July 10, 2011
We may well ask where Europe is heading these days. Public opinion is notoriously fickle, and we are getting conflicting signals from different sources.
Adversity, as in recent times, tends to reinforce the hold of traditional national identities. So we still have to see whether we have really seen the back of old-style nationalism in Western Europe. Currently a mix of grievances over immigrant minorities and bailing out other countries is mutating into a new form of nationalism, less vicious than the old but equally insidious.
There are also long-term influences at work that challenge the existing order. One inevitably is globalization, another is the spirit of localism. “Not long ago, people said that globalization and the revolution in communications technology would bring us all together,” comments David Brooks in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. “But the opposite is true. People are taking advantage of freedom and technology to create new groups and cultural zones. Old national identities and behaviour patterns are proving surprisingly durable. People are moving into self-segregating communities with people like themselves and building invisible and sometimes visible barriers to keep strangers out.”
Many younger Europeans are imbued with this spirit of localism. People are going back to their roots.
Evidence of the power of localism is the dramatic growth, with the help of new technologies, of media that identify with the local communities they serve. Piet Bakker, a Dutch professor of journalism at the Hogeschool Utrecht, says “if you ask people what kind of information they want in a newspaper, local information almost always comes out on top.” Also the fact that a country like Spain has independent TV stations transmitting to communities no more than 20 kilometres apart would have been unthinkable even 20 or 30 years ago.
TV producers in most European countries have reported a subtle shift in viewer priorities since the early-90s – partly no doubt reflecting the troubled times we live in, but also pointing to something deeper. They detect a trend in demand away from international news and documentaries towards domestic issues, national and regional news.
Other straws in the wind are the growing popularity of regional folk music groups across much of Europe, East and West, and efforts to revive minority languages, some of them almost extinct.
Maybe the spirit of localism even helps explain the strange phenomenon of voter behaviour in the Eurovision Song Contest. People demonstrate a sense of solidarity with their neighbours. Old enemies like the Portuguese vote for the Spanish, Norwegians vote for the Swedes, young enemies like the Slovenes vote for the Serbs, and so on.
Quizzed on their cultural identity in a random survey in 2009 at the KUL University in Belgium, Catalan students said that they thought of themselves as Catalan first, then Spanish, then European. Scots saw themselves as Scots first, then British, then European, while Flemish Belgians considered themselves Flemish first, then Belgian, then European. Probably the most committed Europeans are the Italians but, in their case too, there is a renewed trend towards localism.
So where in the world are we going? Helped or hindered by the new technologies, Western Europe seems to be reconsidering its identity.Author : Richard Hill