24th Mar 2018



  • 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.

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  • 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.


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