Europe’s anchor for identity in rough seas

As it prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary, the European Union faces internal and external threats. Its fallback for unity: a shared cultural identity.

Queen Margrethe of Denmark (2nd L) holds a replica of a Viking ship as she stands in the city Aarhus on Jan. 21 during the opening night of Aarhus as a European Capital of Culture 2017.

In a summit this March in Rome, the European Union will mark its 60th anniversary. The event was meant to be a celebration of a grand project in continental unity, peace, and prosperity after World War II. Instead it may be more of a collective introspection.

The EU identity is under fire like never before. Britain, the bloc’s second-largest economy, voted last year to exit, perhaps by 2019. Russia poses threats in the east. Debt levels and joblessness appear chronic in many EU countries. Nationalist parties are becoming more popular. And the new American president, Donald Trump, has criticized the EU as a vehicle for German domination. He predicted its breakup.

Polls within the EU still reveal an overall positive view of its role in binding together more than 300 million people across 28 countries (soon to be 27 without Britain). Yet, said Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan last week, the EU needs a vision for unity, and quickly.

Too often, the EU finds it must defend itself rather than proclaim its successes in promoting a shared economy. “The be-all and end-all is that Europe doesn’t let itself be divided,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in reference to Mr. Trump’s remarks.

Yet, during these difficult trials, the EU is trying to assert a shared identity based on its cultural bonds, both historic (Christianity and the Enlightenment) as well as modern, such as the popular pan-European singing contest called Eurovision.

In a speech last week, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, the body representing national leaders, laid out the cultural glue that defines the bloc by more than its geography and economy. “It is precisely culture that anchors us, Europeans, in time and space, giving us a sense of identity. Culture is that territory we want to and should defend,” he said.

Mr. Tusk cited the work of the late Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, who said a highly diverse Europe has an important role in showing the world how to view “the other” as one’s neighbor and to learn from one another.

The EU has programs that support artists and other cultural workers. It also promotes exchanges of students between universities. And each year since 1985, it has selected one or two cities as a “European capital of culture,” a title that brings both subsidies and a recognition of the continent’s heritage as the home of Western civilization.

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