Where is our identity? Leonardo Goi looks at the fractured state of European Identity and how it will change in the coming decades.
Speaking to the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa in an interview released in early 2012, the novelist, father of semiology and all-round Italian intellectual Umberto Eco spoke at great length of the challenges hindering the full development of a common European identity. Despite all the arguments of Euro-optimists, a shared European identity is yet to sink deep enough to successfully withstand times of economic hardship. But it is at these times that a unified sense of belonging is most needed to overcome internal hostilities.
So what’s the solution? Sex. Or to put it less bluntly, the Erasmus Programme. “A young Catalan man meets a Flemish girl, they fall in love, they get married and become European – as do their children”. And the effort to bring together people from different EU nations should be extended to all types of people. Taxi drivers, plumbers – everybody should experience the benefits of the spirit of Erasmus, for it is travelling (and eventually, mating) that will create the first generation of young Europeans.
Admittedly the whole Erasmus idea has, at least for the youth, already reached a mythological status of some sort. The three-month-or-more study abroad programme has inspired a panoply of movies, songs and books that dwell in the temporary bliss which keeps the gates open for waves of young Europeans to experience something different, travel within the Continent, and very often partake in the sexual revolution that Eco advocates.
But most fundamentally, the hype behind the Erasmus seems to sprout from a two-fold call. On the one hand, a generational need to break free from one’s own surroundings and experience the unknown. On the other, a deeper sense of despair for one’s own prospects at home. And it is this second facet which is the most problematic.
Being Italian, I’ve grown accustomed to an environment which kept reminding me all solutions must be sought elsewhere. Along with other members of my generation coming from (mostly, but not always) Southern European nations I was raised with the idea that my place was not at home, that my happiness and chances of a great future would begin right outside the border. Along with millions of other young Europeans I saw my hopes crushed by a political class unable to live up to my expectations. I witnessed distrust channeled in mass-protest movements, such as the Indignados in Spain. I watched short-lived experiments like Italy’s 5-Star Movement that vowed to translate my anger into a new, anti-political force, only to see the utopia quietly crushed within the walls of a political stage that remains youth-proof. The disaffection towards politics which my generation is suffering goes hand in hand with a discursive construction of “the abroad” as an inherently better, just and open world. Everywhere from family to school, the leitmotiv is the same: if you can do it, leave – as quickly as possible.
The worry is not so much whether or not this is the case – that is, whether or not the abroad truly is the promised land and home a wasteland from which one must run away – but what happens when these narratives are effectively internalised. While the reality may well be far away from the way it is depicted, the fear is that the whole discourse can foster an insurmountable gap between those who “made it and left” and those who did not. Those left behind are seen as destined to inhabit a confined everyday reality constructed as a black-hole from which there is no escape nor scope for self-empowerment.
If being successful all too simplistically translates into being able to leave, then the risk is to breed generations of young Europeans for which all hopes lie outside – a community of expats within their own borders. A generation of youths who will have little incentive to work to change things from within a place that is constantly compared to its better Other, the Abroad.
This is not to denounce the longing to travel, to leave. Nor does it mean turning a blind eye to the chronic deficiencies of one’s society – the very ills which often make departure the only sensible choice. But constructing the abroad as the land of plenty is damaging for both those who cannot leave and those who do: those who on their return are bound to face a discourse in which homecoming is equivalent to failure. You managed to escape – why would you ever want to come back?
Strictly speaking, I am not part of the Erasmus generation. I never took off for an exchange programme across Europe, but I did leave home when I was 17 and have been studying abroad for about 7 years. Abroad is where I found my Italian and European identities, and realised the two were inextricable parts of the same whole. Abroad is where I realised I want to come home to be part of that generation that will fight to have its voice heard. With the abroad and its imaginary counterpart I’ve had to struggle, and find a way out of the arguments of those who compare my future comeback to a personal harakiri.
Whether or not Eco’s sexual revolution will truly yield the first generation of young Europeans, the idea of merging different nationalities from across the continent into a single, fluid whole can be vital in deconstructing the myth of the abroad and all its problematic undertones. A truly European generation would come to perceive the boundaries between home and abroad as fundamentally porous – no longer fixed. Coming and going will, for a generation sprouting from the mingling of different nations, become an altogether more malleable process. Leaving, staying or returning will be just three available options, none of which ought to be conceived of as one’s only hope, none of which one’s own failure.