Frans de Waal



monograph · Do Europeans Exist?


Being European

Frans de Waal


Despite having lived and worked continuously in the USA for the past 35 years, I still feel very European. I am of Dutch origin, married to a French woman, and visit Europe several times a year.
I look at all European citizens as having a shared background, a shared history, a shared culture, and definitely shared interests. Even though all of us speak different languages (I am fluent in four), and have different cuisines, we obviously have a common cultural heritage dating back many centuries. My own country has been under Roman, Spanish, French, and German rule, and even though we generally don’t consider these invasions in a positive light, they mean that we have always been connected to and influenced by other nations. This is true all over Europe.
It has hard to formulate what makes me feel European rather than American, but one simple example is the structure of the cities. In Europe, cities are compact, with narrow streets, arranged around a square and a large church or cathedral. We all take this for granted but it is radically different from many American cities, and also from Asian ones. The way people interact, the music they prefer, the way they dress, in all of these aspects I still feel most at home in Europe.
[pullquote]I certainly don’t view the EU the way a bean-counter might[/pullquote] My view of the European Union is perhaps typical of a post World-War II child. The horror and devastations of the two world wars explain the union’s founding. We needed to change the attitude of nations, which until then had waged almost non-stop war. I certainly don’t view the EU the way a bean-counter might: how much does my nation put into it and how much does my nation get out of it. The European project is first of all a political project. I rather look at it as an absolute necessity for a peaceful future. The EU has brought us sixty years of peace, and will bring us many more years if we allow it to do so, which is worth every penny we put into it.
[pullquote]if you make two monkeys dependent on each other to obtain food, they become more conciliatory towards each other and fight less[/pullquote] As a side note, since my specialty is animal behavior, I have studied conflict resolution in primates all my life. I don’t necessarily want to compare European politicians with apes, but it is undeniable that they arrived at the same insight that is common in my field. Our most important theory is that the chance of peacemaking increases with the value of the relationships at stake. Friends, sisters, brothers, and collaborators will reconcile after a fight, or keep from fighting in a potentially competitive context, because they need each other. This has been found over and over in studies of chimpanzees and other primates, and has also been demonstrated experimentally: if you make two monkeys dependent on each other to obtain food, they become more conciliatory towards each other and fight less. This is because they have an interest in keeping the peace and fostering good relationships. The EU is the perfect example of promotion of peace by means of increased relationship value. It has managed to create incentives for nations to stick together.
Given that I am used to look at Europe from across the Atlantic, and have family in two countries, national differences are less important to me. They are a source of easy stereotypes and jokes, and there are of course genuine differences, but secondary to what binds Europeans together. I have just sat through the UEFA European Championship of 2016, and despite the fierce competition and strong national loyalties on display, Europeans clearly are one. There is great unity in its diversity, and most fans behaved quite brotherly towards those of other nations. Europe has not reached the same point of solidarity and unification as the USA, with its much longer history of integration and its unifying language, but with time Europe may get there.
Being an academic, my orientation is rather international. I am a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, but also hold a Distinguished Professorship at Utrecht University. As such, I see all those Erasmus students from other countries who study in the Netherlands, while elsewhere I meet Dutch students taking classes in France, Germany, the UK, and so on. All of this mixing of young talent, all those collaborations in the workplace, all those international marriages, guarantee further European integration. While millennials are used to looking beyond their national borders, I am not sure that they fully realize how politically essential the EU is. They seem to take its institutions and open borders for granted, and take full advantage, but I hope they realize that there are forces seeking to undermine what we have gained. These political parties feed on anti-immigration sentiments, and stir up national pride. They appeal mostly to older folks outside of the dynamic urban areas, who still have an image of their country as separate from the rest. These attitudes are a relic of the past, and my hope is firmly on the younger generation, which has a much more open-minded attitude towards nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, and so on.
[pullquote]Europe must find a way to enshrine both the local and supranational interests in its political system[/pullquote] In order to battle nationalist movements we need more engaged politicians: elected officials rather than appointed bureaucrats, who are willing to stand up for EU interests. The tension between local control and collective interest is easy to recognize in American politics where we are used to saying that “everything is local.” Similarly, Europe must find a way to enshrine both the local and supranational interests in its political system. Being too tightly integrated will pose grave dangers, as there will always be corners of this vast economic block that feel ignored or exploited and want to get out, whereas at the same time local interests need to be subordinate to the common good.


Frans de Waal


Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal is a Dutch/American biologist and primatologist known for his work on the behavior and social cognition of primates. De Waal is C. H. Candler Professor in Psychology, Director of the Living Links Center at Emory University, and Distinguished Professor at Utrecht University. He has been elected to the (US) National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences.



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