Europe works to find common ground

Posted: Tuesday, April 20, 2004

TRIESTE, Italy From the battles of ancient Greece to the violent dismemberment of Yugoslavia, Europeans have generally seemed more intent on clubbing each other than on clubbing together.

The Romans walloped their neighbors. Catholics and Protestants shared God but couldn't agree on much else. The French and British irritated each other nonstop. And that was before the world wars and genocide of the 20th century.

After centuries of dispute, these notoriously fractious folk have begun to unite under the European Union, with a common currency, a planned constitution and talk of a joint foreign policy and army.

The various names for this place from Europe to Europa to Evropa are the buzzwords of the day. The name, born of Greek mythology on ancient Crete, proclaims itself everywhere, from euro bank notes to the Eurostar train burrowing under the English Channel.

On May 1, the European Union expands from 15 to 25 members, tying ex-Soviet bloc states to Mediterranean islands to Western European powers 455 million citizens, 20 official languages, age-old resentments and memories of war, not to mention a blinding number of ways to cook dinner.

But do Europeans really have anything in common? Interviews in several European countries indicate that few here feel foremost European, in part because it's so tricky defining what ''a European'' is.

An EU poll of the 25 countries published in February bears this out. Asked how they will see themselves in the near future, 86 percent said being European would come second to their present nationality or wouldn't figure at all.

Traditionally, people strive for a state; here in Trieste, crossroads of the Slavic east, Germanic center and Latin south, the invented European state must strive for a people not an easy task in a city as historically muddled as this.

It was the Austro-Hungarian Empire's Mediterranean port in the 18th and 19th centuries; Italy incorporated it in 1918; the Nazis occupied it near the end of World War II; Yugoslavia took brief control after Germany's defeat; the British and Americans bumped them out; and now, it's part of Italy and by extension the European Union.

Librarian Lisbeth Stiger was born in Austria, works in a German cultural center and speaks fondly of Trieste, her adopted city, where people eat pasta but sip coffee in Viennese-style cafes, a custom harking back to Austro-Hungarian times. Her setting doesn't make her feel more European.

''Between an Irishman and someone from Malta there's a huge difference, both culturally and in the way of thinking,'' Stiger said. ''I'd never say I feel European. ... Deep down I'm Austrian.''

At the University of Trieste, in Piazzale Europa Europe Square students hanging out between classes indicated that Europeans do share values, but not a common identity.

A 24-year-old law student, Alex Tardivo, puffed a cigarette and suggested that ''tolerance could be our strong point.''

Certainly, Europe isn't a melting pot, a shared allegiance, a ''United States.'' That was never the intention of the six countries that started the partnership in the 1950s as an economic bloc to lift them out of the wreckage of World War II. That said, outlines of European identity can be sketched, with admittedly imperfect strokes:

Europeans share pride in their stunningly creative past, their art and science, whose ancient markers are still evident in centuries-old frescoes dabbed onto the ceilings of village churches and in the stunning architecture of great cities.

Europeans also tend to believe that their governments have an obligation to care for the weak, and they pay high taxes to finance generous health, welfare and pension systems.

Totalitarianism in the 20th century Nazism, Communism has bred a reluctance to engage in military conflicts.

At times, they agree less on what they are than on what they are not not African, not Asian, and not American.

EU proponents tout their project not only as a way to help nations prosper. The conditions for membership market economy, democracy, human rights have brought considerable changes in countries still struggling with the legacy of dictatorships.

The idea of ''being European'' is sometimes mixed up with being in the club itself. The danger is that when EU-building hits a rough patch, people forget the benefits of open borders and tariff-free trade and turn sour on being European.

The euro, the most obvious sign of unity, is a case in point. Some EU citizens complain that the new currency brought huge inflation. Costs have certainly shot up in Italy since the euro was introduced in 2002, with many accusing shopkeepers of greedily rounding up prices in the new currency.

''I don't want Europe. I want Italy. I want a return of the lira and all that,'' grumbled Trieste furniture salesman Mariano Gianella, lighting cigarettes with a matchbook inappropriately emblazoned with the blue-and-yellow EU flag. ''They've doubled the prices and that's it.''

One strong proponent of European unity outside the EU is Pope John Paul II. The Polish-born pontiff argues that this continent's Christian history helps define Europeans.

Several countries don't like the sound of that, especially those trying to appear inclusive to growing populations of immigrants, many of them Muslim. The issue is one of many that have deadlocked the proposed constitution.

Immigration and the expansion of the EU both throw doubt on whether it's possible to define ''Europeans'' as their numbers and nature shift.

Trieste businessman Cheng Tsu Jung is an immigrant from China and an Italian citizen, firmly rooted on this continent and holding strong opinions about it.

He argued that Europe still has to win over its own people offer something tangible and sweet to sell the idea of being European. Cheng looks to his 14-year-old Italian-born son, fluent in this country's language but struggling with Chinese.

''The new generation,'' he says, ''will feel more European than we do.''

Joining the EU on May 1: Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Present EU member states: Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.

EDITOR'S NOTE AP writers Monika Scislowska in Warsaw and Karl Peter Kirk in Budapest contributed to this report.

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