The anguish over protectionism misses a deeper message about European identity

The news about Europe these days is discouraging: headlines, books and essays all tell a common story: “The Rebirth of Populism”; “How Far is Europe Swinging to the Right?” The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. It makes pretty grim reading.

After several decades of mobility and mingling across fluid borders, we now find ourselves in retreat into refuges of protectionist politics. But it’s not economic. It’s about identity. Just when we need Europe more than ever, the continent seems to be breaking apart amid a continent-wide craving for a cultural home.

We shouldn’t be surprised, really. Europeans have always known that their differences matter. As in this joke from an EU website: How do you get Europeans to do things they don’t want to do? You tell the British it’s traditional, the French it’s fashionable, the Germans it’s an order and the Italians it’s forbidden! Okay, okay, but still…

Our cultures are who we are, a lens through which we see the world. So when European integration results in a blurring of identities, pretty soon, it starts to get personal. This can be dangerous: Many Austrians to this day are convinced that Marie Antoinette, daughter of Empress Maria Theresia, was simply misunderstood by the French. On being told the poor had no bread, her legendary retort “Let them eat cake!” was not unfeeling, they say, so much as classic Wiener Schmäh – using irony to transform an ugly reality into humor. Schmäh, they will explain, is not just a throwaway remark, it is a Weltanschauung, that things are not what they seem – they are worse, and all you can do is laugh it off. To the trained ear, it is an art form and a relief. If not, it can be a disaster. And without their cultural context, Europeans feel lost.

Ivan Krastev, political scientist and permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, describes a kind of “demographic panic” among his fellow Bulgarians at the waves of refugees, whose arrival “signals their exit from history.” Who will be left “to read Bulgarian poetry in one hundred years?” In Vienna’s boulevard press, a mother in St. Pölten complains that her son is one of only three Austrians in his Volksschulklasse, while pensioners in Hernals walk through their neighborhoods with eyes averted, saying they no longer feel at home.

We must be careful not to dismiss these complaints. Instead, we should listen, even applaud, this clear sense of identity; the voices of EU member cultures knowing who they are and thinking it matters. Cultural protectionism is, in this sense, the essence of Europe. It always was, it always should be. When we think about it, Europe really is all about our differences as the essential background for what we share.