Even before Britain declared its intention to leave the EU on 23 June 2016, an increasing number of UK citizens were making steps to secure citizenship in another EU country, most commonly Ireland. The threat, and now near certainty, of a ‘Brexit’ from the EU has caused many in Britain to ask fundamental questions about what it means to be British, and whether there is any value in self-identifying as European as well. Moreover, the tension among the UK’s constituent countries, especially England and Scotland, is provoking yet further questions about an English identity to take priority over a British and then European one.
As a British citizen for 25 of my 26 years on this planet, I too am caught up in this quest. Although I was born a Romanian citizen by virtue of my Romanian parents, I became a British citizen when I was adopted by British parents in 1990. And so I was happily whisked away from my Suceava orphanage and the beauty of Bukovina. But as commonly happens in families, times change, people pass away and enter or re-enter our lives, and I now find myself in a position where I am ready to reclaim my Romanian citizenship. I am also ready to fight for my European membership.
To be European and to benefit from freedom of movement – the right to live and work indefinitely anywhere in the European Union – is, for me, primarily a vote in favour of cultural pluralism. The American philosopher Horace Kallen coined this term in 1915 to move away from a ‘melting pot’ notion of American society – assimilation to a dominant, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) model. Instead, he envisioned an ‘orchestration of differents’: the coexistence of different people under a single project of democratic progress. This was also the darling of Walt Whitman, who sang of himself and his American brothers and penned his Democratic Vistas. But what of Europe? Does pluralism count for anything now, anywhere here? As I seek to reclaim my Romanian citizenship, I find myself running over the histories of Bukovina – the land in which my birth family has lived for generations.
Before the 1940s, Bukovina, with Chernivtsi as its main urban centre, was a culturally and ethnically pluralistic society. No single ‘people’ dominated, and especially in Chernivtsi, one could hear different languages, dialects; pass churches of different denominations; see people of mixed ethnicity. Bukovinians looked to Vienna and L’viv as administrative, religious, and political centres, perhaps more so than Iaşi and certainly more so than Bucharest. Even before the Austrians claimed Bukovina in 1774 and German became the lingua franca, for centuries the area ethnically diverse, with various infiltrations over time of Czechs, Hungarians (Magyars), Poles, Jews, Russians, Subcarpathian Rusyns, Ruthenians, Moldavians, and Armenians. Bukovina seems always to have been a borderland of empire expansion: from the Greek extension of the Roman empire (the Getae), to Kievan Rus’ and the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, etc. The result is that the current border separating Romania from Ukraine is somewhat artificial, extremely contemporary, and does not reflect what Arjun Appadurai has called an ‘ethnoscape’ – a constructed space signifying (ethnic) kinship which may transcend national borders. Since the 1940s, Romanian and Soviet and then Ukrainian governments have encouraged nationalisation and assimilation to a dominant national idea of ethnic and cultural genesis, which is understandable, of course, given the need to maintain stability and grow economies.
But I wonder about the long-term consequences. In the early twentieth century, to say you were Bukovinian was analogous to saying you are European today. It signifies a recognition of multiple ethnic roots and cultural influences. According to Colin and Rychlo, one businessman from Chernivtsi even had the idea in 1920 of establishing a European Union with Vienna as its capital, and raised funds for founding a ‘European Peace Bank’ with a single currency. Intellectuals regarded Bukovina as a ‘testing ground for [a] united Europe’; indeed, ‘The European will be a Bukovinian or else Europe will not be’.
It is true, of course, that since the Second World War the population of Bukovina has become more homogenous, more easily divisible along Ukrainian and Romanian lines. And yet I wonder about the convenience of these migrations: convenient for folding lost sheep back into the motherland of Kiev or Bucharest. Because of course, such people were always really Ukrainian or Romanian, not realising of course that to say such a thing is an anachronism. Indeed, as is often the case, the reality is somewhat different, more messy, less compliant.
As I seek to regain my Romanian citizenship, I am asking myself what this all means. On the one hand, citizenship can be contained as simply a legal provision, pertaining to rights and duties. But in truth we know that citizenship has cultural capital too: we ask people for a knowledge of the culture when applying for citizenship for the first time. And so I ask: do I want to be a Romanian? Do I want to be a Brit? I’m not sure I do, because I’m not sure I am. I am a European, and I am a Bukovinian, which in one school of thought is tantamount to saying the same thing. In my own and my family’s heritage, there are other spatial centres which had a hand in shaping who we are – centres that resist the pull south to Bucharest, and which in fact outrageously push beyond the current Romanian border entirely. To be European and Bukovinian therefore means to have an entirely different way of placing citizenship – to move beyond it, really. ‘Ethnoscape’ may be one way of framing identity, especially in a globalised world, but we also need to look for more personalised frames as well – frames which run with the logic of homo bucoviniensis or homo europaeus.
I am still going to work toward reclaiming Romanian citizenship. But I do so recognising that in one sense, I am far from ‘Romanian’. Psychologically I wish to extricate myself from nationalistic agendas, which can be somewhat insensitive to complexity in personal as well as collective histories. But by remaining a European, I also remain a part of the project of finding ways to unite people who may not necessarily feel they fit the dominant national model in which they currently live or with whom they have associations.
So I am pleased to see Poles and Ukrainians re-thinking their relations given the lingering ghost of Galicia, which once united Kraków and L’viv. And I also commend the EU-funded Romania-Ukraine-Republic of Moldova sustainable development project coalescing around Bukovina. But as Valentyna Vasylova has shown, it is really in education that the major challenge lies: to engage with complexity in offering the narratives with which children can shape their own identity. To (re-)consider ‘Bukovinian’ as a possible marker of identity for such children may open up new vistas of historical imagination – of cultural pluralism and European integration. In the same way, I hope that to consider ‘European’ as a marker of identity in Britain will continue to question nationalistic policies, and move forward toward a wiser, more humane and open way of life.