Exhibit A: the Europound
Almost two decades ago (wow!) I was with a small group of colleagues from my MBA class. We were dissecting UK Government’s refusal to adopt the Euro. There were plenty of economic arguments and counter-arguments, before the only Brit in the group opined: “Well, we might have adopted it. All they had to do was allow us to call it ‘the British pound’ and have the Queen on it…”
Because I am such a miserable nitpicker, I had to say that it also needed to be called ‘the Scottish pound’ in Scotland… He shrugged, as in “ok, so what?”
Exhibit B: Limburg
I have once been offered a job in Dutch Limburg. I had never been there and knew very little about that small finger of Dutch territory wedged between Belgium and Germany. So I went over to have a look. And how does one get acquainted with people inhabiting sleepy villages and small provincial towns? I stepped into a pub and ordered a glass of the frothy local beer.
As soon as they realised I’m a foreigner, everybody talked English to me: the Dutch are proud of their heritage as worldwide traders – speaking ‘international English’ is almost part of the national character. So I had a bit of light conversation over my glass of beer, before asking, in a more serious tone: “Will I have to learn Dutch?”. “Nah,” said the tall, blond youngster at the nearby table. “Everybody speaks English around here…” “Yes, it’s true,” opined the older barman, “we all speak English. But if you want to integrate socially… At home, with friends we don’t speak English, you know.” “Oh,” I said, “then I will have to learn Dutch.” The barman scratched his head a bit, as if weighing his reply: “I didn’t say that. You see, we all speak perfect Dutch and decent English. But at home, with family and friends, we speak the local language, we call it Limburgisch. Dutch people north from here don’t understand it.” “Oh,” I said. “Then I’d have to learn Limburgisch. Is it hard?” “Not hard,” reassured the barman, but then scratched his head again. “Not our Limburgisch. See, it depends where you want to live. The thing is… on this side of the river we speak one kind of Limburgisch, but the villages on the other side use a different kind. That one’s I think more difficult. We don’t really understand their Limburgisch, we mostly use Dutch to talk to them…”
Exhibit C: Veneto
Accompanied by our Italian agent, I was visiting customers in Italy and came upon a factory on the outskirts of a small town, not far from Venice. The manager received us with that special warmth (mixed with quite a bit of relief) reserved in provincial Italy for foreigners who speak Italian. We soon plunged into pre-business small talk: where Italian males are involved, that always focuses on football, race cars and – once the ice breaks (and it breaks quite easily) – women. But after a few minutes, we were interrupted by a cheerful ringtone. “I’ve got to take this” said our host with a disarming smile and proceeded to have three minutes of phone conversation in a foreign language. So foreign, in fact, that I couldn’t even identify it or assign it to a recognisable linguistic group. “It was my mum,” the guy said by way of apology, while carelessly placing the mobile phone back on the desk. “She obviously isn’t Italian,” I ventured, out of sheer curiosity. “Of course she is” he said, surprised by my remark. Claudio, our Milanese agent, intervened: “Lots of people in Italy don’t speak ‘standard Italian’ at home. Around here, they speak ‘Veneto’, the local dialect.” “Dialect?” I said, “I couldn’t understand a word of it.” “I know,” replied Claudio, “neither can I. It’s not Italian, it’s really a different language…”
Exhibit D: Wales
My parents came to visit me on my first stint in England. I used a short University break to drive them around and happened upon a historic town in North Wales. My guidebook suggested visiting an ancient church, quaintly incorporated into the town’s defensive wall. We stepped in, but had to wait for the service to end, before we could visit the place. As soon as the service was over, the priest came to bid us welcome. When he learned we were foreigners – my English was heavily accented and my parents had none – he made a point of explaining: “I speak English, as you can hear; but we are not English, we are Welsh. Among ourselves we speak Welsh, which is my mother tongue and so it is for most people here. We are an ancient people, with an ancient language of our own…”
Exhibit E: the Idiot
I have gradually learned that these were not exceptions, but rather constituted the rule. Where I went skiing (quaint little towns and villages in Val di Fassa), everybody spoke to me in ‘standard Italian’; but among themselves they spoke Ladino, a language I could not understand. A few miles away, on a different Italian valley, they speak a particular German dialect, hard to understand even for Germans. In Switzerland, even neighbouring villages speak different dialects of Sweitzerdeutsch, French or Romansh. In Barcelona, locals speak Catalan and various dialects of that language are spoken in parts of France and Italy. And I could go on and on… It fascinates me!
This is Europe: a patchwork of cultures, sub-cultures, mini- and micro-cultures, which took centuries to adhere – some still very loosely – to larger ethnic or national groups. Yes, this is Europe: an eclectic, colourful mosaic, much like the tinted windows that adorn its churches. Travel just a few miles and hear a different tongue; admire a different architecture; taste a different food; slacken your thirst with a different beverage.
And this is why I love Europe – despite the awful history, despite the genocide, despite the seemingly incurable antisemitism. Europe is interesting, it’s exciting, it’s beautiful – because it’s so diverse. Because ‘Europe’ as a concept belongs to physical geography and to foreigners like myself. Europeans do not feel European – they feel Italian, French, German… Who would want a grey, uniform, boring ‘Europe’? Who would want a world resembling Mao’s China?
