In contemporary European political discussions, two narratives of European identity emerge. There is the lofty EU-narrative of a shared identity based on higher ideals and common cultural heritage. On the opposite end of the spectrum there are the boastful nationalisms that deny the existence of any real shared European identity that could serve as the basis of cooperation or political unions. As this blog series has demonstrated, neither of them is an ideal nor a true depiction of Europe or European identity.
Neither pride nor hatred can form a sustainable identity, since the history and the present of Europe are full of contradictions that counter both emotions. On one hand, the relaxed and slightly shabby cosmopolitanism of the European Union is unprecedently peaceful and easygoing, despite all its troubles. On the other, it is sickening to hear the endless news of sunken refugee boats, of needless deaths at European borders that could have been prevented, yet we chose not to. How to reconcile the good and the bad to form an identity that is acceptable or even somewhat accurate?
Europe: if not we, then who?
We were both born around the time that Finland was in the process of joining the European Union – to us twenty-something millennials, the country has never been outside of Europe, but firmly part of it. (And to many of us, the Union equals Europe.) Yet Finns love to talk about being in the fringes, being a bit quirky and somewhat different than the other Europeans. When we speak of things happening in Paris or Berlin, we speak of things happening in Europe, as if it is somewhere far away. All this even though recent Eurobarometers have shown that most Finns are both aware that they are European citizens (93%) and know what it entails (63%).
However, it seems that this habit of denial is as European as it gets. The Germans do it. The French do it. The British do it and the Brexiteers especially have done nothing else for the last four years or so. When a Parisian AirBnB host told one of us that the French speak of “going to Europe” when travelling to Germany, Belgium or Italy, the listener’s first instinct was to laugh – if the French do not see themselves as Europeans, who even does?
The denial of being European is what it is about: European is an ideal type of something we all recognize that exists but don’t quite believe that we are.
Either we’re not “civilized” or “posh” enough to be Europeans or we’re too cool or too original to be Europeans. The Schrödinger’s European is as misinterpreted as the original thought experiment, simultaneously unattainable and something we might not want to be.
What Europeans share is something that Bulgarian historian Alexander Kiossev calls dark intimacy, a feeling of sharing an identity that is embarrassing or even shameful, familiar and comforting at the same time. While Kiossev has used the concept to describe Balkan experiences specifically, the concept could be applied to European identity as well. It could be a way to reconcile the contradictory parts of European identity.
Dark intimacy is sighing and shaking one’s head fondly at a particularly outrageous mullet on the Eurovision stage. It is also adoring European cities in all their unpractical and historical glory, while at the same time being uncomfortably aware where and how the riches to build the ivory-filled palaces of 18th and 19th centuries were acquired. It’s also recognizing traits, habits and style that Europeans have, and knowing that they are not the only way to do things, but that they are something that could only be described as European. Whatever that even means.
So far, yet so close
It is not a stretch to estimate that European youth are probably one of the most privileged groups of young people in the world. One of the greatest privileges is having the freedom to move, to relocate to a new country with an Erasmus-grant in your pocket and get to know the people you’re supposed to share an identity with.
Any ex-Erasmus student has probably noticed that being with other Europeans is not particularly novel, at times it is almost painstakingly familiar. Emphasizing foreignness is a strategy to distance us from each other, but the reality hits you quite soon, when you find yourself in a café with a German, a Slovakian, an Italian, an Icelander, a Greek and a Pole.
We know each other better than we like to admit. Conversations flow through the same, tiresome stereotypes of national character, country-specific alcoholic drinks and tricky grammar, but nothing is ever new.
Oh, you do that too? Oh, we have the same thing, but a bit different. But our country has these problems. Unemployment. Impossible requirements for young people. Oh, yours as well? I feel like the world is changing too quickly but also not quickly enough. Oh, you think that too?
That is not say that if you threw a Filipino exchange student or a grad student from Ghana in the mix that the shared experiences of being young and lost would change drastically. They don’t. It is not fruitful or even justified to uphold the belief that “the others” would be radically different from us just because they were not born in Europe. Holding onto stereotypes does not change the self-explanatory understanding “that people are the same the world-over, except when they are not.”1
However, the dark and shameful aspects of European identity are ours to carry. Accepting that might provide basis for its existence in the future as well - if not, the identity might revert to its historical roots in racism, xenophobia and exclusionism. Accepting that European identity is in no way based on superiority of any kind is key to its survival.
The privileged youth that can go on the 21st century version of a Grand Tour are not the sole possessors of knowledge or of the only true experience of what it means being European in the 2020’s.
What it means is that when Europeans of more or less similar socio-economic backgrounds and ages come together, they might find themselves in a situation where instead of the Strange, they encounter the Familiar.
So, what to make of European identity? Should we build fortresses around it and embrace a deluded sense of superiority that is based on unfair historical privilege and gatekeeping? Should we abandon it altogether, either for nationalist fervor or in order to recognize its inherent problems? The answer is no. The wisest option might be to accept that it is a story of Europe - a story that can be narrated in a different way.
The editors Iida Karjalainen and Bea Bergholm would like to thank Ville Erkkilä, Mehrnoosh Farzamfar, Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz, Paolo Amorosa, Pedro Magalhães, Zoë Jay, Elisa Pascucci and Pamela Slotte of EuroStorie for participating in making this blog series. Thank you sharing your expertise and telling us your story of Europe. A special thank you goes to Tuomas Heikkilä for creating the original concept for the visual identity of the blog and to Paul Behne for allowing us to publish his text as part of the series.
We would also like to thank EuroStorie’s director Kaius Tuori for giving the green light for us to do this series.
 Nancy Banks-Smith, The Guardian, 21 July 1988.