Very European indeed

by Lorenzo Piccoli

These last few weeks were, as I believe you people say, a bust. I had some exciting times around the referendum on independence, I wrote a few things, I walked a lot, I ran, and I definitely made good use of Scotland’s driest September in over fifty years. Quite importantly, also, I met very fine people from different parts of Europe. Most notably among these, I would like to mention two promising academics who belong to the powerful EUI connection: Dejan, who finished his PhD in 2012 and worked as a postdoc here in Edinburgh for two years before becoming my mentor, wing-man, and flatmate; and Pedro, who finished his PhD in 2013 and worked as a postdoc in the UK’s fourth biggest city for one year before meeting me in a shady bar and offering me a gentleman’s hospitality in Glasgow over the weekend.

Speaking about Glasgow, I am must state right away that my writing at the moment is influenced by the 2014 Ryder Cup that is taking place a few miles from here on the PGA Centenary Course at the Gleneagles Hotel near Auchterarder, Scotland. For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Ryder Cup is a biennial men’s golf competition between teams from Europe and the United States.  The current holder is Europe, who won at the Medinah Country Club in Illinois in 2012 by a score of 14½ points to 13½, having overturned a four-point deficit going into the final day’s play, as it was duly though only incidentally noticed on this blog. The Ryder Cup is the biggest golf event in the world and to my knowledge it is also the only sport event where Europe plays united as a continent.

ryder cup 2014

So this is supposed to be about the how, and why, and what it takes to be European. The reason why I bring this up is because while spending time with Dejan and Pedro and all the other good people I met here I realized that there is one defining feature of my character and this is really about relying on the others. Put it simply, if I have been able to pursue the things I like in my life is because somebody else gave me a great help along the way. I suppose this is a very European ideal.

In fact, the idea that you owe your success to others does not go down well with other political cultures. In the US, for instance, during the run-up to the 2012 election President Obama was criticized for his remarks about the role of government. “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive,” the President said. “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” President Obama was widely attacked for stifling the idea of individual success at the core of the American dream. This is not to say that everybody in the US believes in rampant individual self-reliance: I have many friends in North America who would distance themselves from this statement.

One of them is certainly Derek. Derek is a doctor I met in Brussels in 2012. We have been in touch on and off ever since. Now that he’s back in the US he sends me some reflections about the differences between the old and the new continent. In the last letter he asked me to  “watch this American car commercial so you can understand our insane culture“. The celebration of individual pursuit is indeed a core part of the American culture. There is plenty of academic evidence showing that European values differ significantly from those of the US in being less individualistic. It is no accident that one of the most magnificent works in political science explains that the success of democracy in American is primarily  due to the fact that Americans are radical, unencumbered individualists.

American cowbody VS relaxed Frenchman

I love the contrast of this picture: Team USA Zach ‘Robocop’ Johnson VS Team Europe Victor ‘Obelix’ Duboisson

What is it about Europeans that makes reliance on the others more appealing than it is in the US? As a nerdy social scholar, I am tempted to say it is because while in the US people begin identifying with America’s customs and its celebration of individual pursuit at a young age, Europeans are shaped by millennia-old disputes over territory and sovereignty, tribalism, and the EU, not to mention the Champions League. Dealing with diversity and learn how to live with it is part of what we do – and here is the connection with my experience with Dejan and Pedro. In this Ryder Cup, Europe’s 12 players were drawn from eight different countries – with six different languages. Bringing these cultures together to form a cohesive unit is a real challenge. Europe’s captain recently gave a very practical example: one of the players, Sweden’s Peter Hanson, likes to eat dinner at 6:30 p.m. Then we had Miguel Ángel Jiménez, one of the Vice-Captains, who’s quite the opposite. He likes to eat at 11:00 p.m., because that’s the Spanish culture. So, to bridge this gap, the European Team always has a running buffet from 6:00 p.m. till midnight. That’s one way we have of incorporating everybody, whatever their culture or personal preference.

Better than other cultures

Academic surveys about differences between European and other values show other differences too. One of these is that the majority of European do not believe their culture to be superior to others. In fact, I do not think that European values are any better than others. There are plenty of lessons Europe should learn from other cultures. And indeed there are many things that make it complicated to speak of a cohesive European sense of being. But on one important respect, the conviction that my personal realization fundamentally depends on the collaboration and help from the others, I feel happily and convincingly European.