Scoring an own-goal for Europe United

The European Parliament is used to scoring own-goals. But even by its standards, the assembly’s call last week for the EU flag to be flown at major sporting events and for the European emblem to grace athletes’ shirts was the political equivalent of a defender back-heeling the ball into his own net.

Admittedly, parliament’s report on the European dimension of sport contains plenty of worthy calls for member states to devote a greater share of their budget to sports and for racism, violence and corruption in sport to be rooted out. But as the EU has few competences in the sports arena, this amounts to little more than meaningless political posturing.

Parliament insists the European flag would be displayed alongside national symbols on athletes’ shirts and would be entirely voluntary. What could possibly be wrong with that? Quite a lot actually.

As I argue in the latest edition of Foreign Policy Magazine, there is no such thing as a European people and top-down attempts at moulding one are likely to end in failure.

In opinion polls voters identify themselves much more with their nation state than with Europe. As former European Commissioner Chris Patten has said: “The nation is alive and well and more potent than ever in some respects. It is the largest unit, perhaps, to which people will willingly accord emotional allegiance.”

In fact, even the nation is too big for many people to associate with. Europe has 20 more countries than in 1988 due to the splintering of countries like the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and others. And there will be more on the way if Belgium, Spain or Britain shatter.

In September the New York Times ran a front-page article about plans to have a British soccer team representing the UK in the London Olympics this year. Quite logical, one might think. Except there is no such thing. Instead we have Welsh, English, Scottish and Northern Irish teams and all but the English are against joining Team GB. Said the head of the Scottish football federation – “We need to protect our identity and we have no interest in taking part.” The Welsh former goalkeeper Neville Southall asked: “What flag are they going to put up if Team GB win the football? The Union Jack? Well it’s not my flag; my flag’s a dragon.”

The journalist helpfully pointed out that “It is sometimes hard for outsiders to comprehend how deeply tribal Britain is, and how resistant to the idea that there is a unifying notion of Britishness.”

Not just Britain. In Belgium there is such a vicious division between Flanders and Wallonia that the country’s football association recently voted to divide national amateur leagues along linguistic lines.

Call me tribal, but despite living in Belgium for almost 20 years I am Welsh and proud of it. The symbols I identify with are the dragon, the leek and the daffodil, not a flag designed by a committee of experts half a century ago. When our rugby team beat Ireland on Saturday I jumped for joy like most of my compatriots. The pleasure of beating our opponents – because that is what sport is largely about – would not have been any different if the European flag had been fluttering above the Aviva stadium in Dublin or if the players had worn the 12 stars on their shirts. Its presence would simply have been an irrelevance.

This is not to deny that one can have multiple identities. Many Europeans are Catalan, Spanish and European. Others are Muslim and French. But identities cannot be artificially created – they are forged early on and never go away. As the Jesuits’ used to say: ‘Give me a child until he’s seven and I will give you the man.’

Europeans are slowly coming together after centuries of division – and that is a good thing. Most Europeans care more about the result of the Eurovision Song Contest and the Champions League final than the European Parliament elections. Thanks to no-frills airlines like Ryanair and easyJet, Europeans are criss-crossing the continent like never before. And Brits with no great fondness for the EU cheer on French, Spanish and Portuguese soccer stars playing for their ‘local’ clubs and afterwards head to the pub to drink Belgian and German lagers.

Much of the credit for this is due to the EU for scrapping national airline monopolies, granting Europeans the right to live and work in any member state and ending quotas on foreign soccer players – although, perversely, parliament’s report says that an “over-dependence on the transfer of players can undermine sporting values.” But ultimately Europe will not be built by Brussels edicts but European citizens – whether border-hopping footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo, superstar DJs like David Guetta or brash entrepreneurs like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary.

In his magisterial book ‘In Europe,’ the Dutch author Geert Mak writes: “People need stories in order to grasp the inexplicable, to cope with their fate. The individual nation, with its common language and shared imagery can always forge these experiences into one great cohesive story. But Europe cannot do that. Unlike the United States it still has no common story.”

There are huge differences between states in America but at the end of the day Americans feel American and are proud of the fact. Their hearts beat faster when they sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ or watch their athletes winning gold medals in Olympics. Most know their constitution and roughly how their political system works. They speak the same language and are obsessed by the same sports.

The European Union, on the other hand, has created common institutions, laws and even a currency. It has created all the symbols of a nation state – a passport nobody swears allegiance to, an anthem nobody knows and a flag that is only voluntarily waved at the Ryder Cup golf championships between the US and Europe. What it lacks is a people who share a common culture, language or narrative – or at the very least are able to identify with the political construct that has been created in their name. “We have Europe. Now we need Europeans,” was how former Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek put it.

The problem is you cannot manufacture Europeans like toy soldiers. It takes time for a people to evolve and imposing artificial political bodies on disparate peoples has ended in failure or disaster throughout history.

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