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Under Attack? Europe, the Brussels Bombings and European Identity

The aftermath of a horrendous happening like the Brussels bombings is a time of mourning, sorrow and anger. Those caught up in them directly must begin to address the trauma; those of us who were luckier, pulled in only as bystanders, must do what we can to help. In moments such as this, it’s easy to lose hope, or to see the world as a place full only of danger, threat and pain.

Those of us with a spiritual element in our lives may find succour in our beliefs – although I’m not a Christian, I love Denise Levertov’s poem ‘On the Mystery of the Incarnation’, in which she wonders gratefully at how her God could bear to become a human, knowing all the terrible things our species is capable of. Others of us may find help in our friends, or family, or in consciously celebrating the good things in life. But however we make it through, a major challenge is to do so while avoiding a retreat into ‘us versus them’ thinking, not least because that obscures what we know to be ecological reality: we are all part of one species, and one complex global web.

What does this have to do with European integration? In a way, nothing more than it does with any major political, economic, legal and social institution – the EU and Council of Europe, for instance, are just parts of our contemporary governance system and as pertinent to the issues of terrorism as their competences allow. But there is another way in which the Brussels bombings, their predecessors and their likely successors go right to the heart of European integration. This is because they speak directly to how Europeans identify with each other: are we all in this together, or not?

One of the major debates in academic work about European identity and EU citizenship centres on how Europeans could develop more of an affinity with each other. Could we do this on the basis of shared history and culture, which stresses the past and how European culture has developed a distinctive form that sets it apart from others in the world? Could we do it on the back of a shared set of values and a vision for our collective future? Could we do it as a response to a common threat, such as the Cold War Soviet Union, as a way to assert what makes us both distinctive and more secure in a dangerous world?

There are obvious problems with all three. As Europeans, do we really understand the cultures of our various nations and communities as ‘European’? Do we feel that the fact Europeans originated Western forms of drama and poetry and philosophy is enough to overcome differences in language, or the greater appeal of national and American cultures? What would our shared values be, and how would we know they were shared between us as Europeans but not between us and those living in, or from, other parts of the world? Should there be a right-wing set of shared values and a left-wing one, so that we can identify across national borders but not have to accept a messy compromise on other key beliefs?

If we need a common threat to make us feel and act more deeply as Europeans, what will this be? How will we know enough of us in the EU-28 agree on the perception of a threat, and that working together as the EU is in our best interest? And whichever of these paths to European identity we choose, or whichever combination of them, how can we stop our new, shared EU/European belonging just re-locating the us-versus-them distinctions of national identities to the continental level?

In the wake of the Brussels tragedy, it seems to me that real-world events are cutting off possibilities put forward in the academic literature. I have always thought the invocation of shared heritage and culture to be a ludicrous way to generate a European identity, not only because it can lead to xenophobia, but also because it relies on a knowledge most of us don’t have. For example, how many Portuguese have read The Good Soldier Svejk, and seen in this classic Czech novel the revelation that they share with Czechs, and other Europeans, a cultural tradition as meaningful as their national equivalents? How many Europeans today know enough of world cultures to see what is distinctively European? And given the extent of migration from Europe to other continents, is there really anything distinctively and exclusively European about, say, the novel or liberal democracy?

There is merit in the idea of shared values as the basis of a cross-border European identity, for instance, but without a conscious process of identifying and agreeing those values it’s hard to see how this project-of-the-head could ever become an identity-of-the-heart. It could, and I think should, take place in the near future, because without it we will struggle to get beyond shedding a few tears for victims of such bombs, changing our social media profiles for a few days to show our solidarity, and then returning to life as before. Once such a set of shared values is identified, it could become the basis of a new European Constitution, and a future-oriented sense of shared project could be generated on its back. But there is no real sign of such a process being started, and, at least if UK media coverage of the Brussels bombings is typical, it has had to include such material as where Brussels is (!) and struggled to do more than see events there as dreadful, but ultimately as someone else’s problem.

I think, though, that the Brussels bombings do have the potential to bring Europeans together as part of a process through which a shared threat is identified, and the need to respond collectively as Europeans is constructed. This is because of the links between such atrocities and the issue of migration into Europe, both real and imagined. Should there be more bombings, in a variety of different states such as Hungary and Estonia that would add geographical range to those we have seen so far, I think it will be relatively easy to generate the sense that terrorism is a common European problem.

The debate would then focus on two questions. The first would be whether national or European level responses are likely to be the most effective, and I think that Member States in the Banking Union would generally feel the latter to be the case, especially if Brexit happens, although domestic politics might make it difficult for elites to be open about this. The second would be around ‘us’ and ‘them’. Migration offers a handy possibility here; it is easy to paint in broad strokes about good guys and bad guys, and it’s not only right-wing politicians and parties who are doing this already. In the UK, columnists for The Guardian, the only national left-wing newspaper, are arguing regularly that events like the Brussels bombs and the migration crisis will require us to have a more secure, but less liberal, future. Add to the equation Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey – authoritarian nightmares both – and you get a fissile mixture that could be used to generate a sense of shared European threat and shared European differences from the states and cultures in the neighbourhood that could facilitate the creation of a European identity based on the Fortress Europe mentality.

Could the Brussels bombs lead to a shared European identity then? Yes. But as pro-Europeans of the Left, we should be careful to ensure it is not one based on fear and a rigid hierarchical distinction between Europe and the rest of the world. If we want to see a shared European identity, let’s be precise and careful about what we wish for.

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