Aug 11, 2008 at 12:52 pm Leave a comment

The European Union has been having an identity crisis lately. It can’t decide who it should let in (is Turkey in Europe or Asia?), how united it should be (remember Ireland’s no vote to the Lisbon Treaty) and even how to go about voting. Europeans are at odds as to which direction the union should go.

Within this EU frame comes another question of identity and international relations brought up in Belgium, a country on the brink of a split. In the North of Belgium is an area called Flanders, made up primarily of wealthy, Flemish-speaking Belgish. This area of the country comprises 65 percent of its national GDP. In the South is Wallonia, the French-speaking, poorer area of the country.

The conflict has grown due to financial differences. In July, several government representatives began calling for Flanders to have more financial autonomy, which soon led into the argument that Flanders should separate from Wallonia. Since then, no decisions have been made because no one can agree on how to solve the problem.

The source of the problem is not only financial. Rather, the underlying problem and the reason Belgiums can not agree on the next step is deeply rooted in cultural differences. It’s not because Belgium is split into a wealthy Northern region and a poor Southern region, but rather that the citizens in the Northern region are Flemish and the Southern French. And both group maintain a strong sense of pride over their heritage. Check out from this article and this article from the New York Times for additional background information.

This doesn’t have political and social ramifications only for Belgium and France but for the entire EU. The further breakdown of European countries has been occuring for the last several decades, such as with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Yugoslavia and Bosnia and most recently Kosovo and Serbia. It’s a trend that Ian Burama, professor for human rights at Bard College in New York, says will have negative effects on the EU.

Writing in The Guardian Burama said, “Many Basques would like to break away from Spain, as would many Catalans. Corsicans would love to be rid of France, and many Scots of Britain. … No doubt some of these peoples would be able to survive perfectly well on their own. But history does seem to suggest that the cumulative effect of states falling apart is seldom positive. … Nation-states were often formed in the 18th and 19th centuries to promote common interests that transcended cultural, ethnic, linguistic, or religious differences. … The problem now is that interests are no longer the same, or even held in common.

Burama puts part of the blame on EU shoulders. Because the EU actively promotes regional interests within a larger nation-transcending framework, the authority of national governments is weakened. The existence of the larger EU, which brings with it economic and political protection, allows regional governing bodies that are based on cultural identity to believe that they can flourish independently of a national government. If you’re Scotland, why be part of the U.K. when you are part of the EU?

“The fate of Belgium should interest all Europeans, especially those who wish the Union well. For what is happening in Belgium now could end up happening on a continental scale,” Burama wrote. “Without having intended it, the EU now seems to be encouraging the very forces that postwar European unity was designed to contain.”

This argument is part of the question of how large can one’s own identity become in such a globalized world? Can someone think of themselves as only a European – not Italian, Welsh or Catalonian – and still feel a sense of self-importance within a strong cultural identity? Enough of a sense of self-worth to operate appropriately within the politcal and global realm?

The question goes back to an idea of basic psychology, humans need to feel tha they belong to a group. This is true in mundane, everyday situations, which is why we join sports and activity groups and have a common set of friends, but this is also a determining factor in a more broad sense, which links to religion, politics and race. In order to unite each other, people need a “them” or a group of “others” that can not be part of the unity because they are different. This border between us and them is almost always subconscious. Throughout history it is often imperceptible, especially to outsiders, however, most often or perhaps most notably are the divisions along obvious, physical factors, such as race, gender and religion.

The way people and nations divide and unite themselves along this “us” and “them” line has changed significantly with economic and cultural globalization. Distance is no longer as important, and most people have multiple cultural identites, starting with the local and including trans-national, such as an European or Christian identity. But one thing that I would argue that will never change are these divisions along race, religious and, now, historical backgrounds. Though one can argue that the world is continually becoming closer in cultural values and norms and political idealogies, these subconscious and inherent feelings within people – the need to feel as a part of a group – will always divide people.


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