoni touchingly invoke seems to me one of three possible things. Either it is 1) something utterly new in the whole history of identity; 2) bound to fail, or at least never develop beyond the sort of sentimental fraternity which dormmates always feel when they spend an enjoyable afternoon watching a football game together; 3) merely a way-station on the route towards a truly cosmopolitan world-state. Habermas is, I think, willing to acknowledge the third option; that what he calls “European” is really what he (like all good Kantians) rationally believes ought eventually to be properly ascribed to “humanaity” as a whole. Certainly not a bad goal, but not exactly the same as building a common consciousness out of Europe’s historical diversity either.

    Sorry for going on so long; I should have just posted this to my blog. Maybe I will anyway.

  6. To be sure the EU is not Europe, as for myself I try carefully to distinguish between been an Eurocitizen and an European. However there is an important point here, and it is that the EU is from its inception a movement to include in one fully democratical way all the European States, that is the main reason this process is haltingly slow. The goal is to give the individual citizens a say, and a gain, in a whole Europe, and that runs against the grain of anyone who gets to benefit from the current state of affairs.


  7. Maynard,

    “As opposed to say, the US, where the frauds are discovered, proven, and the perpetrators then sent home with a slap on the wrist.”

    That looks to me suspiciously like Moral Relativism – the EU Commission fraud is OK providing it is somewhat less than somewhere else. If that is the attitude embedded in the EU Commission, no wonder fraud has continued to flourish after the mass resignation of all the Commissioners in March 1999 following that report of the expert panel into Commission maladministration, fraud and nepotism.

    The new Commission in 1999 was supposed to be the beginning of a fresh start. Commissioner Kinnock was charged to bring in the administrative reforms needed to curb fraud. The only significant achievement of that todate seems to have been when Marta Andreasen, the EU’s chief accountant, was suspended last year by Kinnock, her boss, for daring to mention to the EU Parliament that the EU’s accounting system was so flawed there were few barriers there to deter fraud: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/hardtalk/2293519.stm

    Evidently, the EU Commission way is to shoot the messenger when the message is true but the news unwelcome. Only on Monday last week, the European Court of Auditors announed that it was unable to endorse the Commission’s accounts for the NINTH year in succession: http://www.euobserver.com/index.phtml?aid=13584

    Just how many years will it take for the Commission to install an accounting system that is not open to abuse by the fraudsters working in and for the Commission? By many reports, Eurostat has lost millions with revenues stashed away in private bank accounts and by paying for undelivered contract work. OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud office, seems to have been very relaxed about fulfilling its mission. Some unknown party is reported to have had a nice little earner going from trading in grain on inside information and the main function of EU Commission of the Regions seems to have been to pay out generous expense allowances on unchecked claims. When is the gravy train going to stop rolling?

    In a year or two, sometime or never?

  8. “Or did I miss the imprisonment of someone, anyone, from Arthur Anderson, or Enron, or anyone running a mutual fund, or anyone involved in forex trading, or anyone ripping off California via energy prices?”

    Did you notice that all the scandals in America you mentioned happened to involve private companies? The European corruption Bob points out, on the other hand, is entirely a matter of public malfeasance. I’d say the latter is of far graver consequence than the former, having as it does the backing of the state (or in this case, several states) behind it.

    At any rate, I can’t say that I’ve noticed Europeans to be that much more tolerant of “diversity” than they used to be, unless by “diversity” we restrict the term to several varieties of white christian – but how “diverse” is that really, in a time in which immigration from Africa and Asia is of increasing importance to maintaining Europe’s demographic balance?

    My take on the European attitude is that Europeans are certainly a lot more interested in the wider world than Americans are, but if you aren’t white, you can’t ever really be considered “one of us”, while Americans may not give a damn about what goes on beyond their shores, but find it a lot easier to assimilate new immigrants, whatever their countries of origin. Black Americans still have it tough (and even that has changed more than most Europeans recognize), but there aren’t any angry ghettoes of unassimilated voluntary immigrants as there are in the Netherlands, Germany and France.

    In fact, even within Europe itself, I’d say that Britain has done a much better job of absorbing non-white immigrants than most of the continental states. The notion of a prominent British politician saying something like “Kinder statt Inder!” is simply unthinkable.

  9. Dear Abiola,

    “My take on the European attitude is that Europeans are certainly a lot more interested in the wider world than Americans are, but if you aren’t white, you can’t ever really be considered ‘one of us’ . .”

