A tale of two Europes…

A reflection from Luxembourg on why European identity is problematic in both Spain and the UK:

Our Europe?

In both the UK and Spain, it is not uncommon to hear people talk about ‘Europe’ as if it were another continent. The only difference being that for Spain, ‘Europe’ is ‘the-place-where-people-work-hard-and-things-are-done-properly’, whereas for the UK the word is shorthand for ‘the-place-where-all-our-money-is-wasted-by-people-lounging-in-cafes (probably wearing berets)’.

Aside from their respective superiority and inferiority complexes, the UK and Spain share other features that explain their lack of identification with their European cousins.

As an island and peninsula, they are geographically isolated from the rest of the continent. Perhaps because of this, their populations are not the most, let’s say, enthusiastic learners of other European languages. I imagine the same phenomena may be found in similarly cut-off countries such as Ireland and Malta.

Until I moved to Vienna, I was only vaguely aware that there was a whole other Europe where people acually felt (and acted) European. A Europe where people casually swan across national borders and speak multiple languages without a second thought. Austria has borders with eight (count ’em, eight!) other European countries, and the roads in Vienna have signs pointing to the nearby capitals of Bratislava Prague and Budapest, all a short drive away.

Europe 9

Spot the missing peninsula

Luxembourg may represent the maximum expression of this ‘European’ Europe. It borders Belgium 148 kilometres to the west and north, Germany is just 138 km east, and it’s a mere 73 km south before you’re in France. As well as the international commuting between the four countries for work, Germans come here to fill up their tanks with cheap petrol, and Luxembourgers drive to Germany for bargain shopping at Aldi and Lidl. It makes sense that the treaty establishing free movement across European borders was signed in the Luxembourgish town of Schengen.

For me, this is a whole new world, and one that makes me feel totally inadequate! In Luxembourgish supermarkets, flags are displayed at each till to indicate the languages spoken by the cashier on duty. Sometimes there are six or seven flags displayed! With my two-and-a-half languages, I am (quite rightly) regarded as a troglodyte.

One might have thought that, with the wonders of modern communication technology, mountains and seas would have ceased to divide us, but however plugged-in we are, we have not yet ceased to be physical, earth-bound beings. Human political and legal machinations over the past half-century have failed to negate the brute fact of physical geography, which continues to exert a strong economic, linguistic, and cultural influence over all of us.

On the ground there is definitely still a two-tier Europe, and the UK and Spain are missing out on the perks of belonging to the premier league.