By Howard LaFranchi, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
IN this small town on the Meuse River, close to both the Netherlands and Germany, people take in stride talk about integrating Europe and borders falling.
The cheeses in the shops are mostly Belgian, while Belgian waffles, not French crepes or German pretzels, are sold on the streets. But at the same time, stickers of the European Community flag - 12 gold stars on a blue field - appear on students' binders or an occasional car bumper.
"You know, we've been eaten with all the sauces you can imagine, from Austrian and French to German ... but we've still managed to remain who we always were," says Genevieve, a middle-aged native of Vise, referring to the number of times Belgium has fallen under foreign control. "It isn't a stronger Europe that's going to change that."
A similar sentiment is expressed at the nearby supermarket, where clerks say they generally support the unifying Europe they admit knowing little about. Yet Chantal Hart, tending a sizzling machine at "La Gourmandise" waffle wagon, says things are not that simple. "It's true most people will say they like the idea of being Belgian and European, or if you talk to the students they'll say they don't care about being Belgian at all," she says.
"But there are people who are scared by the changes: That's the extremists, or look at the farmers, or the ones who fear for their jobs," adds Mrs. Hart. "Those are people who fear losing what they have and what they are, and it's not necessarily just a few."
The EC's summit in Maastricht, Netherlands, earlier this month, which resulted in far-reaching accords on economic and political integration, has brought the issue of European identity to the forefront. The issue remains fuzzy in many countries and is confused by other troubling forces, like the globalization of culture, the international economy, and immigration. But as the year-long negotiations to revise the Community's treaty drew to a crescendo and discussion grew of increasing EC powers and transferring national sovereignty, the debate over national identity has grown.
Much of the debate began in Britain, where former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told Parliament of her resistance to a supranational Europe in November: "It is about being British, and it is about what we feel for our country, our Parliament, our traditions, and our liberty."
Since then it has spread: to Germany, where a sudden welling up of popular concern for "our beloved deutsche mark" followed the EC leaders' decision to create a single currency before the end of the decade; to France, where a society already disrupted by EC standards for Camembert cheese and foie gras (a kind of pate) now wonder about lost sovereignty and the vaunted French difference; to Ireland, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.
The irony is that, except in Britain and Denmark, where support is less clearcut, wide majorities in EC countries support such goals as a single money, a common foreign policy and defense, and a more powerful European Parliament, all clear aspects of a national identity.
The explanation, as hinted at by Mrs. …