Thursday, August 2, 2012
No one would be cheering for Team Europe
Photo: Paul Grover
It is by the merest chance that we are cheering Team GB this week rather than Team EU. At the 1992 Barcelona Games, the European Commission demanded the creation of a united team that would compete in a blue-and-gold strip, mount the podium to the strains of Beethoven’s Ninth and tot up a European tally on the medals table. Fortunately, the scheme broke down in arguments between the EU and the IOC over money, though that didn’t stop the French President, François Hollande, from insisting this week that “it’s the European medals total that counts”.
Only a politician or a Eurocrat could say such a thing. Sporting events are a reminder of the many and complex elements that define nationhood. Listen to the way people employ the pronoun “we”: “We’ve got a decent chance in the sailing”, “How many medals are we on now?” With what significance we freight those two letters. Our emotions are bound up, not only with the performance of our athletes, but also with the mood of our fellow countrymen. We form a nexus of identity – the identity that makes us call ourselves British or Portuguese or Swedish, but not European.
The emotion expressed in front of a billion television sets this week is, in a different form, the basis of a successful democracy. Because we share a loyalty with our fellow citizens, we are prepared to support strangers with our taxes, obey laws with which we disagree, accept election results when we voted for the losers.
Such affinity develops organically over generations. It is based, in the literal sense, on sympathy. We sympathise most easily with people who share our experience: who speak the same language, watch the same television programmes, sing the same songs. Nationality cannot be decreed by bureaucratic fiat. The USSR, with all the forces of a totalitarian state at its disposal, spent 70 years trying; yet the moment its constituent peoples were free to choose, they opted for independence.
Eurocrats are now learning just how hard it is to fabricate a shared identity. The European Central Bank is holding yet another emergency meeting, aimed at transferring money from North to South without openly saying so. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is one thing; robbing Pieter to pay Paulo another. Pieter becomes resentful. Why, he asks, should he work longer hours so that Paulo can retire early? Why should his government be punished for thrift so that Paulo’s can be rewarded for profligacy? Paulo, for his part, is incandescent. A Spanish friend of mine – called Paulo, funnily enough – sent a typical tweet last week: “Now that we’re governed from abroad, what are we paying our ----- politicians for?” (I translate loosely.)