Commentary: Europe's Explosive Identity Crisis

By John Rossant

There's an ill wind blowing across Europe. You can feel it in France, where the May 5 victory of Jacques Chirac does not erase the fact that almost 6 million voters cast their ballots for hard-right xenophobe Jean-Marie Le Pen. You can see it in the meteoric ascent of maverick Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn and in his assassination on May 6. You can feel it in the increasing shrillness of what currently passes for political debate in Italy, Denmark, and Britain. Amid the many currents feeding this rising tide of European malaise, one stands out: Europeans are in the midst of a monumental identity crisis.

From Berlin to Lisbon, people are stuck in a kind of existential halfway house, an uncertain transition period between two different realities. Behind them are the ancient nation-states of Europe, each defined by language, ethnicity, and varying economic models with national champions such as Fiat, Renault, or Siemens. Ahead is the post-modern construct of the European Union. The problem is, the first is fast collapsing, but the second has not yet been fully built.

That's why the recent confidence of European Commission President Romano Prodi seems so forced. On Apr. 29, Prodi told a skeptical British audience that "we [in Europe] have found a way to express our regional, national, and European identities without undermining any of them." Oh, really? Most Europeans would beg to differ. No one can say whether a distinct European identity will eventually emerge. After all, who--apart from government institutions--flies the blue, 15-starred EU flag?

At the same time, what does it mean, in 2002, to be French, Belgian, or Finn? The euro has replaced most national currencies. Rules and regulations flowing from the 17 Directorates-General of the European Commission in Brussels now seem to affect the lives of 380 million Europeans more than the decisions of national parliaments. And people watch helplessly as companies that were once a source of patriotic pride--Telecom Italia (TI ), Ericsson (ERICY ), Kirch Group--falter or get taken over.

Two other factors make this unstable mixture downright explosive. One is the growing presence of immigrant populations in a Europe that, for the most part, cannot accept nonwhite and non-Christian residents as full citizens. The other is a relentless economic anemia, which keeps unemployment high. Thus, in many European towns and cities, a vicious circle of crime, violence, and racism has taken hold.

The pressure was starting to build even before Le Pen's strong showing in France's presidential election. Witness the string of attacks, some deadly, on immigrant hostels in Germany and the race riots that wracked northern Britain last summer. The loudest wake-up call probably came in October during an historic France-Algeria exhibition soccer game at the Stade de France in Paris. The crowd of 80,000 was mostly young, suburban beurs--slang for French people of Arab descent. The government-sponsored match was a disaster: Spectators jeered as the French national anthem played, pelted Cabinet ministers with water bottles, and charged the playing field. As a spectacle that showed just how disconnected immigrants are from mainstream French society, it was hard to top.

In this season of distrust, violence, and death, it's hard to believe Europe will find its way again. Maybe, at this juncture, it pays to look at how much Europeans have already accomplished. The effort to unify Europe has helped consolidate a half-century of peace--the longest tranquil stretch this bloodied continent has known. "When I look back, each step of building Europe has been a miracle," says Gérard Mestrallet, CEO of French-Belgian energy and water giant Suez. But forging a true European identity--untainted by nationalism and ethnic hatred--will take many miracles more.

Rossant covers European politics from Paris.

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