Saturday, September 18, 2004

The golf-ball as symbol of integration

For a long time now it has been obvious to all those yearning for the existence of one wondrous European state that there was one serious problem bedevilling the whole project. (Well, there are several problems, but this is the most serious one.) It is almost impossible to have a viable modern state without a national consciousness behind it. And, sadly, there is no European national consciousness, no real Europan identity around.

Ever since Pietro Adonino’s report, A People’s Europe, presented at the Milan Summit in 1985, there have been many attempts to create this identity. The most obvious ones are the symbol of the twelve stars on the flag, the driving licence and various other documents. Though the ring has been accepted as natural by too many people, it has not made those same people feel “European” or, to be precise, citizens of the European Union. Other attempts, having an anthem or the TV sans frontières directive, have also failed in their immediate impact. After all, who cares where TV programmes are made or who pays for them? Few of them are watchable in any case.

There is, of course, one aspect of life that excites strong loyalties and passions, and that is sport. For twenty years now the EU has been trying out ideas about a “European” Olympic team or football team or any other team. Signor Prodi repeated the suggestion in the immediate wake of the Athens Olympic Games, and a number of journalists have taken up the theme of how many medals the Europeasn had won as opposed to the Americans, the Chinese or the Russians, and how much better it would have been if there had been one team.

My colleague has already analyzed the ridiculousness of the claim on the medals and the suggestion that a “European” team would have performed particularly well. But, in any case, the idea is a non-starter. Athletes will not run or jump, footballers will not play, swimmers will not swim for “Europe”. And if they do, they will not stand to attention when the flag with the ring of stars is raised or the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth is played. Audiences will not cheer. Sport is too deep-seated for that.

Recently there have been various articles on the subject with sports journalists as well as others making superciliously jocular comments about Europeans’ apparently inexplicable attachment to their national teams. What is rather odd about this silly sneering is that none of sneerers seem to find it ridiculous that the EU should be so doggedly purusing the idea of a “European” sports team. Why is the notion of supposedly frenzied attachment to an EU team in any way better than the existing attachment to a national one? Oh well, I don’t suppose sports commentators really understand any of this.

The reason for all this excitement is that in the last few days it seemed as if the EU has finally found the weak link in the chain and has managed to impose itself on a sporting event – the Ryder Cup. This was quite a sensible decision (though I actually suspect that there was no decision – they simply try it on with every competition) as there had always been lose talk about Europeans versus Americans in the competition. If Europeans then it must be the European Union. And the ring of stars appeared everywhere.

There has been much talk of the Europeans doing well against the Americans and somehow every analysis managed to produce the impression that there was a single European or EU golf team. An article in the Christian Science Monitor even marvelled that “traditional enmities” disappeared as players and fans of different nationalities cheered each other on. There was hope for Europe yet – that sporting team will appear one day and with it a new European identity will be born.

There is just one problem with this theory. Golf is a supremely individual game. You can no more think of golfers forming a team than of domestic cats hunting in packs. That is, of course, why the players care little for each other’s nationality and why the fans cheer whoever happens to be wielding the club.

I fear, I do so fear, that the proponents of a “European identity” are doomed to be disappointed once again: golf will not succeed where the ring of stars or the euro have failed. But that will not stop them from trying.

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