Monday

16th Sep 2019

Opinion

Europeople

  • EU institutions should also work harder at more closely representing all Europeans in their workforces (Photo: FallacyFilms)

“So where are you from?”

In most places, this is the simplest of questions to answer. So simple in fact that nobody bothers asking it. You are from where you live – which is usually the place where you were born, grew up and work. Not in Brussels.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Brussels, where over half the population is foreign born or the offspring of foreign-born parents. (Photo: Arild Nybo)

“What do you mean?” asked the woman I was trying to make polite conversation with at a reception. “Like, where do I work?” I’ve heard this line before. In fact I’ve heard people answer “The Committee of the Regions” or “DG Pêche.” I swear.

“I mean what country do you come from? “Oh, I see.” Giggles. Pause. Head-shaking. “That’s hard to answer.”

“Not really,” I reply. “I’m from Swansea, in Wales. Britain if you want.” “Well, with me it’s more complicated.” If I had a euro for every time someone has said that to me in Brussels I’d be a rich man.

Cue a story about how she grew up in Hungary, did her Erasmus in Madrid and fell in love with a Spanish guy and now feels more Spanish than Hungarian but lives in Brussels where she works in English, studies French and feels guilty about not knowing Dutch. “I guess you could call me European,” she concludes.

Cultural cross-pollination

There are countless variations on this story I’ve heard over the years in Brussels. The parents from Sweden and Greece. The childhood spent trudging around the globe following diplomat mums and dads. The international, French or European schools. The mad mix of languages at home.

I have three reactions when I hear these sorts of stories.

First, ordinariness. I was born in Wales to two Welsh parents from the same street. We moved once – up the road. I didn’t fly until I was 16 and didn’t know any foreigners – unless you count English – until then. Nobody ever asked me where I was from and if they had, I knew. I still do.

Secondly, pride in what Europe has become. Not the continent I knew in my youth where an iron curtain divided west from east, where borders were real – and often scary – and where rip-off airlines meant flying was only for the jet-set and study abroad the preserve of a privileged few.

Instead, a united, borderless Europe criss-crossed by cheap airlines allowing Polish doctors to work weekend shifts in Swedish hospitals, British pensioners to get free Spanish healthcare and Italian students to spend a university term discovering the joys of Germany.

Brussels, where over half the population is foreign born or the offspring of foreign-born parents, is perhaps the boldest experiment in cultural cross-pollination. Everyone seems to be from somewhere else, couples are invariably from different countries and people effortlessly bi- or trilingual.

Belgium’s bastard child has become Europe’s melting pot.

Rootless cosmopolitans

And this brings me to my third sensation when polite chit-chat quickly turns existential – worry. I’m worried that these rootless cosmopolitans who appear to make up the vast majority of the Brussels bubble – and I reluctantly count myself as one of them after over 20 years in Europe’s wannabe capital - are not at all representative of the people they are writing about, legislating for and supposedly lobbying on behalf of.

Most Europeans have spent all their lives in one country, speak one language – and maybe smatterings of another – are proud of being French, Lithuanian or Greek and probably have little idea of what being European involves.

Most Europeans have not done Erasmus, don’t know the difference between the European Council and the Council of Europe and don’t spend their weekends flitting around European capitals.

And unlike EU officials, most Europeans don’t have well-paid, low-taxed, jobs-for-life; special, taxpayer-funded schools for their kids and cushy pensions and living allowances.

And here’s the rub. If you have lived abroad for a long time or are the offspring of parents from different countries – like my kids are – you are likely to find the idea of tribal nationalism bizarre and the attractions of Europe obvious.

If you spend your life hopping across borders and speaking other languages you are likely to view proud, rooted, monolingual citizens of a region or country as somewhat provincial.

And if you are paid by the EU or earn your living feeding off it you are probably going to think the EU is a good thing.

Beyond Brussels

This matters, because a EU policy elite with massively different lifestyles, backgrounds and ideas about Europe from the people it is meant to represent is likely to produce policies that fail to meet the needs and expectations of the vast majority outside the ‘Belgeway’.

There are ways around this.

Instead of frowning on people who are fiercely proud of their regional and national identities – viewing such feelings as primeval and anti-European – EU cheerleaders should embrace them as simply additional layers of identity.

As most Catalans, Scots or Poles will tell you, there is no contradiction between being proudly Catalan, Scottish or Polish and passionately pro-EU.

Instead of spending most of their time preaching to the converted at think-tank conferences and policy summits, European Commissioners – and other EU officials – should aim to convince the doubters, sceptics and opponents of EU integration where they are, whether in hunting associations in France, pensioner clubs in Slovenia or fishing villages in Galicia.

The EU institutions should also work harder at more closely representing all Europeans in their workforces. Quotas for women and ethnic minorities could help here, as could an entrance exam based less on abstract problem-solving and more on real-world experience.

Finally, journalists have their role to play. Instead of acting as surrogate EU spokespeople by recycling press releases and obsessing about the process of law-making, they should devote more time and effort to explaining the effects of those laws on people and communities.

Gareth Harding is Managing Director of Clear Europe, a communications company. He also runs the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Follow him on Twitter @garethharding.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Interview

Timmermans: 'The toughest job I've ever had'

"In terms of trying to really change things - it is the toughest job I have ever had", says EU commission vice-president Frans Timmermans as the executive approaches its first 100 days in office.

On being trolled by an EU official

All too often, Brussels’ response to criticism sounds like congressman Underwood when confronted by a protestor in The House of Cards - “Nobody can hear you. Nobody cares about you. Nothing will come of this.”

EU: 28 countries, one common language

The enlargement of the EU to 16 countries, where English is usually the most important second language, has toppled French from its perch.

News in Brief

  1. Nearly 100 refugees evacuated from Libya to Italy
  2. Juncker to meet Johnson on Monday
  3. First Hungary 'Article 7' hearing set for Monday
  4. Vestager picks Danish EU ambassador as cabinet head
  5. Commissioner hearings will start 30 September
  6. Italy says EU countries agree to take in rescued migrants
  7. Germany to organise Libya conference on arms embargo
  8. European Parliament to support another Brexit delay

Defending the defenders: ombudsmen need support

Ombudsmen are often coming under attack or facing different kinds of challenges. These can include threats, legal action, reprisals, budget cuts or a limitation of their mandate.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  2. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  6. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  8. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  9. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  10. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  11. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat

Latest News

  1. Brexit and new commission in focus This WEEK
  2. As recession looms Europe needs more spending
  3. How should the EU handle Russia now?
  4. EU defence bravado criticised by auditors
  5. Central European leaders demand EU Balkan accession
  6. Luxembourg's cannabis legalisation is EU opportunity
  7. The Catalan National Day has been a success. Why?
  8. Why I'm voting against the von der Leyen commission

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  5. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  8. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  2. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  4. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  6. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  7. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us