Ethnic identities in the new Europe... are they disappearing or developing?

Photo: European Commission

With the enlargement of the European Union, the continent's political, economic and cultural borders are once again shifting. Temporarily divided after World War II, the 're-unification' of east and Western Europe is now almost complete. But are ethnic identities of Central Europe finding a new voice in the new Europe? Kerry Skyring put the question to Johannes Pollack, European specialist from the Austrian Academy of Science

Photo: European Commission
"No I don't think so because this really seems to be a kind of self re-assurance after the break down of the Soviet empire. If you think about ethnic identity as we had heard in the report, it's more or less used in private affairs. You can think of identities as a kind of onion, this came to me when I listened to the report. It means shell after shell but there is no real core so I don't think the entrance of the East European countries into the European Union will lead to a re-assurance of ethnic identities in terms of political matters."

Like autonomy for Silesia?

" No way for that. I mean we see what happens in Spain with the autonomy for the Basque country. Nothing happens and don't forget that the idea of a regional Europe, or a Europe of regions is more or less dead."

Why is it dead, because this was a great ambition of the European Union?

" The main reason is that the regions within the European Union are so different. Just think of the Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia for instance, think of the GDP of North Rhine-Westphalia which is as large as the whole GDP of Austria or even larger, So all the regions are very different and if you look at the committee of regions in the European Union you find people like, for instance, the Governor of Carinthia in Austria sitting beside the Minister President of North Rhine-Westphalia, and they have nothing in common."

If we come back now to those identities, and think back to the young woman from Silesia - Silesian, German, Polish - and if we are to put another layer around that it's the European identity. I wonder how strong that one is?

" This of course is another layer and we have Euro barometer data out for years and years now which shows that most, or a lot of Europeans, regard themselves as European but, what is necessary therefore is what sociologists call "the significant other." So you term yourself being European when you are in the United States for instance but not for instance against your own neighbour."

The Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, talking to a meeting of leaders in Central Europe recently said, "The countries of the region had to rediscover the cultures of the old Central Europe, and become aware of their old identities." I asked myself, for what purpose? I wonder if you would comment on that?

" I think it's an interesting expression, though not one of his most brilliant ones I would say, but it nicely fits into the Austrian tradition of neglecting its own past or re-constructing its own past a little bit. What he obviously recommends is like, going back to the medieval roots, this is what it looks like, but I have no idea what he intends to say with that."

Our next report takes us to a border crossing between the Czech Republic and Austria, a border that will start to disappear next year and completely disappear in terms of its physical presence when these two countries come in to the Schengen agreement of the European Union. This is a border that existed for eleven, maybe fifteen years before the border gates are pulled down. You would view this as a positive development in Central Europe, this ability to put them up and pull them down and then get on with it?

" Oh yes definitely. If we talk about borders in Europe we have to look a bit into history. Integration always intended, also in the past, to solve certain problems. After the Second World War it was of course the problem of destroyed economies, and nowadays the problem seems to be again the economy and enlarging the market of course goes hand in hand with enlarging the borders of the European Union."