Europe’s cultural conundrum

The British have never really considered themselves Europeans. They always refer to Europe as “Europe” or “The Continent.”

July 9, 2016 00:29
4 minute read.

Unfortunately the relationship between the EU and Britain is not as cozy as this couple make it appear to be. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The proverbial straw that began to break the camel’s back came with the threat of waves of immigrants coming from cultures that are so opposite to the way of life in northwest Europe.

For those who understand culturalism, the fact that 52 percent of British voters opted to leave the EU should not have come as a surprise. I, like many expats living in Israel, followed the advice of the establishment, voted to stay in and got it wrong. Yet as a non-Brit who has lived in England and worked in Europe for the best part of 45 years, I should have read the signs better.

I was always intrigued by the average British person’s relationship with Europe and the Europeans. Much of the dissonance between Britain and its European neighbors is rooted in culturalism, which is defined as “a term used in anthropology to denote that all societies strive to create different cultural identities for themselves” by Polish- American philosopher and sociologist Florian Znaniecki.

The British have never really considered themselves Europeans. They always refer to Europe as “Europe” or “The Continent,” whereas the Europeans always look upon Britain as part of Europe. If the truth be told, the average Brit has more in common with Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and even South Africans. This is mainly because of our common roots and shared values.

Anglo-Saxon culture is staunchly defined by the Protestant work ethic where people “live to work.” Fons Trompenaar, a Dutch expert on cultural differences, also points out that the British fall into the category of a rulebound society where the law is the law to be followed implicitly and not questioned.

The Germans, Scandinavians, Dutch, Czechs share this cultural trait, together with almost all the Anglo-Saxon nations with the exception of Ireland.

The rest of the world has a very different take on it. In Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, Poland, Hungary and Romania, rules and laws are seen as guidelines that are not cast in stone and can be changed. In these societies, people are more important than things. In other words, one’s personal relationships come before facts and figures and even rules. It is not “what you know” but “who you know.” These nations make up the majority in the EU and most of them subscribe to the idea of “working to live.” This is borne out by the economic collapse in Greece, where the retirement age was set at 55 and half the population ignored their tax demands.

Little wonder then that the British are fed up with the shenanigans of living under European rule. The financial benefits have always attracted them, together with the trade agreements. What most ordinary people could not abide by is the EU’s club mentality that often resembles the voting system of the Eurovision song contest, based on the principle of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” The net result is mistrust, suspicion and accusations of nepotism leading to corruption with very little transparency.

The proverbial straw that began to break the camel’s back came with the threat of waves of immigrants coming from cultures that are so opposite to the way of life in northwest Europe. Little wonder then that soon after the Brexit vote, countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark began to make noises about conducting similar referendums.

Germany and France have been left to manage the chaos ensuing from Britain’s withdrawal. These are two diametrically opposite cultural entities.

So what of other international organizations in Europe? Of huge significance is NATO, the North Atlantic military alliance of 28 nations. This defense agency has a much better chance of survival than the EU. It is no coincidence that the past four leaders have come from northwest European countries such as Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK. NATO is also heavily steered by the US, which monitors the running of the organization in accordance with strict rules and performance standards.

Now that Britain has voted to leave, it remains to be seen whether the two next largest remaining powers of France and Germany will be able to develop the synergy to lead their European colleagues through the political and economic quagmire. To me this seems doubtful. Having said that, I am loath to bet on it as I have already lost one bet about whether the UK would vote to remain or leave the EU.

The 21st century is full of surprises.

We will see what happens with the US presidential elections and the cultural synergy of the 50 states in the United States of America! 

The writer is an international management consultant who has worked and lived in Europe and the UK and now lives in Jerusalem.

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