May 29, 2013
Brainfood for Europhiles and Europhobes alike
The ironies were overflowing: the 200th anniversary of a Danish philosopher who rarely left Denmark, who fought to speak Danish rather than Latin or German, a rich young man who sought inspiration from studying the poor and lonely, who left no comments on his mother and had strained relations with other women and who railed against Christendom now being celebrated in a Danish church, in English, by a Bosnian Muslim, a Polish mother-to-be, a Dutch moderator, a German MEP and the chief spokesperson of the European Commission.
Congratulations then to the Danish Cultural Institute and Ambassador Poul Skytte Christofferson for sponsoring a lively and thought-provoking programme of discussions on “European Identity – in the eyes of Kierkegaard” in Brussels. Ironically preaching a generally europhile message from a generally eurosceptic nation.
Søren Kierkegaard, born in May 1813, authored over 40 books and dozens of pamphlets awakening and articulating universal existential concerns about life, oneself, life stages, formation and personality; but did not address identity as such.
European Identity v. National Identities
Consequently, we learnt, identity and European identity is a (post) modern concept and challenge.
European identity based on values
European identity was the subject of a declaration 40 years ago, coincidentally in Kierkegaard’s home town: Copenhagen, by the then nine members of the then EEC. European identity is less assertive than other national identities. For example, U.S. identity which has been shaped and formed by refugees from economic or political or religious tyrannies, the U.S. civil war and the concept of being against communism and latterly against Arabism. European identity on the other hand is more nuanced, focusing on common values such as human rights, democracy, the rule of law, cultural diversity etc. European identity seeks to complement rather than fight against its own national identities. Europe declared in 1973 that it sought better relations with ‘others’ rather than being in a struggle between “us and them”.
National identities in decline?
Within Europe, over the past 50 years, the attraction of national identity has been diluted through education, travel, privatisation and fragmentation of nations (e.g. Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Spain and the UK). European identity is more embryonic and as a result carries less luggage than many dominant national identities but has a correspondingly softer footprint. Sometimes it is easier to appreciate European identity by visiting a third country such as the Ukraine or the U.S.
In the past 50 years Europe has become a member of, or is active in, many transnational and other multinational organisations, so much so that the EU is probably more experienced in how to pool sovereignty than any other regional grouping (and is certainly the most developed in terms of having a directly elected parliament, European courts, Auditors and Ombusdmen etc.).
Nationalism and flag-waving
Nationalism within Europe, we heard, is often the last refuge of fools who seek to wrap themselves in a national flag and claim ‘my country right or wrong’ ignoring many blatant inconsistencies along the way.
European identity and the crisis
One of the speakers observed that Kierkegaard made a useful distinction between fear and anxiety: fear is usually provoked by a specific threat: a snake, a bomb, etc whereas anxiety is often less specific. thus today, many Europeans live in a period of uncertainty, rather than fear; indeed in a moment of crisis there is always an opportunity to seek a better future – one speaker even suggested that we face ‘a dizziness of freedoms’ rather than being petrified by fear.
Communicating a new narrative about Europe’s identity
Finally, of interest to many communicators, was the revelation that the Commission President is currently awaiting a report from a committee on a “new narrative” for an updated European identity. However, the hope that the dissemination of such a ‘new narrative’ could be spearheaded by members of the college of Commissioners returning to communicate in the ‘country they know best’ rings a little hollow when one observes that a large majority of the largest countries have Commissioners who represent political parties in opposition and thus obtain a proportionately tiny media outreach in national debates. A further blow to these high ideals espoused by senior communication officials is the story barely 48 hours after this Kierkegaard debate that President Hollande, less than 24 hours after he had spent a day visiting the European Commission is reported to have declared: “Europe’s identity at risk from recession“.
Somehow, it appears that the French President’s speeach writer was not echoing the Commission’s theme that Europe’s identity was growing and complements national identity, but rather was engaged in the age old attempt to blame foreigners for troubles experienced at home. As Søren Kierkegaard wrote “Once you label me, you negate me”.Julian Oliver