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Why even care about a European identity?

European identity is a term widely used but only vaguely understood. We need to change that.

Most of us use catchwords or catchphrases that are somehow appealing to us. Things that interest us, excite us, and make us want to dig deeper. To me, one of these phrases is “European identity”. People might immediately get defensive or roll their eyes when hearing this inflated term, but to me, the idea holds a special appeal. It has even led me to give up the security of being employed and try to set up my own agency that aims to make Europe a lighter, more positive topic. Not exactly the easiest goal, according to S.M.A.R.T. criteria. Given the ups and downs of entrepreneurial life that one faces on let’s say an hourly basis, I constantly ask myself: why do I even care? What does this catchphrase really mean to me?

Getting to know my own little Europe

What do I even mean when I talk about Europe? Is it the European Union? Is it the Eurozone? Is it the European integration process, common values that we share, or a blue flag with yellow stars? Well, yes, these elements of course are a part of the underlying basis, but all of these things do not get me excited.

My Europe is not an idea; it is a living experience and, by that, rather personal. My European story started when I was 18, eager to see the world. A European voluntary service gave me the chance to go to Madrid for one year, where I lived in a “l’auberge espagnole”-like flatshare with eight people from seven different countries, experiencing “European-ness” firsthand. This is what stayed with me. Europe, to me, has always been about differences – how other people, cultures, and countries have broadened my horizons.

Europe, to me, is my colleague from Paris who makes me eager to practice French when I hear him talk on the phone. It is the girl from Romania who impressed me with the story of how she moved to Vienna to become a social entrepreneur. It is my friends in London who make me feel at home in the vast city. It is a past relationship where I learned to argue in a language that wasn’t my mother tongue. It is the tapas that you automatically get in Madrid when ordering just a drink. It is my friend’s Hungarian grandparents whom I can’t exchange words with, but who openly invite me into their home and to a glass of “Pálinka”. It is the Scottish girl who made me read the newspaper about the referendum with greater interest because I knew how much it meant to her.

But do we have to be the same?

The European Union tries to create a certain “sameness”. It wants to set up regulations and guidelines that are valid for all members on an equal basis. It wants to provide and demand equal opportunities, equal rights, and equal duties in order for people to be able to cooperate at eye level. But does a “European identity” have to necessarily mean sameness? Do we have to be the same in order to feel connected?

Europe is, by its nature, full of differences. In the European Union alone we have 24 languages, numerous dialects, 28 member countries, 500 million people, many cities, regions, customs, trends, and groups. And as much as “diversity” is referred to as one of Europe’s biggest assets, I don’t think that we have come to fully understand the treasure that this holds – how much we can learn from each other; be inspired by each other; or simply be amused by how different people, cultures, and countries can be. Emotions are such powerful points of connection. So is humor! It is humor and its capacity to create a connection that has led me to the current project I am working on – a quirky card game that triggers curiosity about European countries by introducing fun facts like the custom of “wife carrying” in Finland, or the fact that, if you are single in Denmark, you might have pepper thrown on you on your 30th birthday.

When playing this card game, differences are meant to be fun, but in real life, understanding differences to be a source of enrichment, rather than a threat, is not always easy. But maybe this is exactly the point when it comes to a European identity. I believe that our European identity does not have to consist of us being the same or feeling the same, but of our willingness and our ability to deal with the fact that we are different. It is not necessarily about content, but more about our willingness to handle such content. The fact is that we are different remains, but what we can share is how we proactively deal with differences.

Experiencing differences through connections

It is natural for something that is different to be perceived as alien at first. In order to get to know something that is different, it works best if we have someone who can introduce these differences to us. If we want to be able to deal with diversity, which is a part of the Europe that we’re living in, we need personal connections. And this is ultimately what makes Europe so exciting, fascinating, and inspiring.

So, the next time you speak to someone from another European country, why don’t you dare to ask them: How did you grow up? What was it like in your home? What did you experience when coming to this new country? Or what is the same here? This may feel a bit strange at first, but it may end up broadening your understanding of who other Europeans are, and who else is a part of this continent that we share. And one day, these interactions might even feel natural, just like any other layer of our identity.

Only when we are curious, eager to learn, and willing to create empathy can we form a solid basis for cooperation that, in the end, exceeds the personal realm and works on political and economic levels as well. And this is why I care. This is why I feel my life being enriched by having this additional layer, a layer that we might just call – a European identity.

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by Martin Speer
24.06.2015
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