A European family unified in diversity

Prague Club Magazine, May 2006

In 1963 Robert Schumann, one of the founding fathers of the European Union,outlined a broad vision for Europe by stating that “the soul of Europe will be built upon its diversity, its qualities and its aspirations”.

More than forty years later, how united do Europeans feel in the diversity of this dynamic and ever expanding community? Since Jean Monnet, one of the original architects of the European Union, laid its the foundations after the Second World War, the EU has expanded significantly to absorb much of the continent, while at the same time adopting many of the formal symbols and powers of a nation state. In spite of its growing strength and cohesion, Europe still has a difficult path ahead of itself to fulfill Robert Schumann’s prophecy of a Europe united in its diversity.

While legions of Brussels-based bureaucrats are hard at work in an effort to build a stronger, more cohesive European Union that continues to allow its member states and citizens to retain their diversity and cultural heritage, one could look to the family for a model for how Europe has historically dealt with diversity and how it might continue to foster diversity in the 21st century.

Cultural diversity is in fact nothing new to Europe. European countries and citizens have spent centuries learning to coexist on this continent. The tides of war, occupation and migration have created a Europe that is far more culturally diverse that we often realize. I only have to look to my own family to find proof of this.

My great-great-grandfather was in fact born in Prague and the woman he married was a native of Middlesex, England. Since then, my family has spread its roots all over the continent, initially to France and Switzerland and more recently to Central Europe, namely Austria and the Czech Republic.

All over Europe, families like mine have and will continue to move from one corner of the continent to the other, extending their family to include new members from other parts of the union. As the European Union continues to integrate both economically and socially, the diversity of the European family is certain to become more and more commonplace.

As in the past, this transition is not guaranteed to be a smooth one. So what are some of the key challenges facing the European Union’s continues integration? What obstacles are keeping it from leveraging the strength of its diversity?

To answer these questions, one might explore some of the issues that have the power to both divide and unite the European Union.

A common interest: The development of a European identity that supports diversity is possible only when there are common interests uniting the citizens. At the same time, the future success of the European Union rests in the common interests of member states. In the past, the driving force behind European unification was economic growth and prosperity. However, those forces alone will no longer be enough to ensure a common European identity. Instead, Europeans must feel as though they share a set of common values and interests. Such values would include the belief in democracy, a compassionate social state as well as a commitment to the environment and a conviction that all conflict can be resolved peacefully.

Anthony P. Cohen, the author of “The Symbolic Construction of Community”, makes the case for ‘communities of meaning’. In other words, a sense of community plays a key role in creating a feeling of belonging within people.

The process of integration that has characterized the EU has involved acquainting ourselves with each other’s differences and thereby exchanging views and experience. To inspire belief in a European identity, we need to actively develop and promote a set of common symbols and icons like the European passport, a common EU flag or the union’s anthem. Stimulating a sense of common purpose and an awareness of a shared European identity will motivate Europe’s citizens project a common and united European voice on the world stage.

Tolerance: This is a key element in creating a unity through diversity. Europe can only be defined through its unique heritage of diversity and paradoxically, its very diversity has been its unifying principle as well as a source of its strength.

Whether people are inclined to live in harmony with one another is dependent upon the norms of a particular society. Fifty years ago, my mother’s sister caused chaos in her family when she fell in love with a Catholic. Her family had a strong Calvinist background and while though tolerance was preached in the pulpit during Sunday sermons, it wasn’t necessarily part of the family’s values. In fact, my mother’s grandmother used to say that she would rather see her daughters dead than see them marry a Catholic. But love conquers all as my aunt did marry her Catholic beau and has been married to him for more than 50 years. Forty-one years later, my sister also married a Catholic man, but this time did so without the family drama. This example is only to illustrate how Europe has evolved in the past half century to become a more tolerant, compassionate society. Moreover, it will continue to evolve in this direction.

Equality: For the European Union to flourish, both member states and citizens must treat each other with equality and respect. The principle of equality must continue to be ingrained into the very foundations of the EU and into the collective psyche of its citizens.

The premise of equality applies equally to the European Union’s relations with people and entities outside of its borders. For example, the need to create a European work permit similar to the green card in the United States will do much to encourage legal migration into the EU and will benefit both economic migrants and the union itself. Only through cooperation, solidarity and unity can Europe effectively face down future challenges and become a useful example to the rest of the world.

Language: How can 370 million citizens speaking eleven official languages really connect and feel part of the same community when only 66% of them speak just one language and only 10% speak two or more? While Europe’s linguistic diversity could be one of the greatest obstacles to the creation of a cohesive European political identity, it is also a fantastic asset in that it allows its citizens to live in a multilingual environment. By appreciating the great diversity of Europe’s languages and supporting programs to increase popular interest in learning a new language, we as Europeans will further promote tolerance and mutual understanding.

Reflecting on the future of the European Union, former Czech President Vaclav Havel suggested that the European Union’s overall success will be “based on solidarity, credible and capable of making citizens proud to be Europeans”.

The European Union was founded on the concept of diversity. The points outlined above are key to narrowing the gap between what divides us as Europeans and what unifies us. Beyond politics and institutional battles, it is the everyday reality within our borders that will gradually create our European identity. By protecting diversity within the European Union, and by leveraging its advantages, all of Europe’s citizens can have a part in contributing to the European ideal and at home in the European family.