The 21st century European is faced with a stark choice: nationality or non-existence. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” declared Theresa May in 2016. “You don’t understand what the word citizenship means.”
The same sentiment is shared by many other politicians – Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders among the most adamant – who maintain that national identity is an essential part of who we are. As a result, this idea presents a clear challenge to those who profess a European identity: Is nationality necessary for a sense of home and belonging?
At first glance this might seem like an easy question. Of course our country plays an important part in our identity. “Where are you from?” is the universal icebreaker in any conversation. In a legal sense, too, our citizenship can only be national.
But the debate runs deeper than this. Identity and belonging cannot be reduced to a passport; it is something we feel. Politicians like Le Pen love to frame nationality in terms of culture, community and solidarity. Consequently, there is a widely-held belief that to renounce your nationality in favour of a broader identity would mean losing these traits and submitting to a rootless, homeless existence – a ‘nomad’, as Le Pen puts it.
Identity and belonging cannot be reduced to a passport; it is something we feel.
Even self-styled citizens of the world seem resigned to this idea. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, the world’s first cosmopolitan, went as far as to consider his way of life a kind of exile. And as the present-day philosopher Martha Nussbaum mournfully notes, life as a cosmopolitan is “often a lonely business”.
But why should it be? After all, our identity is made up of so much more than just our nationality. Even Europe’s most fervent nationalists do not base their identity solely on their homeland – they will also identify as a parent, say, or as a child, spouse, friend or colleague. They don’t just associate with their country; but with their place of work, their neighbourhood or their religious community, for example.
Crucially, and contrary to what Le Pen insists, none of these relationships are dependent on our nationality. It might seem obvious, but it’s worth stating: We don’t give up our friends, family and home by identifying with something broader than our country. They stay with us regardless.
Our identity is made up of so much more than just our nationality.
As for national culture, it’s worth reminding ourselves that many aspects of it turn out to be surprisingly cosmopolitan themselves. The French language, a “national treasure” which Le Pen warns is “disintegrating” under the pressures of globalization, already benefits from thousands of loanwords from other languages. Similar stories can be told for every country: Norwegian folk instruments come from Central Europe; Hungarian music from Central Asia; Spanish cuisine has links to North Africa, and so on; the examples are endless.
I’m reminded of a member of the far-right party English Democrats, who once told me that fish and chips and tea were integral aspects of my Englishness. Ignoring for a moment the surreal quality of this statement: Did he realise that chips come from France, and potatoes from South America? Or that tea-drinking is borrowed from the Portuguese and Dutch, who themselves copied it from the Chinese?
The international nature of ‘national’ cultures reminds us of an important fact: Countries do not exist in isolation. They are part of the wider world – just like us.
The stark choice between nationality and nothingness; the ultimatum proposed by Theresa May is, of course, a false dichotomy. While accepting the current political necessity of nation states, we can move beyond nationality towards a broader shared identity without losing any sense of home or belonging.
The whole of Europe is on our doorstep – who wouldn’t want to claim that as theirs?