Some would, it seems. A few years ago, I heard a talk delivered by a young guy from the Israel Democracy Institute – a self-described ‘progressive’ outfit. At some point, the speaker referred rather disparagingly to the concept of ‘Jewish state’, or ‘State of the Jews’. After the talk, I asked him why he thought ‘Jewish state’ was worse than ‘Finnish state’ or, for that matter, ‘Palestinian state’. He gave me a thin, superior smile. “I could focus narrowly on your question”, he said, before intoning sententiously, preacher-like, down his nose. “But the truth is that, for us liberals, this whole notion of ‘nation state’ is wrong. It belongs to the past. We need to strive for a world without borders, without states, without identity politics, a world where people are just that – people and nothing else.”
But why, I inquired, why do “us liberals” “need to strive” for such a world? I got the clear impression that my question both unsettled and annoyed him – in the way adults are unsettled and annoyed when children demand explanations for something very obvious; like ‘why is there a sun?’, or ‘why do people have to die?’
He took a good minute to formulate an answer and finally said (or, rather, proclaimed): “For starters, there would be no wars.” I pointed out that historically wars preceded by far the formation of nation states. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, this time visibly annoyed, “but all the recent wars were the result of nationalism.” Not so, I pointed out. Word War I was a war of empires – the very opposite of nation states. War World II erupted because of a racialist, not nationalist world view; one that divided people by animal-like biological characteristics, rather than cultural identity and a sense of belonging. The Cold War – arguably the most serious threat to mankind’s very survival – had been motivated by ideological, not national differences.
I could have added that some of the bloodiest, most horrific wars had been ‘civil wars’, pursued across no borders and not by nation states. But by then the Idiot had had enough of my childish questioning and argumentation. He did not know why his ideology was the ‘correct’ one; he just ‘knew it was’.
Once, there lived an Idea. Then came the Ideologues.
There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a European bloc. The continent had emerged from yet another horrible ‘hot’ war, straight into the throes of a ‘cold’ one. There’s nothing more conducive of peace and understanding than common interests (other than a common enemy, that is).
First there was a trade agreement. And the People saw it’s good and liked that.
Then there was a common market. And the People saw it’s good and liked that, too.
Then there was a political alliance. And the People saw it’s also good and liked that.
Then the Ideologues decided it’s got to be more, much more; and called it a Union. The People didn’t like that, but kept quiet. World was created by words; but not all words will create new worlds.
But the Ideologues set out to actually create a Union. And not any-old ‘Union’, but an ‘ever closer union’. Like America, only much better. But Europe is not America. It’s different. Not better or worse, mind you, only different. Americans descend from those who left in order to be different. Europeans – from the ones that stayed and found ways to be different. An ‘ever closer union’? The People did not think it’s good; and they certainly did not like that.
But the Ideologues wanted to do it anyway, behind People’s back. They knew they were right, they just had trouble ‘persuading the masses’. But, deep inside, what Ideologue really cares about the backward, unenlightened, non-elite ‘masses’? Don’t adults know better what’s good for the children? Pursuit of The One & Only Correct Ideology cannot be left to ‘the masses’; it’s the job of “us liberals”, of the progressive vanguard.
But the People were angry because Their Will was disregarded. And there was Brexit.
Nobody really likes the European ‘Union’. Nobody says it’s good. Its defenders portray it, at best, as the lesser evil. Even its staunchest supporters – the ultimate Ideologues – admit that it’s in need of radical change.
Whether Brexit (as opposed to change from within) was the best way to go – I don’t know. It’s by now a moot point. The United Kingdom (or at least an England-dominated federation called ‘United Kingdom’) will survive Brexit. The European-Union-as-we-know-it will not. It’s not that other countries will decide to follow the example and exit – not necessarily. It’s that the tensions caused by negotiating Brexit will further reveal and much accentuate the different (and often diverging) interests of the remaining 27 nations. They will increasingly remember that they are, in fact, nations.
Contrary to what Ideologues dream, one can write a book about Life; but one cannot force life to follow the Book. Whether that’s the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an or the Little Red Book.
Contrary to what Ideologues believe, people don’t want to be equal – they want to be special and exceptional. We want equality of opportunities, not equality of outcomes. That’s what drives human progress – the real one, not that of self-proclaimed ‘progressives’.
Contrary to what Ideologues think, being an ‘internationalist’ can be much worse than being a nationalist.
Contrary to what Ideologues say, “us liberals” do not “need” to do away with borders, or with nation states, or with our treasured identity. And We The People certainly do not want to.
Contrary to what Ideologues claim, ‘union’ does not preserve diversity – it destroys it. Most people like a crusty pizza, or a juicy coq-au-vin, because they enjoy the colour, flavour and texture of the various ingredients. But put the same stuff in a liquefier and turn it into a grey mush – who would want to eat that?
Contrary to what Ideologues preach, identity does not prevent us from being ‘just human beings’ – it makes us human beings. Identity is an anchor; cutting oneself loose does not make one a better person. It makes one a rudderless ship, drifting in search of ‘a cause’. Or – truth be told – in search of some meaningful interaction with other human beings. That is, in search of a new anchor, in search of (some other) identity.
Nobody really wants a European ‘Union’. The European bloc may survive, but only if rolled back to what it should be – a common market and a political alliance. Time to save the European Idea from the Ideologues.