European Unity Sparks Crisis of National Identity

Across Europe, anxieties over the impact EC unity will have on national identity have worked to the advantage of the extreme right

IN this small town on the Meuse River, close to both the Netherlands and Germany, people take in stride talk about integrating Europe and borders falling.The cheeses in the shops are mostly Belgian, while Belgian waffles, not French crepes or German pretzels, are sold on the streets. But at the same time, stickers of the European Community flag - 12 gold stars on a blue field - appear on students' binders or an occasional car bumper. "You know, we've been eaten with all the sauces you can imagine, from Austrian and French to German ... but we've still managed to remain who we always were," says Genevieve, a middle-aged native of Vise, referring to the number of times Belgium has fallen under foreign control. "It isn't a stronger Europe that's going to change that." A similar sentiment is expressed at the nearby supermarket, where clerks say they generally support the unifying Europe they admit knowing little about. Yet Chantal Hart, tending a sizzling machine at "La Gourmandise" waffle wagon, says things are not that simple. "It's true most people will say they like the idea of being Belgian and European, or if you talk to the students they'll say they don't care about being Belgian at all," she says. "But there are people who are scared by the changes: That's the extremists, or look at the farmers, or the ones who fear for their jobs," adds Mrs. Hart. "Those are people who fear losing what they have and what they are, and it's not necessarily just a few." The EC's summit in Maastricht, Netherlands, earlier this month, which resulted in far-reaching accords on economic and political integration, has brought the issue of European identity to the forefront. The issue remains fuzzy in many countries and is confused by other troubling forces, like the globalization of culture, the international economy, and immigration. But as the year-long negotiations to revise the Community's treaty drew to a crescendo and discussion grew of increasing EC powers and transfe rring national sovereignty, the debate over national identity has grown. Much of the debate began in Britain, where former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Parliament of her resistance to a supranational Europe in November: "It is about being British, and it is about what we feel for our country, our Parliament, our traditions, and our liberty." Since then it has spread: to Germany, where a sudden welling up of popular concern for "our beloved deutsche mark" followed the EC leaders' decision to create a single currency before the end of the decade; to France, where a society already disrupted by EC standards for Camembert cheese and foie gras (a kind of pate) now wonder about lost sovereignty and the vaunted French difference; to Ireland, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. The irony is that, except in Britain and Denmark, where support is less clearcut, wide majorities in EC countries support such goals as a single money, a common foreign policy and defense, and a more powerful European Parliament, all clear aspects of a national identity. The explanation, as hinted at by Mrs. Hart in Vise, appears to be the growing extent to which age and social class divide Europeans on the identity issue. "A fairly distinct split is developing" between national identity and Europe, says Pascal Perrineau, director of the Center for French Contemporary Life Studies in Paris. "Globally, vaguely, the country is pro-Europe," he says, "but as soon as Europe is discussed concretely, anxieties mount, and they mount highest among the farmers, the working class, those who fear Europe will come at their detriment." In Germany, the issue is compounded by reunfication, the Nazi past, and the questions they raise about national identity. Eastern Germans especially are confronting identity questions as they integrate into both western Germany and Western Europe. But the same class splits developing elsewhere in Europe are strong in western Germany. Germans are considered among the "best Europeans" in the EC, because of their desire to cover over the German past by embracing Europe, and because of the extensive travel their standard of living allows them. But observers of German society say the identification with Europe bypasses whole groups. "Good Europeans" are not to be found below the middle class, says Angelika Volle, a European specialist at the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn. She says the 16 million east Germans "haven't the foggiest idea what being European means." At the "elite" level "there couldn't be better Europeans" than the Germans, says Jacques Pelkmans, of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. "They are informed in their convictions, and it is widespread." But that attitude is not common in other classes, he says, where the sentiment "With us everything is better," covers fears of lost control over those things - including the deutsche mark - that have given them stability and material comfort. Across Europe, anxieties over identity have worked to the advantage of the extreme right. Its political parties have blended fears about a supranational, business-dominated Europe with those of immigration, culture, and lost national sovereignty, to claim ever-higher election scores. "This makes [the identity issue] a serious problem of the elite," says Dr. Pelkmans. After an abysmal job of informing their citizens about the process leading to Maastricht in particular and about European integration in general, some EC leaders appear to be taking seriously the dangers of leaving an identity crisis unaddressed. French Minister for European Affairs Elisabeth Guigou will launch a series of "national meetings for Europe" around France in January, where the European integration process and its stakes of "peace and prosperity" will be discussed. "I have the profound conviction that there is no contradiction between the nation and Europe, but that's not enough if the French don't feel it," said Mrs. Guigou in Le Monde. Noting it would be "dangerous" to leave the issue to the extreme right, she added, "We need to have some deep reflection on the state, the nation, and Europe."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.