With the Covid-19 outbreak leading to frantic runs on supermarkets and people stocking up non non-perishables (a note from the editorial team: please don’t hoard), E&M‘s Jonas Fleega serves up an in-depth analysis of the role food plays in shaping (European) identities. Exploring the political, cultural, and social dimensions of food, his article highlights that we are, indeed, what we eat. 

It is among the current pasta, rice, and (more controversially) marmite hoarding that the role of food as a symbol of European integration has become apparent to me. What we eat has been a guiding force in shaping our self-understanding – politically, economically and culturally. How has the increasing diversity we expose our palettes to united, divided, and shaped Europe? Do we need to do more to celebrate culinary diversity, or is national identity being eroded through cultural fusion?

‘Sorry, all our pickles come from Holland, now’

The film ‘Goodbye Lenin’, set in the turbulent times of German reunification in East Berlin, tells the tale of a son who is forced to maintain the facade of a functional East German state. This is in order to prevent his staunchly pro-regime mother, who miraculously awakes from a coma just after the Berlin wall comes down, from becoming overwhelmed by the rapid changes taking place around her and suffering further health complications. Time stands still in their little flat on Alexanderplatz, whilst the world around them changes drastically. In trying to maintain their former East-German diet, he sets out to find a specific type of pickle – Spreewaldgurke (from the eponymous Spreewald region in Germany) – in the local supermarket. When he asks a supermarket employee about the Gurken, the man looks at him with amazement:

“Sorry, all of our pickles come from Holland now”.

The sudden availability of ‘Western’ food plays a major role in the narrative surrounding German reunification. Talking to a taxi driver in Berlin, I was told that on the day the wall fell, he took in an East German family and gave them ‘real’ chocolate for the first time. The same story has been told countless times – awestruck East-Germans entering Western supermarkets for the first time and indulging in global supply chains. The role of food in European integration is a story of people coming together. However, food has the power to both unite and divide a continent in which cultural identity is constantly being challenged.

European integration and culinary diversity

One contribution to the ‘Europeanisation’ of eating habits across the union is the single market. The creation of common standards and regulations for food production, accompanied by the abolition of tariffs, has led to a drastic increase in intra-EU food trade from around €200 Bn in 2002 to around €400 Bn in 2018. Supermarkets previously dominated by local or national produce are now stocked with cheese from Italy, wine from France, and olives from Greece. The ability to make a Paella in Warsaw and a Schnitzel in Malaga not only fosters a sense of European community but enables everyone to enjoy flavours that would otherwise have been inaccessible, it brings us Europeans closer together.

Migration has also served as a channel promoting culinary diversity within Europe. Anyone who walks through the streets of Neukoelln in Berlin, Brixton in London, or the 13th arrondissement in Paris bears witness to the value of new cuisines, brought over by immigrant communities. EU freedom of movement catalysed this process. South-North migration, with its first wave in the 70s and 80s and more recently motivated by the Euro crisis, embedded Italian, Greek, Spanish and Portuguese cuisine into my childhood meals in Germany. Even across the Channel, the influx of Poles and Romanians into the UK has enriched the dining scene, contributing to the diverse culinary landscape of London.

Europe’s shared love for food is characterised by an intertwined history of migration and trade, which have enriched culinary traditions. After all, even the most ardent euro-sceptic enjoys a nice Bordeaux wine with chorizo Andaluz – or a pint of Guinness and pizza on a night out.

Diverse plate of food | Photo: Erik Dungan (Unsplash); Licence: Unsplash Licence
Chlorine chicken and inferior Nutella: food and EU politics

Whilst food may have been central in creating the culinary melange that many Europeans now savour, it has also served as a pretext for political conflicts and has even guided EU policy. The outrage levelled at food producers for selling products of inferior quality to Eastern EU member states a few years ago, for instance, illuminates how the politics of EU integration has arrived on the dining table. A key component of EU membership is the right to be protected by the same standards and regulations, regardless of purchasing power. The ability to buy pickles from Holland needs to be accompanied by the knowledge that it is not an inferior pickle than the one sold in Germany. The quality of our food is symbolic of our status within the EU.

The existential fear of American chlorine chicken (a point often made by Remain campaigners and TTIP opposers) epitomises our fundamentally ‘European’ relationship with food. EU food-policy is remarkably popular across the political divide, as demonstrated by its prominence in trade policy. Through geographical indicators, food-exports are protected from imitations abroad. These clauses in trade agreements only allow manufacturers in, for instance, the Parma region of Italy to call their cheese Parmesan. The same goes for feta cheese, parmigiano reggiano, and a whole host of other products. In doing so, the EU protects European culinary diversity internationally – an exercise of soft power with real economic impacts.

Perhaps it is surprising that a continent in which food plays such a large role in shaping national identity has managed to delegate its management to a supranational level. From a political perspective, it is a testament to the power of the EU in bringing people together around shared values.

Culture, culinary identity and far-right violence

Whilst food has been a unifying force in fostering a European identity, it is also a symbolic component of the culture of migrant communities stemming from outside the EU and their marginalisation. The response of various political forces to extra-EU migration and the associated increase in culinary diversity is part of a wider debate of whether we want the EU to be a closed-off, regional group of culturally ‘western’ countries or an open, diverse union that celebrates Europe’s links with the world.

An extreme example of this conflict are the recent terrorist attacks on kebab restaurants in Germany. Insofar as they stand for Middle Eastern culture and are run by Middle Eastern immigrants, they have become the target of xenophobia as part of an increase in far-right activity. These crimes echo the acts of the NUS terrorists in Germany who routinely targeted kebab shop-owners and grocers. The motivation for these types of attacks is nuanced, but often rests on the beliefs that Europe should remain predominately white and/or Christian. In trying to undo centuries of shared cultural history, the sentiment of these so-called ‘fringe’ movements are becoming increasingly mainstream. For instance, nationalist movements in Italy and elsewhere are weaponising what we eat to defend a way of life that they claim is being threatened by immigration.

“Sorry, our kebabs come from Europe now”

Celebrating the culinary diversity in Europe as a unifying force is not enough. We must prevent the culture of non-European origin from becoming scapegoated and marginalised and cherish its contribution to an open and diverse union. Some have suggested that the kebab has now become a ‘European’ dish due to its immense popularity across the continent. Maybe it is time to say “Sorry, our kebabs come from Europe now”.

Cover photo: Brooke Lark (Unsplash), Unsplash licence 

  • Jonas Fleega is half Iraqi and half German, grew up in Southern Spain and has lived in London for the past 5 years. Having started off with an undergraduate degree at the London School of Economics in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Jonas is now studying for an MSc in Political Economy of Europe. His interests lie in the intersection between culture, politics and economics applied to a European context. He is particularly interested in populist threats to the EU and how to navigate the increasingly uncertain political landscape of Europe. In his free time, Jonas likes to travel, eat and visit his 9 dogs in Spain.

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