For Americans (and others), “Europe” is now the EU. Excuse me, the EU is Europe. There is a difference there. All of Europe is clearly not in the European Union; depending on how you slice it, the continent of Europe contains 50 countries but the EU is comprised of 27 member states. So no, “Europe” is not the EU. Rather, to those outside it, European Union has finally accomplished what was long accepted as true: it has solidified the European brand.
What do Americans think it means to be European? Let’s consult that bastion of cultural reflection, television. Europeans are typecast into a limited set of roles. We have the smooth but slyly evil businessman, the temptress, and the bohemian. Their accents draw us in but simultaneously make us distrust them. They have style, but it’s always a little too much: a silky pocket square that seems just slightly too expensive and too perfectly matched to the tie; a dress that fits perfectly but plunges just a little too low in the back, stubble and long hair that denote carelessness and inattention but are obviously attended to religiously. They have indistinct accents that are impossible to place geographically and they all have that je ne sais quoi, that mystery that Americans attribute to all Europeans but that in the end is never preferable to our comparatively simple selves. They have no particular tie to their home country – which isn’t always specified – but they are always very connected to Europe. The European dreamed up by American television is a brand: a loose cosmopolitan who eats rich food, enjoys expensive wine, but is perpetually thin without trying. This is the Little Debbie version of the European. Enjoy its creamy filling while ignoring its carcinogens.
What Europeans think it means to be European is much more unstable, much more transient. The EU may have created a ‘borderless Europe’ (for its member states) but actual Europeans are much more connected to the country of their birth than to their continent In fact, many of them see the EU, which is often characterized as “Europe,” as an encroachment on national sovereignty. They only identify themselves as Europeans when there is a palpable threat from without: Tunisian and Libyan migrants, Turkey’s possible accession to the EU. They coat nationalism chauvinism in the sweeter sauce of being European. When interviewed by NPR about the droves of Tunisian migrants rejected by France and sent back to Italy through her town, an elderly woman characterized the migrants as violent without specifically calling them so – “There are so many Tunisians here, there so many other people here, it is becoming more and more aggressive,” she says. but actual Europeans are much more connected to the country of their birth than to their continent“Myself — I don’t go out at night, I am afraid.” She is then quick to cloak herself in the hazy identity of the European: “Like many other people here, the woman won’t give her name for fear of reprisals, but she says she is Greek-born, with a British passport, living in France and calls herself European.” (Emphasis mine) Whose reprisals does she fear, exactly? Do the Tunisian migrants fear NPR? Will they hunt her down and break into her home? That is doubtful. But claiming fear is another very effective way of making the migrants the frightening “others,” and retreating within the gentler, cocoon of Europe, a continent that has won itself a reputation for rejecting violence and embracing pacifism (even though violence and armed conflict did not actually disappear after WWII). She is inciting hatred by using the brand of Europe to paint herself as the good guy.
Outside of a geographical definition, there is no accepted measure of what is a European. There is a European brand that is characterized by useful buzzwords like “stylish,” “cosmopolitan,” “diverse,” “educated,” etc. This brand implies that while those to whom it applies may be self-obsessed, metrosexual snobs, they are not people who would irrationally hate others. It’s a pliable brand that everyone, including Europeans themselves, use liberally when it suits them. The woman in Menton who calls herself a European would suddenly become firmly British if suddenly France were to try to impose exorbitant tariffs on British goods (an act that EU law prohibits), staunchly Greek if the ECB were to urge Greece to impose even stricter austerity measures, and irrevocably French if there were tensions between France and Italy that did not involve the greater looming threat of African migrants. But as long as the colored, non Christians threaten to invade her sense of cultural security, she will be a European.