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Freewheeling fantasies of European citizenship

  • 22 February 2013

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