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What does it mean to be European in the 21st century?

Identity is the linchpin of the broader question of European integration and cohesion. It is an issue that was brought up several times during Friends of Europe’s State of Europe roundtable in October 2016.

At a time when the refugee crisis is critical to the balance of European security, peace and prosperity, the question of European identity and integration is becoming increasingly important.

The migrant and refugee crisis is not going away: ongoing violence in Syria and continued social instability across much of Africa means the crisis will continue to be a significant issue for us in Europe. It’s one we need to tackle head-on. But there are different models for integration in Europe: some lean towards embracing diversity and multiculturalism; others insist on assimilation.

But what is assimilation? It has been argued that we in Europe share a common identity. But is this really the case? The European Union has been a unifying power, but it is only a few decades old. Even today, national identities are important. Shakespeare is not as important to the French as Baudelaire is; Cervantes less precious to the Poles than Miłosz.

“Acknowledging differences – whether cultural, linguistic or religious – is important in an age in which it is tempting to couch migration in simplistic terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’”

And does this matter? Do we need to speak of a shared European identity to give historical authenticity to the political and economic union that has supported peaceful relations between the nations of Europe since the middle of the last century?

The shared history of our continent is very complex, encompassing much warfare and regional rivalry. The European project, forged in the wake of two devastating global conflicts that both began in Europe, deserves credit as an economic and political force for unity in a region historically rife with political, ideological, religious and ethnic conflicts.

But acknowledging differences – whether cultural, linguistic or religious – is important in an age in which it is tempting to couch migration in simplistic terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Perhaps what binds us together is the shared desire for peace derived from the dark lessons of disunity and war where we can find the roots of the successes of the European Union. The desire for peace and the desire to see the similarities, not just in Europeans but in humanity, is the foundation upon which a future for this continent can be built.

It is possible to achieve a future where we share common goals and values of peace and commitment to universal human rights. A future Europe can be a continent that exemplifies how embracing democratic values across cultures provides a unifying model for economic and political progress.

“The migrants arriving now may need a period of adjustment, and we should gladly offer the help they need”

Accepted over time, this can slowly become a ‘shared identity’ where cultural differences can be celebrated but citizenship is derived from an adherence to a set of basic values around democracy, rights and peace. An inclusive model for 21st-century European citizenship should also emphasise outreach to youth and children.

Our hard-won values need to be respected and appreciated, but where there is justice and goodwill, it is possible. There is room for a multicultural Europe, as Europe today is not made up of a few tribes but of many groups, converging from near and far. Many of us are first-, second-, or third-generation Europeans, with roots in colourful distant lands. Nearly all of us are of relatively recent migrant ancestry.

The migrants arriving now may need a period of adjustment, and we should gladly offer the help they need. We know that we have the structures in place to support their inclusion in European life. In various countries across Europe, supportive structures include linguistic and cultural sensitivity training, an overview of legal requirements and expectations, and societal openness – as shown particularly in Greece and Norway.

Our Europe is, and has been, one of diversity: rich in distinct regional cultures, languages and identities. The love for our great literary traditions as well as of democratic principles belongs to all, both across Europe and around the world.

There is a place for a multicultural Europe – indeed, we inhabit it.

But at the same time we share recognition of our common humanity and our common desire to live in a just and peaceful society. While we do not have exclusive ownership of these values, they are still – even in these difficult times – key parts of what it means to be European.

IMAGE CREDIT: Bigstock – maxxyustas