Wed, Jul 16, 2003 - Page 9 News List

The new-look Europe

A multicultural and multi-ethnic population requires a new concept of European belonging that acknowledges cultural differences yet is able to forge a new commonality of values and principles



What is it to be European? The new constitution for Europe seeks to define the EU's competencies, but also the very nature of what constitutes European belonging.

The long-standing "Idea of Europe," which the new draft constitution emphatically endorses, defines Europeanness according to four myths of origin -- the rule of Roman law, solidarity based on Christiutuality, liberal democracy rooted in the rights and freedoms of the individual and commonality based on reason and other Enlightenment universal principles.

It is worth asking if this model of belonging makes sense in a multicultural and multi-ethnic Europe. This is not to question the intrinsic merits of the core values but to cast doubt on their power to fire the imagination and loyalty of a very large section of European society.

Europe is now home to millions of people from non-European backgrounds, many religious and cultural dispositions and many networks of attachment based on diaspora connections and cultural influences from around the world. Europe is as much a site of longings rooted in tradition -- regional, national and European -- as it is a site of trans-national and trans-European attachments.

The latter attachments are not just held by so-called third country communities and cosmopolitans living in the fast lane of global travel and hybrid identities, but also by native Europeans, now increasingly enmeshed in plural and global consumption norms and patterns. Slowly, Europe is becoming Chinese, Indian, Romany, Albanian, French and Italian, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist or New Age, American, Disneyfied, one-earth conscious, ascetic and locally communitarian. It is becoming a place of plural and strange belongings. It is constantly on the move in cultural terms.

The new and ever-changing yearnings for cultural difference and distinction within Europe make the old Idea of Europe a blunt instrument for unity. A new concept of European belonging is needed, one that acknowledges cultural difference without assuming any order of worth based on ethnicity or religion, and one able to forge a new commonality of values and principles that resonate across Europe's diverse communities.

For this reason, the starting point cannot be the Europeanness of Europe, for example, long-standing concepts such as universal reason, Catholic piety or the Protestant work ethic. A possible starting point, which happens to dig deep into European philosophical thought, is publicity for empathy and engagement with the stranger as the essence of what it is to be European. This signals an ethos of being and belonging that builds on the Socratic definition of freedom as the product of dialogue and engagement, rather than pre-given judgments of worth.

Two important principles for a new Idea of Europe spring out of this interpretation of what it is to be free. The first is the principle of hospitality, which the philosopher Julia Kristeva has linked etymologically to the original Greek definition of ethos as the habit of regular stay or shelter.

In a Europe in which we all will be strangers one day as we routinely move -- virtually or physically -- from one cultural space to another, the principle of refuge will become crucial for many more than the minorities that at present need protection from persecution and hardship. One hopes the rights and protections that come with an ethos of hospitality will offer more than the grudging concessions made to people such as refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers.

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