If you believed everything you heard then you probably wouldn’t understand why we are even that bothered about Europe. Geographically, socially and soon to be politically, the UK is the most estranged country from the European continent. Most Brits don’t feel the same connection to their European identity as our French, Italian and Dutch cousins. For me, however, I’m growing more and more aware of my European identity, our cultural similarities and my own pride in them all. So I’m taking it upon myself to remind everyone of all the things we take for granted as Europeans, and that our similarities, and differences, are a cause for celebration.
Unlike some other continents, such as North and South America, Europe is not united by language. There are about 109 languages spoken throughout the continent, including regional dialects and non-EU countries. Maybe it’s because I’m a French student, but I think that’s awesome, in the true sense of the word. And, having attempted to teach myself Spanish, Italian, German, Polish and Swedish to no avail, I can tell you first-hand that these languages are as diverse as they come, which reflects the extent of the cultural diversity on the continent. Us Brits have our own cultural quirks that are just as much a part of the bizarre European social tapestry as any other. Not only that, but it’s clear that Europe is not one homogenous unit, but is full of linguistic diversity. So, yes, while I am a total advocate of Britain pulling its socks up in terms of bothering to learn other languages, and not expecting the whole world to pander to our English tongues, it’s reassuring to know that not being able to speak Greek, Bosnian or Estonian doesn’t make us any less European.
Despite not having travelled extensively in Europe, I’ve been able to find connections everywhere. In Poland, I found a country with a very similar climate, and a people with very similar customs to ours. In northern Spain, there is green countryside to rival our own, in Italy ancient ruins not dissimilar to those in Britain, and France a language that is the basis of English. These traits that we share are a testament of both nature and history, something that reminds me of our fundamental shared foundations. And yet our differences flourish, and are also a cause for celebration, with Spanish bar culture, French philosophy and British humour being just small brushstrokes making up the wider portrait of Europe. In light of all these wonderful things, which we both influenced and were influenced by, why do we seem so reluctant to identify with them?
As a continent, we have a common history, with churches, castles, remnants of Roman conquest and ancient battlegrounds littering almost every European country. Kings and queens were traded between us to secure international relations, mixing our cultures in the process. We travelled all over the continent in order to influence and to gain outside knowledge. During the Renaissance, we took as much pride as any other European state in our cultural innovation and pioneering thought. Even in the 20th century we were part of the Europe divided by war and politics. Right up to this day, where we as a society, despite our outward inward-ism, celebrate European food and indulge ourselves with Eurovision, I struggle to understand who drew these arbitrary boundaries between Britishness and Europeanism and why we still abide by them.
To be able to travel for just a few hours and be in an entirely different country, with its own unique language, history, mannerisms and society, is something so uniquely European and we don’t even appreciate that privilege. This thought particularly struck me when I was flying back from China: of the 12 hours in flight, at least 3 of them were spent over China. Back in Europe, I could drive to France from Britain, and then drive a few hours more and be in Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg or Switzerland. Mere hours away are the natural beauty of Mont Blanc, the architecture of Barcelona and the shops of the Champs-Élysées.
Whilst I strongly believe that we should take greater pride in our beautiful continent, I also believe that our pride in Britain should simultaneously manifest itself as European pride. After all, our country is full of interesting people, cosmopolitan cities and natural beauty just like the rest of Europe. Despite being separated by water, for mainland Europeans, a trip to London or a weekend away in the Lake District is just as desirable as our city breaks to Paris or holidays to the Algarve. Contrary to what seems to be the perceived British attitude, we are not superior to Europe. We share in their heritage, their values, their problems and shortcomings. Our little island is an important part of the European story, and we should take more pride in that fact.
I personally don’t understand where this reluctance originates. What is there to be ashamed of in Europe that we should not already be ashamed of in our Britishness? Europe has a history as ugly as it is beautiful, as I discovered first-hand when visiting Aushwitz-Birkneau in Poland. This all-too-recent evil is repugnant and a cause for distance from humanity, but also a cause to unite with our European counterparts. To continue to distance ourselves from the unsightly parts of European history is to do a disservice to the victims of this history, and to ignore the part we played in it. Not only this, but it is only through unity that things like this can be prevented in the future. Whilst I acknowledge that this is perhaps an exaggerated interpretation of our distanced relationship with Europe, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect nations to take lessons from history, no matter how small the lesson nor how heinous the crimes. The fact that this happened already, within the last century, is evidence that it could happen again. Without sensationalising the past, it’s important that we keep perspective by remembering the events that shaped us as a continent, good and bad.
The entire history of Britain is European. Romans, Vikings and Normans invaded us; our country is a by-product of Italy, France and Scandinavia. We have fought both against and alongside the rest of Europe. We helped to shape the great European cities just as ours have been shaped. This age-old cooperation is irrefutable and irreversible: whatever the future may bring, our fate is forever entwined with Europe’s; we are Europe. Our ties will never truly be severed, and I will not relinquish this European identity that I am only just discovering.