    London is easily the biggest town in all Europe and hugely cosmopolitan. Take a trip on a bus or train, walk along a street, or go in a store and you can be very, very sure to come across and perhaps talk with people who came from – or whose parents did – all the continents on earth.

    In the local stores I visit to buy groceries and stuff, it is quite usual to overhear snatches of conversations in Japanese, the Chinese dialects, and the languages of the Indian sub-continent as well as a spread of the mainland European languages. Most weeks you’ll encounter ladies dressed in full burqas, perhaps with children, perhaps out alone, doing the family shop. Children play together, mothers collect their kids from school together. Go into pubs or discos and you’ll find all sorts socialising. But then as I remind folks from time to time, Britain has always been multicultural. Within five miles of where I sit is a bricked up cave with evidence of human habitation going back to the stone age, the foundations of a substantial Roman villa, the place where seven Saxon kings were crowned before the Norman conquest of 1066, a local parish church which is part Norman and the ruins of Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace. The road names resonate a feudal past – Plough Lane, Domesne Road . . But least you suppose that around here we are immersed in the past, within a mile is Britain’s first computer superstore, currently under reconstruction and expansion to make it the biggest in the UK – a bit nearer is a huge superstore specialising in Chinese and other east Asian foods. Quite literally, the span of human history is covered.

    In a few decades, London will be celebrating its foundation by the Romans 2000 years ago. It has always been an open city, which is why Dick Whittington is a favourite, regular pantomime at Xmas: http://www.softdata.co.uk/gloucester/dick.htm Disraeli, a grandson of immigants to Britain, was prime minister in 1868 and 1874-80. In 1847 he could write: London is a modern Babylon.

    I know we have a lot of europhiles hanging around this blog but it has to be said that the official Eurobarometer polls show Brits to be the most consistently sceptical about the benefits of being part of “Europe”. For several years running, polls have returned a steady 2-to-1 majority against signing up to the Euro single currency. The fact is that our history and traditions of law, government and philosophy are distinctively different from much of Europe. A very long time ago, Churchill said that Britons forced to choose between Europe and the open seas would choose the open seas. Most of us don’t think in terms of belonging to a European state. Europe is somewhere over there.

  10. London’s different from other capitals at a deep level. (Though definitely not the largest European city; that’s Moscow) An example is with school (i.e. “high school” “Grade 10 or so” ) exchanges. Very few exchange families wil take non-white English children. In Madrid noone could be found to exchange with a Chinese girl. My daughter was appalled by the racism of her host family who effectively kept an African slave. Diversity, yes. A celebration of diversity? Not yet. Hi Bob.

  11. Worth checking out a recent piece in The Economist on immigation:

    “London, which has both ethnic minorities and refugees in abundance, used to be a place where the far-right enjoyed a toe-hold. Now the capital consistently displays the lowest levels of intolerance of any region in the country.” – from: http://www.economist.com/world/europe/displayStory.cfm?story_id=2121793

    Having lived and worked in four UK regions that certainly matches my experience. On education, I could name two district councils in the north where the 2001 census reported the local populations as 97.1% or higher as white. As a local education authorities those councils have regularly featured through the 1990s at near the bottom of the schools league table based on school-leaving exam results. Mind you, London has areas of deep poverty as well as some of the most affluent parts in Europe. Some ten or so local education authorities regularly come in among the bottom 20 in the education league table but then on official figures ethnic minorities comprise just under 30% of London’s population with the language problems that may bring to schools. However, London also has several of the best education authorities in the country. The interesting insight is that there is no close correlation between local affluence or local public spending on schools and local attainment in the school-leaving exams.

    On checking population figures, the 1999 estimate for Moscow of 8.3 million is about half a million more than the population resident in the officially defined Greater London Area but that doesn’t include the urban fringe which adds several million more. London is more than a place – it’s a state of mind. I’ve encountered Londoners many miles apart who unprompted stake out what they say is the philosophy of Londoners as: Live and let live. That may help to explain why more than a few American celebrities buy a residence here. Hi Dave.

  12. Just in case anyone is interested in my home town, this is a link to the entry for London in the wikipedia online encyclopaedia with many pictures, a lot of history and data, and a multiple choice of available text languages: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London#Population

    Btw this source gives the official population figure for the Greater London Area from the 2001 census as 7.1 millions and the population of the London Metropolitan area as 13.9 millions, which ought be big enough for most tastes.

Comments are closed.