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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deep Diversity Poses EU Hurdle

Heaven is where the police are British, the chefs French, the mechanics German, the lovers Italian and it's all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the chefs British, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss and it's all organized by the Italians.

--An oft-told European joke.

MAASTRICHT, The Netherlands -- For decades, those struggling to build a united Europe saw the continent's rich cultural diversity as an asset in fulfilling their dream.

They noted how a Latin flair for the grand gesture helped generate such unifying symbols as the single lavender-colored passport now issued by all 15 European Union countries. And how British pragmatism helped streamline and decentralize the union's formidable bureaucracy.

"Europe's strength is in its diversity," argued Richard Hill, a British-born specialist on cross-cultural dynamics who lives in Brussels.

Others are no longer so sure.

Indeed, as efforts move ahead to strengthen the union, as member states begin hitching their economic fate to a common currency and mull revolutionary political steps such as adopting a single foreign and security policy, the enormous differences in culture, values and outlook that have separated the nations of Europe for centuries now loom as a large impediment to deeper unity.

"There was the belief that the Common Market, the European Union and [the goal of] unification would lead to a common culture, but it apparently doesn't work that way," said Niels G. Noorderhaven, director of the Institute for Research on Intercultural Cooperation, which is based in this picture-book Dutch town where the treaty on European political and economic unity was signed five years ago.

Today, Noorderhaven is only one of many who believe the experiment of forging a united Europe will likely fall well short of a "United States of Europe" -- in part because of deep and fundamental divisions.

He and others go so far as to argue there is evidence to suggest that the opposite is happening -- that cultural differences in Europe may be hardening.

"When you start talking about pulling down political boundaries or becoming part of a greater whole, people have a desire to want to preserve what is unique about themselves," noted Ralf Dahrendorf, the respected German-born social scientist who is now an English lord and head of Oxford University's St. Antony's College. "It's not surprising." It is also unsettling, because history has proven that convictions of such uniqueness among people in Europe can, with only a little tension, quickly lead to friction and tragedy -- as the recent Balkan conflict has underscored.

Some experts argue that either the notion of European diversity or the goal of integration must give.

Dutch academic Geert Hofstede, one of the leading experts in the field of cultural diversity, has claimed that Europeans remain inevitably divided by their history.

"Countries have remained separate precisely because there existed fundamental differences in thinking and feeling between them," he said in a 1993 lecture at the University of Limburg here. "Why do you think the Belgians revolted against the Dutch in 1830? The border between Belgium and the Netherlands revives the border between the Roman Empire and the barbaric Germanic tribes ... in about 4 AD."