What does it mean to be European?

The European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium

It seems to be a cliché to ask such question but there are at least dozens of different answers because there are 28 member states in the European Union. But if you consider European countries which are part of the European Economic Area without a EU membership, then there will be 32 approaches to define “Europeanness”; if you are generous enough to also take the potential candidates and  candidate countries into account, then there will be 39 different perspectives on the meaning of being a European. The list goes on if you also include the Council of Europe……

What makes the “European identity” an even more interesting topic is that it depends on the geopolitical integration, ethnic minorities, and, above all, identity politics.

First, the geographical proximity of European countries creates different categories for the public to generalise various characteristics of “Europe”. When people refer to the “West”, it often implies the UK, France, Germany, and the Benelux countries, i.e. Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg; when there is a discussion on “Eastern Europe”, it somehow identifies post-Communist countries including the Visegrad group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia), the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), and the Balkans ( countries located within the Balkan Peninsula using the Danube-Sava-Soča border definition).

Wait! But how about the other Balkan countries which are excluded by the Danube-Sava definition? It seems like our romantic Italian friends and the Greek philosophers are missing! As Christmas is coming, we should also count in our Viking friends and Santa Claus in Lapland, isn’t it?

In truth, it’s problematic to draw a line between eastern and southern Europe because their histories are not mutually exclusive and one can’t simply say there is no tie between the two. Even for Scandinavia, one could put Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland into the same basket, but when you refer this definition to the Danes and Swedes, it often results in their dubious attitudes on whether the Finns are Scandinavians, or it might conclude with a broader term “Nordic“.

Second, the question of ethnic minorities in the Baltic states. Due to the Soviet legacies, there are about one-quarter of ethnic Russians born before/after the independence of the Baltic states respectively. Although there is only 8% of ethnic Russians living in Lithuania at the moment, there are almost two-thirds of Latvians with Russian backgrounds and around 330,000 ethnic Russians living in Estonia.

It raises a question on the dual identity of ethnic Russians who were born and raised in the Baltic states after the independence–they are localised but never fit in for neither “Russian” or “Estonian”/”Latvian”/”Lithuanian” categories. The locals don’t see them as part of the community, not would the Russians living in Russia consider them to be Russians because they often possess a strong accent associated with Estonian/Latvian/Lithuanian.

Third, identity politics, for far too often, denotes a “us” versus “them” scenario. People identify themselves in different ways because there is a significant “otherness” to compare with. In the case of identity politics, one’s identity is confirmed because there is an “enemy” who is against the whole group of people with the same characteristics. In the case of Europe, it’s ambiguous due to its universality of values and principles–Europe isn’t bounded by physical borders, but it encompasses imperial legacies, colonial past, and the civil wars that lingered for centuries.

In my case, I’m a Hongkonger identified as an ethnic Chinese with a British colonial past which nurtured me with European values. I feel European in some ways because I embrace European values but I was born and raised in an ethnic Chinese community and Cantonese is my native language, even though English is my working language. I’m also British by nationality but it doesn’t make me culturally British because my knowledge on English history is rather limited.

What’s your take on European identity?