• Josie Channer

A European Identity

Updated: May 17, 2018

As questions about our role in Europe come up again, I think the real question here is about British identity and how Europe fits into that.

Identity is a strange thing and I wonder where our sense of national identity comes from. I believe it is made up from a number of different layers. My England looks like the rows of sari shops on Green Street, East Ham, sounds like my evangelical church on Sundays, tastes like jerk chicken rice & peas, and smells like my favourite pie &mash shop behind West Ham football stadium. That doesn’t make it any less English, however, as our culture is ever changing and made up of many fragments.

I take comfort and great pride in a much wider sense of our identity; that of ‘Britishness’, a shared cultural history which many black Britons find it easier to identify with. I also share a common European cultural history with fellow black Dutch and black French people. For me, this is a story of migration and colonialism which has changed forever what it means to be European.

However, some feel that they cannot be a part of a common European identity, and some simply refuse to be a part of it. Unpicking the reasons could be varied and complex, but the result of non-integration and isolation is clear. After the devastating July 7th London bombings, the attacks in Paris and recent attack in Belgium, I thought; “What could have driven them to hate their own country so much?”. But I don‘t think they ever saw it as their country. During my travels through southern Africa, I saw the ugly results of non-integration. After three hundred years in Africa, I felt that the white communities there may as well have been living on another planet as there had been no effort to embrace African culture, but rather, in my view, a clear rejection of it. There needs to be a balance, as no one should be expected to sacrifice their cultural heritage for integration, rather it should be another layer that enriches it.

During the campaign against the BNP in Barking & Dagenham, I was passed a copy of their magazine. It came as no surprise to me that the magazine was called “Identity” and it was apparent that a growing group of people feel that their identity is being stripped away from them. Europe, rather than enriching our identity, is seen as yet another threat. With the demise of Britain’s industrial economy and the growth of a new knowledge-based economy, there seems to be no place in this new and uncertain Britain for the white working class. However can we afford to continue to see Europe as such a threat to our national identity, when it could be our salvation?

The world has changed and is due to change again. After the global financial crisis, and while Europe is still in difficulties, the calls have been for closer integration not isolation. Our national pride depends upon our place in the world and that seems to be slipping as our influence in Europe slips.

In the rebuilding of a national identity, that might include a European element, and we ought to start with a blank canvas. Instead of looking back to a time when Britain ruled the world on its own, maybe the golden age of British identity is not in the past, but here and now. Only when we grasp this will we be able to embrace our new identity and survive in the age of political and financial globalization. We now live in a world where we must integrate, but can still hold on to our own unique identity. The fear is that if we move closer to Europe we will lose what make us so special. I would argue that if we let go of Europe we may end up losing what makes us special in the first place.

We need an EU that looks like Europe.

Councillor Josie Channer

“14% of Europe is non-white, yet there are no non-white Commissioners out of 28. Isn’t time we had a European Commission that looks like Europe

I recently went to Brussels on a two day trip to the European Parliament with the Fabian Women’s network. While exploring the city on the hunt for some Belgium chocolates, I was reminded of how diverse Europe is with rows of North African style cafés and arrange of West African delicacies for sale. However, I was unsettled by the over whelming scenes of hardship Black people seemed to be facing in the city.

The midday sun did not provide any warmth in the bitter cold wind at Midi Station in the centre of Brussels, to the small groups of Black men huddled together around the station and on the street corners. I wondered if high unemployment, poor quality housing and education is a situation experienced by Black people throughout Europe.

On the second day of our two day trip, I raised my concern with someone who has been living in Brussels and working many years. She told me how the city has a large Congolese community who settled in Belgium after the Belgian Congo gained independence in 1960. She described Brussels as a city divided in two. Black Belgians are living in what we would consider ghettos in the surrounding areas, out of site and mind of those working in the Parliamentary district.

We met with the European Women’s Lobby who proudly listed their many achievements and campaigns, which included getting more female MEPs, Commissioners and research on women’s issues’ that was now at the heart of European policy. They are currently fighting for a Women’s Rights Commissioner. I was inspired by the boldness the European Women’s lobby displayed, they are demanding to be heard. However I only needed to walk half a mile to find a Black community that also needed to be heard in the Parliament buildings that tower over the city.

I asked Labour’s MEPs for London, Mary Honeyball who sits on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality committee why there was not a committee that looked a racial equality. She agreed that racial equality is an issue that Europe needs to put on agenda. Labour's Claude Moraes one of the other MEP’s for London chairs the European Parliament's All Party Groups (Intergroup) on Anti-Racism but this is different to the statutory committees that the parliament has.

Out of the 766 Members of the European Parliament, fewer than 20 are not White, there are no Black women and only 2 Black men. This is neither reflective, nor representative and this alone justifies the action.

Black European citizens have paid a high price for austerity throughout Europe with 50% of young Black men unemployed in the UK, I also fear that Black Europeans will be the last to feel the effects of any economic growth. 14% of Europe is non-white, yet there are no non-white Commissioners out of 28. Isn’t it time we had a European Commission that looks like Europe.

National governments across the EU put forward their candidates for the Commission. As part of that process we need governments and MEP’s to consider the diversity of Europe when making their appointments to the Commission. We need an EU that looks like Europe.

Briton has a leading role play to progress the rights and life changes of Black people throughout Europe.. We can only do that if we stay in Europe