In the middle of the Place Royal, in the centre of Brussels, stands the statue of Godfrey of Bouillon — Duke of Lower Lorraine, one of the leaders of the first crusade in 1099, and the first King of Jerusalem. It was erected in the 19th century as a monument to Belgium's imperial ambitions.
Unlike other attempts at reclaiming a romanticised medieval past (think Richard Cœur de Lion in Westminster), Godfrey speaks to the present in a meaningful way. He is emblematic of Europe's constant historical redrawing of borders and identities. He was a subject of the Holy Roman Empire, a Frank, a King of Jerusalem and, long after his death, a crudely appropriated symbol of Belgian nationalism. He underwent many re-imaginings.
In this way he speaks to an ever-present European debate over the question of citizenship and identity, a debate carried on in Brussels with a particular intensity. The question being debated is whether it is possible to imagine a version of citizenship that transcends national boundaries, that reshapes identities along transnational lines. In short, is a 'European citizenship' possible?
Recently I was at a conference on this rather overwhelming question. One of the speakers was a Lithuanian MEP who also happened to be a political theorist, and something of a renaissance man.
His presentation focused on the cultural foundations for a shared European identity — the history of cross-cultural transmissions between nations and regions. Through a tired haze I latched onto the occasional snippet: 'Rubens was influenced by Caravaggio' ... 'and therefore a pan-European identity is possible'.
On the face of it the question of European identity is today more complex. In the conference rooms of Brussels one often hears the complaint: 'The problem is that there's no demos'. That's questionable. There may not be a single ethnos, but there is a potential demos, a people, a public — to be seen on Brussels' cosmopolitan streets.
On the way home I walked past a mural of a mosque sprayed across a garage door. On the pavement people from North Africa and Eastern and Western Europe congregated, speaking French, Flemish, English and Arabic. It reminded me of the Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi's description in his Book of Travels, of the streets of 17th century Constantinople and the eclectic mix of people who filled them: Armenians, Turks, Greeks, Jews, Italians.
One of the things I like about the Book of Travels — apart from its freewheeling fantasies — is that it prompts us to see the regions Celebi describes in a transnational frame. He crosses from region to region, from nation to nation weaving in his often comical gaze a tapestry image of Europe, the Balkans and the east. '
The enduring impression he leaves is of muddled heterogeneity and idiosyncratic local distinctiveness. ('Now we have honey from Turkey, Athens, Wallachia, Moldavia, each with 70 distinct qualities.')
Does citizenship need to be built upon the close cultural, linguistic and historical ties that are, some say, only at work in a national community? Or can a broader conception of citizenship be formed, one that incorporates both heterogeneity and distinctiveness? There are plenty of sources, ancient and modern, that point in this direction.
Think of St Paul's letter to the Philippians (1:27) where he emphasises to them that they are 'citizens of heaven' first and foremost: 'then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose'.
What Paul offered to the Philippians was a new language of citizenship and belonging — of spiritual citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, and of a new earthly, transnational, membership. Whereas ancient Greek political philosophy emphasised the vital importance of belonging to a bounded political community, Paul's language upended that ideal and pointed to something radically new — a form of belonging that went beyond the polis.
Of course it was possible to be a subject of a transnational authoritarian empire — but Paul spoke of belonging to a transnational community of citizens exercising agency and 'purpose'.
Today, Jurgen Habermas and Jan-Werner Mueller (Germans both) have articulated theories of 'constitutional patriotism'; that is, of a patriotism directed towards a state's constitution rather than a national mythology or ethnic identity. At the heart of this idea is the belief in a diverse community made cohesive by 'spirit' and 'purpose', in the same way that Paul proposed to the Philipians.
But constitutional patriotism doesn't imply a 'thin' identity based on nothing more than adherence to a document. It values political community and 'shared meanings' grounded in a civic culture. And it sets out a notion of citizenship that requires that we allow room for manifold identities — it means, in Michael Walzer's words, that 'we need to be tolerated and protected as citizens and members and also as strangers'.
Europe has always been rich with transnational affiliations and identities — very strong ones. Only think of the modern Catholic Church or of the mediaeval community of scholars, translating ideas across regional boundaries as part the 'Republic of Letters'. And if strong transnational identities are formed, if 'membership' and 'community' can transcend national borders, then it seems possible to imagine a citizenship that does this too.
Benedict Coleridge is a policy researcher with Jesuit Refugee Service Europe, based in Brussels.