Debate: Europeans — too different to get along

22 August 2012
Dagens Nyheter Stockholm

Above and beyond the diverging economic performance of EU countries, cultural differences between the people of Europe constitute the main obstacle to the creation of a homogeneous European society. Given the extent of these divisions, it is not surprising that the European project has run into difficulty.

Many leaders have tried to unite Europe — Attila, Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hitler among others — and all of them have come a cropper in the process. Of course, force of arms has not figured large in the European Union’s ongoing drive to achieve this goal, which is now characterised by goodwill, common laws and institutions, and other means that are more appropriate for a continent where pacifism has been the order of the day since the demise of Hitler. And the euro is without a doubt the most daring of the EU initiatives in favour of a united Europe.

The origins of the modern project are political, even if from its inception the emphasis has been on the economy. The European Coal and Steel Community was devised to prevent future conflicts by ensuring that industries that were necessary to war would no longer be developed within the framework of the nation state. National economies were to participate in a large single market that transcended borders, which was to be the starting point for their progressive convergence.

The project was not only based on the notion of the pre-eminence of the economy but also on the idea that economic rationality would facilitate the emergence of common views in other domains, which would lead to the creation of an entity resembling a United States of Europe.

The world’s most complex region

There is no denying that the economy played a decisive role in protecting Europe from the possibility of war, and, in this sense, post-1945 European cooperation has been a remarkable success. However, economic cooperation is no longer sufficient for the entity we need to build today; the euro crisis has demonstrated that such cooperation has its limits, particularly when we take into account the reality of cultural and historical differences on a continent that is the world’s most complex region.

More than 300 million people are expected to form a union in a relatively small area where we do not need to travel very far before we are unable to understand what the locals are saying, where we encounter populations who dine on unfamiliar foods and beverages and sing other songs and revere other heroes, where behaviour is regulated by a variety of relationships to time and a diversity of dreams and demons.

These underlying differences are hardly ever, or only rarely, mentioned. They are masked by discourse which assumes that Europeans should be natural allies in their approach to the rest of the world, when the fact of the matter is that Swedes are likely to share more common ground with Canadians and New Zealanders than they do with Greeks and Ukrainians. It is also probable that cultural differences — and not political and economic ones — have been the main cause of the many violent conflicts that have marked the history of Europe, chief among them the two most terrible wars that humanity has ever known, which to all extents and purposes were European civil wars.

Nonetheless, all of this appears to be forgotten or suppressed to the point where the workaday European discourse – the flag, Beethoven, and Eurovision etc — has hardly anything to do with the our current European reality: rather it is pure propaganda for a project that wilfully ignores cultural and psychological differences that are much more pronounced than our material and financial ones.

The Europe we would rather ignore

Only with the onset of the European crisis did we open our eyes to the divergence between this discourse and the reality it purports to describe. Much to our amazement, the crisis suddenly brought to light people who have never paid income tax, who take the view that others should pay their debts in their stead, and who accuse those who offer them a helping hand of despotism. We were completely unaware of such Europeans and we would rather believe they do not exist. However, the reality is that they do, and they have been there for quite a while.

A lot can change in a year. Who, apart from a few specialists, could have told you 12 months ago what clientelism meant?

I have a Croatian friend who became a minister at the beginning of this year. She is not a high-profile member of the cabinet, but nonetheless she is a government minister. When I asked her how many permanent civil servants were employed by her ministry, she told me there were 500, which seemed like a lot for a country like Croatia.

And when I asked how many colleagues she actually needed to develop the policy she intends to implement, I was dumbstruck by her response: only 30. "And are you planning to lay off the 470 others?" I wondered. The minister looked at me with an empathetic and mocking air she reserves for gullible creatures like myself — though I should point out that I am not blond — who hail from the lands to the north of the Alps. No. She had no desire to put her life at risk.

She added that she also has a son who goes to school on foot, and accidents do happen. When my friend has completed her term in office, close to 500 civil servants will continue to turn up at offices to do jobs that do not exist. And the cheques that they cash at the end of the month will remain the only aspect of their employment that exists in the real world.

This is the reality of our Europe. And make no mistake, the North is as strange as the South, and the East is as odd as the West, and vice versa. It is simply a matter of point of view.

Europe is like an extremely fragile honeycomb, composed of cultural, historical and mental idiosyncrasies in which no two Europeans are really alike. And yet we persist in viewing this Europe, not as a honeycomb, but as a pot of honey that is ready to eat.

Factual or translation error? Tell us.