By Mihaela Elena Gheorghe, Simona Pronckute, Katie Angus, Özge Türk, Alena Romaniuka, Ilze Rimša and Neus la Petita - students of the University of Vienna Sommerhochschule (SHS)
It is common knowledge that, for centuries, Europeans have often been audaciously inclined to impose their own cultural values or standards upon others (one can just look back at the colonial period). For example, in India at the beginning of the 19th century, the old Suttee tradition was banned by the British Government. The tradition of Suttee generally declared that a deceased man´s wife would have to share the same fate as her husband, this resulting in her death (she was usually burned on the stake). The British general Sir Charles Napier, when confronted by a delegation of Hindus who argued that the prohibition of Suttee was an attack on their culture, supposedly answered: „You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well.We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive we hang them. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.” Centuries later it is increasingly clear we still have issues regarding the proper balance between maintaing local/national customs and imposing a european cultural or social viewpoint.
Two important questions that we must consider are - Is it right to instill our cultural values elsewhere? And, if so, how much tradition either local or national should we keep as a nation before it becomes unwanted „baggage” which limits our capacity to fully integrate with others? We shall argue that culture is not only the most important medium to link europeans together (whether they come from EU or non-EU states), but how it can serve as a uniting tool for people across the globe.
For this, we discussed and debated the sensitive problem of immigration. Does the EU possess a certain power of attraction for other states outside of the EU? Is the EU attractive as a whole, or do only certain countries seem to be regarded as „favorite immigration destinations? Latvia’s representative declared confidently that few would see Latvia as a immigration paradise. On the other hand we asked ourselves why did Turkish immigrants choose Germany as their main destinantion (this exodus occuring on an unprecedented scale). You see, when the proper political or social context arises – people from various countries will generally seize the opportunity of living in a more evolved one and ultimately decide to stay. It is the case of Turkish people who were supposed to work in Germany for ten years or so (Germany needed more workers) but after the years have passed – they did not want to go back. On the other hand, things are changing at a rapid pace. After the economic crisis, the EU no longer seems that attractive. Turkish people even argue: why should we be part of the EU when our economy is much better? Another sentiment, yet this time from the Germans, reveals how immigration rates do not always generate nor encourage multiculturalism as one would assume. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated „There has been a tendency to say, let’s adopt the multicultural concept and live happily side by side...but this concept has failed, and failed utterly’.
Thus, in theory, tolerance, respect for cultural relativism or the desire to connect with other cultures should be and are basic principles of the EU but these values are often not practised. For that, we looked specifically into the immigration policy of the UK. The UK was and still remains attractive for many immigrants who attempt to gain entry in dangerous and often illegal ways. Some try to swim across the English Channel in order to get there, while others hide in cargo ships! The number of illegal immigrants is quite high there and there are different problems that have to be tackled. First of all the Chinese and Polish immigrants are percieved in a very negative light (by the older people, but also increasingly by the young generation). But there are even more important issues to be addressed – housing problems, illiteracy, the reduced number of job opportunities (even unskilled labour), segregation due to language or religion and as a result, discrimination. Yes, some people may trick the system (using marriage as a means of obtaining citizenship or lying about their age when seeking asylum in order to access funding put in place for those deemed more in need) but at the end of the day an authentic adaptatation process is hardly achieved. We all remember the famous „hijab” issue – islamic students or teachers not being allowed to wear their tradional scarves in French schools. Did this controversial measure limit a basic right of religious self-expression or does it represent a fair system that tries to provide a neutral, secular approach to all pupils? It is impossible to find only one answer removed from subjective oppinion. Moreover, how are we to truly believe in nice, idealistic words such as tolerance and the respect for human rights when we are not able to overcome basic stereotypes such as „the Ukranian prostitute”, the „Romanian gipsy”‚ the Polish maid and so on?
One question that we can definitely ask ourselves is this: Europe, where are you heading towards? Well, maybe it’s up to younger generations to fill in the gaps and make the transition from a rhetorical, supposedly politically correct intercultural discourse to an authentic one. In order to tackle this matter, we have also discussed the theme of the Erasmus program, which ultimately has attempted to create the perfect, future European (with now the extended version Erasmus for all). Umberto Eco argued that Erasmus should be used as a means of sexual revolution (a Spanish girl marrying a German boy and giving birth to a real European child), or it should even be used as a means of cultural exchange between a French taxi driver and a Lithuanian one, for example. Well, the perfect European is most definitely an utopia. It is not very plausible at this very moment (especially when we take into account the nationalist movements that are taking place in different parts of Europe) nor is it realistic. Still, cultural understanding might be a quintessential element of building an unified Europe. ”Europe 2020”- the EU’s growing strategy for the coming decade - also focuses on improving education levels (especially for immigrants) and social bonding. Learning european languages, but also going beyond the linguistics of another culture, travelling and having an open mind are really important factors that can cement our european identity. Because, as Eco argued, we must remember that it is culture, not war, that cements our European identity. And we can add – it should be culture, not war that can cement our identity as citizens not just of Europe, but of this world.