The battle for Europe's heart

13th August 2008, Comments 0 comments

The bloc has more hearts than it knows what to do with – geographically, that is.

Brussels -- For an organization which skeptics accuse of being heartless, the European Union has more hearts than it knows what to do with.

Geographically, the continent of Europe blends into Asia with no obvious border. And that peculiarity allows countries across Europe to claim that they are its heart - often for very different reasons.

One contender for the post is Slovakia, which some geographers argue lies exactly midway between Europe's extremes. Dozens of websites refer to the EU newcomer as the "heart of Europe."

Slovakia's location "evokes in the Slovaks exalted emotions that they are anchored in the very heart of Europe," Ladislav Machacek, chief research fellow at the Institute for Sociology of the Slovak Academy of Science, explained in a research paper in 2003.

But that claim faces competition from Slovakia's neighbors. Both Prague and Budapest promote themselves eagerly as the "heart of Europe" on cultural, as well as geographical, grounds.

British historian Norman Davies famously called his history of Poland "Heart of Europe" when he published it in 1984.

And in 2006, travel writer and historian Bart Nabrdalik wrote that Vienna deserves to be seen as the "true heart of Europe." Viennese residents' "soft, melodious German has a touch of Italian charm, French joie de vivre and especially a sprinkle of Slavic sentimentality and melancholy," he wrote to explain the claim.

But the Central Europeans face a challenge from the shores of the Baltic Sea. In 2000, experts from the French National Geographic Institute calculated that the centre of Europe lay in Lithuania. The announcement led to a rash of Lithuanian claims that their country is the continent's heart, but also provoked counter-claims from neighbors Poland and Belarus.

In April, 2005 Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko proclaimed: "Ukraine is the heart of Europe. Tell me, please, how can Europe live without its heart?"

That may have been rhetorical, but it is the key to understanding why so many European countries want to be seen as Europe's heart.

The one thing which almost all those who make the claim have in common is that they were dominated, and in some cases ruled directly, by Moscow until the collapse of the USSR.

That domination has left them with a deep-seated urge to prove that they are "real Europeans", rightful members of the Western club.

Thus Poles and Lithuanians are adamant that they come from Central, not Eastern Europe. Estonians insist that they are Nordic, and Czechs point out that their capital is further West than Vienna.

And Yushchenko is struggling to move his country closer to Europe at a time when many opponents say that Ukraine, as the birthplace of Russian civilization, should rather be turning East.

Indeed, cynics might argue that a claim to be Europe's heart says far more about a country's own feelings than it does about Europe's.

And as more countries line up to make the claim -- with Slovenia labeling itself the "new heart of Europe" in January -- it is worth asking whether their enthusiasm says more about Europe's enduring strength, or their own underlying uncertainty.

DPA with Expatica

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