European citizenship

Milan Travel Blog

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It is striking just how crude and unsophisticated the view of Europe is from the outside (and perhaps, until recently, from the inside?). When I learnt about Europe in school it was all so simple. In Italy they spoke Italian, in France they spoke French. Italians eat pasta, French eat baguettes. The stereotypes are useful to teach children an indication of the diversity of cultures between states, but unfortunately our learning stagnates at this point and we progress no further than this infantile understanding.

Perhaps now more than ever, with the EU dissolving the importance of national borders, we can see that Europe in a very real way is still a continent of city states. In Genova the native language is Genoese, a dialect of Ligurian, not Italian. Linguistically and culturally the city is historically closer to Monaco than other parts of Italy. In Milan Milanese is still spoken, a dialect of Lombard. Barcelona is as Catalan as it is Spanish, Malaga is Andalusian as well as Spanish. Federal authority in France, Spain and Italy has certainly left a mark, there is now an imprint of Parisian culture extending to the borders of France, with regional languages of definitive secondary importance. But this in no way corresponds to the homogeneity found within younger countries such as Australia or the USA, where the previous rich patchwork quilt of cultures was simply obliterated.

I am seeing Europe more and more as a continent of regions rather than countries. Groups of regions share central structures and languages of mobility, and a number of large cities (London, Paris, Brussels, Rome etc) have become continental cities. But beneath the national veneer lies deep regional roots, and the current borders are too fresh to have fully obscured the commonalities in region that can cross national boundaries.

It is a wonderful consequence of the European Union that these regional differences are starting to blossom again. With the fall of borders and the rise of high speed travel, a common currency and education programs like Erasmus, national identity is less important than ever. At the same time, the commonalities between regions in different countries can be appreciated. This highlights the idiocy of “national character conversations” that politicians like Sarkozy and Berlusconi are trying to start in a bid to cultivate and feed off latent racism and xenophobia. Yes, there are cultural habits that are stereotypically French or Italian, but it is anti-cultural behaviour to try to define these cultural habits as national habits. The diversity of culture within European countries is larger than the diversity of culture between European countries. And there are pan-European cultural characteristics, such as the importance placed on living well.

A European country is not a homogeneous block. It is a patchwork of ancient and modern cultures in small regional pockets, with dynamic swirling cities linked by high-speed corridors. Most importantly of all, any citizen of a European country is free to adopt or dismiss any strands of their cultural heritage at any level, local, regional, national or continental, by their own free choice. A resident of Barcelona can chose to learn Spanish but live as a cultural Catalan, can adopt European humanism over local Catholicism but learn to cook as a quintessential Barcelonan. They are no more or less a citizen of Barcelona, Spain and Europe than an individual that makes opposite choices, and every European should protest strongly against politicians who want to dictate that the majority cultural choice is the only valid cultural choice. How dare any person claim to speak on behalf of the cultural values of their entire nation, how dare they draw up values into a litmus test which you accept or leave. Modern Europe does not operate by coercion, it operates by allowing people to choose their values and culture for themselves - and long may the xenophobes fail to change this.
Adrian_Liston says:
If you haven't already read it, I'll lend you "The Discovery of France" by Graham Robb. It is a fascinating story on just how much regional diversity there was in France only 60 years ago, including a whistle language used by shepherds.

As for why there are so few Federal countries in Europe, perhaps it is because most European countries started as Monarchies? That way power already centralised was passed to a central government with democracy, while in Australia and the US the independent states joined up as a democracy and so had a vested interest in weakening the central power over their personal state-based power. In that regard it is interesting to note that Germany was one of the last countries in Europe to pull together into a single country...
Posted on: Dec 31, 2009
lamadude says:
I think the exception to this, as you mentioned, is France, no European language is so standardized as French, and while there are of course some regional differences (especially people in Brittany see themselves as outsiders sometimes) but it's much less pronounced than in other European countries.
But this homogeneity, is the result of a long process, Paris is one of the few cities that could extend its power over an entire country, which made the Parisian dialect "standard" french and could impose it on all the regional languages and disallowing eductation in regional languages (such as Occitan in the south, Alsacien in the east and Flemish in the north)

I believe England (not the UK, just england in itself) is quite homogenous as well, probably because, like in france there is one city, London, which is an order of magnitude larger than other cities, which can set the standard.

Germany, Italy, Spain, these are much more "regional" countries, where the capital is not the undisputed leader of the country. Berlin is barely larger than Hamburg or Munich. And it's no coincidence that some of the most anticipated soccer games of the year are Rome vs Milan and Madrid vs Barcelona.

Oddly enough there are almost no federal states in the EU. (only 3 of the 27 memeber states: Austria, Belgium and Germany) whereas North America and Australia, with a lot less regional differences, all are federal states. This seems counterintuitive to me, perhaps it's because European countries fear that the regional differences are so strong that a federal state structure would trigger claims of independence?
Posted on: Dec 31, 2009
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