We know that the Greeks today are not the same people as the Ancient Greeks. We know that the English are not the same today as they were a millennia ago, nor the French the French. And yet they are recognisably Greek, English and French and all are European. In these and other identities we recognise a degree of cultural succession: a tradition that remains with certain qualities (positive as well as negative), customs and behaviours.
We recognise the great movements of the Normans, Franks and Gauls brought about great changes. And we know from history that some movements affect a culture relatively little in the long term whereas others can change it irrevocably. The problem comes not with an acceptance of change, but with the knowledge that when those changes come too fast or are too different we become something else – including something we may never have wanted to be. …
At the same time we are confused over how this is meant to work. While generally agreeing that it is possible for an individual to absorb a particular culture (given the right degree of enthusiasm both from the individual and the culture) whatever their skin colour, we know that we Europeans cannot become whatever we like. We cannot become Indian or Chinese, for instance. And yet we are expected to believe that anyone in the world can move to Europe and become European.
If being ‘European’ is not about race – as we hope it is not – then it is even more imperative that it is about ‘values’. This is what makes the question ‘What are European values?’ so important. Yet this is another debate about which we are wholly confused.
Are we, for instance, Christian? In the 2000s this debate had a focal point in the row over the wording of the new EU Constitution and the absence of any mention of the continent’s Christian heritage. Pope John Paul II and his successor tried to rectify the omission. As the former wrote in 2003, ‘While fully respecting the secular nature of the institutions I wish once more to appeal to those drawing up the future European constitutional treaty, so that it will include a reference to the religious and in particular the Christian heritage of Europe.’