EVERY CHRISTMAS Stephan Beneke, a 36-year-old accountant for a global shipping firm, packs up his car in Hamburg and drives his young family back to the sleepy one-church village in Germany’s former east where he grew up. “I left Gieseritz at 18 to go to university. I couldn’t get out fast enough,” he recalls. Today he works with clients from all over Europe. Half of the pupils at his children’s pre-school are non-German. “Hamburg is a real harbour city. It’s very open,” he says. Returning to the village at Christmas, he is struck by the contrast. Those who remain tend to be older and less educated. Many work on surrounding farms. “Most people were born there. They say they don’t like Europe, don’t feel European and don’t see Europe.”
Each year the continent’s big cities disgorge the young, mobile and educated as they return to the villages or small towns where they grew up and where their less mobile friends and relatives still live. British airports have their busiest day of winter on December 21st; Germany’s autobahns are most jammed on the 22nd. In Poland countryfolk refer disparagingly to the sloiki (jars), the thrusting young people who quit Warsaw over Christmas, returning with glasses of food packed by their parents. Like Thanksgiving in America, Christmas is a rare time when the young and rootless sit down with the old and rooted, gorge on festive nosh and quarrel about politics.
“We have made Europe, now we must make Europeans,” proclaimed Jean Monnet apocryphally. The father of European integration might think that job now complete if he came back to life and encountered Mr Beneke packing up his car, or the Italian barista or the Swedish banker queuing for flights at a London airport, or the Czech student boarding a coach home after a university term in Bologna. Yule-time travellers like them represent a “European” demos that is not merely a figment of a Eurocrat’s imagination.
These people speak a common tongue: typically English, and often other languages to boot. They inhabit a common milieu: big city centres and university towns, to which they are attracted by the cultural variety and high-skill jobs that cluster there. They are bound by common experiences such as travel, exposure to other Europeans and academic qualifications (even those who move for more mundane jobs, the Spanish barman working in Berlin, say, tend to be more educated than those among whom they grew up). They benefit palpably from continental integration, the skilled work generated by cross-border trade and the opportunities created by EU programmes. Mr Beneke is one of 9m Europeans who have done an “Erasmus” university exchange. The programme—which has also produced some 1m Erasmus babies—is captured in “L’Auberge Espagnole”, a cult French film set in a multi-national student flat in Barcelona. “I’m French, Spanish, English, Danish,” says Xavier, the protagonist. “I’m not one, but many. I’m like Europe, I’m all that. I’m a real jumble.”
This European class has a political wing. Cities and other places where the educated and mobile gather are diverging from their hinterlands. Pro-European Green parties are surging there, most notably in Germany. Mayors such as Rafal Trzaskowski in Warsaw, Femke Halsema in Amsterdam and Sadiq Khan in London are among their country’s most outspoken opponents of Eurosceptic populism. Emmanuel Macron came top in the first round of France’s presidential election last year thanks to similar sorts of voters, and hails “the Europe of Erasmus”. In March expatriate Italian voters bucked their country’s nationalist trend and voted primarily for the Europhile Democratic Party. Sporadically, such voters take to the streets in anti-Brexit, anti-xenophobia or Europhile “Pulse of Europe” marches, protesting, in effect, against the politics of their provincial cousins and former classmates. “The problem with the educated is that they’re a tribe that don’t think they’re a tribe,” jokes David Runciman, a political scientist at Cambridge University.
The Christmas getaway is a rare moment when this European Europe intersects en masse with the other, national Europe—and everything in between. “I love my father very much, but he has a totally different mindset,” says Mr Beneke. “He doesn’t like the EU because he says Germany pays too much and shouldn’t have the euro. And he’s not alone in that opinion in the village.” The cities are becoming more liberal as the countryside becomes more conservative, he frets. Christophe Guilluy, a French geographer, agrees, arguing that votes for the nationalist Northern League in provincial Italy and the recent gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) protests in France are just the latest manifestations of the growing divide between Europe’s metropolitan regions and its peripheral ones. It is no coincidence that one of the past year’s hottest European political texts was “Return to Reims”, a decade-old but newly translated account by Didier Eribon, a French philosopher, of revisiting the working-class mining town where he grew up.
All I want for Christmas is EU
Christmas feasts, whether carp or ham, goose or turkey, sometimes degenerate into unjolly arguments about the euro, the EU, Brexit or immigration. As the wine flows, tempers may fray. Why is Uncle Gustav such a bigot? Why is my daughter-in-law so naive? Will we still be able to buy French wine next year?
In the long term the European project will succeed only if the gap between the Christmas stay-at-homers and the Christmas travellers closes, at least a bit. That is, if Europe starts to mean a bit more to those who currently scorn it. Mr Beneke, a self-aware sort of Europhile, spies an opportunity. If the festive season exposes this divide by bringing different parts of Europe into uneasy proximity, he says, it is also a chance to heal it somewhat: “To compromise you must understand, and to understand you must talk. The first step is to talk.” He’s right. In that spirit, Charlemagne wishes all Europeans a talkative Christmas.