Oh, To Live Without Borders

As an American, the EU is pretty difficult to comprehend. Not on a practical level; I’ve reached the point where I more or less know the difference between the Commission and Parliament, what powers the EU has and what is left to the member states, what goes on in Strasbourg and what goes on in Brussels. I understand the mechanics. It is the theory that is hard for me to grasp. The idea that there is a political force higher than the nation state, that someone in Lisbon uses the same exact currency as someone in Ljubljana or that someone can travel from Copenhagen to Barcelona to Vienna to Riga without once pulling out their passport. 

I’m not saying I dislike these ideas, to be honest the lack of borders and common currency make life a whole lot easier, but they’re just so foreign to the American mindset. There are plenty of Americans who still don’t accept that they have a local, state and federal government presiding over them, much less adding another dimension. Just try to imagine for a moment: the North American Union, an economic and political union encompassing all (or at least most) of North America. We’re talking about Canada, the United States and Mexico, as well as all of Central America and the Caribbean. North America is comprised of 23 sovereign states, and a whole host of dependent territories. 

So let’s abolish those currencies: goodbye Bahamian dollar, adios Costa Rican colon, au revoir Haitian gourde. Now let’s create a giant, overarching bureaucracy, neither understood nor cared about by the people in it’s dominion (sorry to any EU lovers offended by this statement, but honestly, I have mates from university who have more twitter followers than Barroso). Now for the finishing touch, take down those borders! (Yes, I’m aware there’s more to the EU than just these three things, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s keep it to these three.) There will be completely free movement of peoples, goods and services all the way from Panama City up to Inuvik. No more passport control, no more wall between the US and Mexico. How do you think all of this would go over with the American public? 

Just imagine how angry Americans would be, knowing that a portion of their tax dollars would be going to Haiti or Nicaragua, the two poorest countries in North America? They already get riled up enough paying taxes to their own government, which uses those tax dollars to fund social security, medicare, the defense department…services that directly benefit the American public. Just as an example, imagine trying to explain to a carp fisher from Vicksburg, Mississippi how, by virtue of being North American, he’s the same as a commercial pike fisher in Gimli, Manitoba or a prawn fisher in Portsmouth, Dominica. They’re all men, from the North American continent, who collect their primary income from fishing. That should be an easy sell, right? Wrong. 

Now I’m not trying to convince you that the EU is possible because Swedes are the same as Spaniards. Far from it. But they have on some level bought into it. Whether actively or passively, everyone who lives in the EU participates, and thus lends credibility to, the EU. If you use Euros, work in any EU institution, buy European goods, vote in European elections or take advantage of the free movement of people in the Schengen area, you have participated in the “great European experiment.” The point is, actively or passively, Europeans constantly take advantage of the myriad opportunities presented to them by virtue of being European, whatever that means (and if you’re really interested in what that means, I suggest you read Gareth Harding’s piece “The Myth of Europe”). Despite their opinions about the EU, they all participate in it. 

Now maybe my countrymen would surprise me, but if you tried to impose any sort of North American Union, I think you’d have a full scale revolt on your hands, courtesy of the American public. The idea of a political and economic authority higher than the United States’ federal government is just impossible for us to comprehend, and would be impossible to accept. And I think this is the most difficult and incredible thing about being an American in Europe. Learning what Europeans think about the EU is one of the most interesting things of all. Want to get someone talking? Ask them what they think about Turkey joining the EU. That one can go on for hours. 

I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about living in and getting to know Europe; I really do notice the similarities more than the differences. There might not be a solidified European culture, but there is a sense of collectivism and solidarity. Is it thrust upon Europeans by the EU bureaucrats? Absolutely. But, however reluctantly it may have been accepted, it is still there. 

4 thoughts on “Oh, To Live Without Borders

  1. Five words – the United States of America. The citizens of the USA already live in what the EU is just beginning to form. Freedom of movement – check. Single currency – check. Central bureacracy not understood by the people – check! So how are the lack of borders and common currency foreign to the American mindset?

    1. Those are all excellent points! From my perspective, what it comes down to is culture. Americans, for better or for worse, have a common culture. We have defined values set out in our Constitution, we have a shared history, most of us speak the same first language. Each member state has these things, values, history, language, culture, etc., but these things are not common to Europe as a whole. European values and history may be similar, or intertwined, but they are not the same each place. Also, since the revolution, America has always been a cohesive, federal state. It has expanded, obviously, but since the creation of the nation it has essentially remained the same. So it’s interesting for us to see the beginning of the process. No living Americans know what it is like to be divided, but there are still many people who remember Europe before the EU. I hope that helps clarify a little!

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