Nelleke Noordervlieten

Nelleke Noordervliet, © Ernie Enkelaar

Nelleke Noordervliet, © Ernie Enkelaar

A Continent Viewed through a Kaleidoscope

Do I now know what European culture is all about? More than 22,000 people took the Europe List survey. I was one of them, but I don’t remember exactly what I filled in. My choice of the most important building wasn’t the Eiffel Tower, at least I know that much. Coming up with answers was fairly difficult. Most surveys have multiple-choice questions, so that the responses can be compared and analysed more easily. The Europe List had a lot of open-ended items, like the ultra-liberal, anarchic request to fill in the term that best described Europe, in your personal opinion. While it was possible to express the responses to most questions in percentage terms, the largest percentage often went to ‘Other’. This illustrates the fragmentation that has long characterised Europe, and which more than sixty years of cooperation have not yet changed in any fundamental way.

How representative are the results of the survey? Entirely unrepresentative. No general conclusion of any kind can be drawn. Most of the participants were German, which is not entirely unreasonable considering the country’s relative population, but second place went to the Serbians! The response rate was disappointing in the United Kingdom, and while it was more reasonable in the other large European countries, the Netherlands is at the bottom of the heap with 214 participants (0.96%), just above the Portuguese and the Irish. The survey was administered not only to European residents, but also to Egyptian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Turkish, and other Mediterranean respondents. Remarkably, 6.71% of respondents declined to state their nationality, and a roughly equal percentage (6.02%) had a nationality other than the 30 that were listed. While it is undeniably possible for a fairly small set of respondents to be reasonably representative, I fear that 214 Dutch citizens, about 50% of whom were in the 20–40 age group, are far from constituting a reliable sample of the population.

What does Europe mean to you personally? Name three things you associate with Europe. Good question, but extremely open-ended. Guess what: 59% gave answers that couldn’t be expressed in percentages! Maybe those included terms like ‘bureaucracy’, ‘trade barriers’, ‘intrusiveness’, and ‘conflict’. Only the positive associations made it into the percentages and were therefore mentioned. ‘Culture’ scored 9%, to no one’s astonishment, since the stated objective of the Europe List is to ask about European culture. The word was echoed right back. Maybe participants should have been given a little less freedom in this case. If they had been given ten options, one of which was ‘bureaucracy’, I’m sure the term would have ended up in the top three. Let’s not forget that the freedom to respond as you see fit implies the freedom to respond critically.

In response to this question, the Dutch tended to write that they associate Europe with the euro. The Italians mentioned unity, the Greeks civilisation, and the Germans diversity. Two conclusions spring to mind: (a) different terms dominate the debate about Europe in each country and (b) the respondents come from the pro-European-Union camp. That explains why the Greeks came up with ‘civilisation’, the civilisation they generally claim was their gift to Europe, rather than ‘repression’, in reference to the rigorous and painful measures that the European Union has forced them to take in this time of crisis.

What is the most significant European building? You guessed it: the Eiffel Tower. A questionable choice, I would say. Vastly overrated. But how did the Acropolis end up third, with a full 9% of the vote? Well, 347 of the 456 Greeks rated it number one. Chauvinists to the core. To my surprise, the European Parliament also did very well, even though neither the building nor the institution is a leading European landmark. Many respondents evidently gave a socially desirable answer, as people often do when filling in surveys. The majority truly love the idea of Europe and are familiar with the European institutions, or would like to be affiliated with them. That comes to light again in the responses to the question about the future of Europe: 55% are fairly optimistic. I don’t think any serious survey has ever shown such a high level of support for Europe, or at least not in the past forty years. Forty-three per cent feel like a full-blooded European – I don’t believe a word of it!

Then there are the truly cultural questions: the best film, the greatest writer or literary figure, the most significant artist, the most interesting discovery, and Europe’s most significant contribution to world culture. This is very much a matter of personal taste, and so the answers vary enormously or reflect national pride. In most cases, the winning category is ‘Other’. Around 60% of the participants came up with very original answers. When I see that 8% chose Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful and only 1% Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, what does that tell me? About 2,000 respondents saw Benigni’s film and liked it, while 200 people preferred Fellini or missed the Benigni. Das Leben der Anderen and Good Bye Lenin undoubtedly did very well in Germany in absolute terms. We can also conclude that Amour was probably playing in Slovenian and Bulgarian arthouse cinemas while the survey was being filled in. The French, being French, voted en masse for their own films, which accounts for the popularity of Amelie and L'Auberge espagnole, the latter of which wasn’t even released in the Netherlands as far as I know. A real dark-horse candidate for us. The commentary on these results borders on the ridiculous, with the claim that Morocco set itself apart from other participating countries by including Das Parfum in its top three. In fact, 3 of the 36 Moroccan responses (8%, no less!) named that film. This is a noteworthy result?

The most compelling victory goes to Leonardo da Vinci, with 25% naming him as the most significant European artist. Leonardo, the uomo universale, really does represent the best that European culture has to offer at its deepest core. Rembrandt tops the Dutch list, with 21 of the 144 responses. I get that. But wait a minute! What’s going on here? Weren’t there 214 Dutch respondents? Did 70 of them abstain from voting for Europe’s greatest artist? Where are those missing 70? Or were lots of other answers left blank on the forms? If those 70 shirkers had all chosen Rembrandt, then our boy Remmy would have made the top ten!

It doesn’t astonish me in the least that Italian cuisine came out on top, but national biases played a crucial role here. No reasonable Dutch participant would endorse Dutch cooking, but I can well imagine that the Spanish or the French might prefer their cuisine to any other. The Bulgarian fondness for mother’s home cooking merely confirms that there are few good Italian restaurants in Sofia.

Germany does remarkably well in the survey. Angela Merkel reigns supreme as the embodiment of Europe’s future, Germany is the best-loved destination for temporary residence, and Berlin is evidently the most attractive European city. Why am I not surprised?

The Europe List is a flimsy, entertaining oddity, not a serious survey. Not a single meaningful conclusion can be drawn from it, except that Europe is a patchwork of nationalities, a tower of Babel, a kaleidoscope of opinions, and that this is very probably the essence of our continent. There is a great deal to be said about European culture, since the pieces of the patchwork are sewn together. The European quilt keeps us warm and nurtures our dreams, but to obtain proof of that, we need something more than these poor to middling questions with responses to match, which present an utterly shallow, distorted picture of ideas about Europe and European culture.
Translated into English by David McKay