Those who advocate a European superstate describe the breakdown of national identity. It's utter nonsense, of course. Slovenia joined the E.U. in 2004 but the average Slovenian still has about as much in common with the average Brit as McDonald's does with haute cuisine. We might laugh when we hear that 85 percent of Americans don't hold a passport, but few Brits could point to Slovenia on a map. We like our little island; it's cozy.
You cannot compare Europe with the U.S. Even today, more than 60 years since we last tried to murder each other, the European States are poles apart. Germany is still the country of neat little streets, filled with angular Identi-Kit houses pinched from the local hardware store.
I was in a town near Frankfurt a couple of weeks ago and everywhere you looked there were adverts for the spargelfest. For the local population, this was clearly an event of some importance.
Spargel, you should understand, is the local delicacy known in the English-speaking world as asparagus. In Germany, a tasteless, ugly, root vegetable is worthy of a weekend festival. It was tempting to attend, just to see what all the fuss was about, but I had to wash my hair.
It is hard to imagine the Italians salivating at the thought of a spargelfest. Italy is separated from Germany only by Austria and the Alps, but it might as well be in a different universe. While the Germans manicure their lawns and demand regulation, the Italians are the living embodiment of the chaos theory. German setsquares and bureaucracy are replaced by hedonistic passion.
Even the worst Italian town is prettier than anywhere in Germany. Take a stroll through somewhere nice, like Cremona, and you'll be greeted by fine wine, God's own architecture, and beautiful women who shave their armpits. You'll probably crash your car and the hotel's air-con won't work, but you'll love every minute.
There was a time when Europe's cars reflected these national stereotypes. If you wanted something sensible, reliable, and robust but a tad boring, you'd choose a Mercedes. If you wanted something silly, unreliable, flimsy, and enthralling, you'd choose an Alfa Romeo. For 30 years, Alfa was the equivalent of the high school honey. You wanted a date but your mother wouldn't approve, and it definitely wouldn't last.
This image didn't do much for Alfa's sales on either side of the Atlantic. By 1995, the situation had become so dire that Alfa pulled out of the U.S. altogether. The marque that had given Enzo Ferrari a start in life could no longer seduce Uncle Sam. For Americans, Alfa became yet another ancient relic to be spotted on a whistle-stop tour of the United States of Europe.
But all this, of course, is about to change. Next year, Alfa will return to the U.S. with the lovely Maserati-based 8C supercar and it will be followed by the Brera (beautiful but rubbish to drive), the Spider (ditto), and the 159 (pretty but mediocre). These cars will be at the vanguard of the new beginning but in a relatively short period of time they'll be replaced by a new generation of Alfas, led by the Mito.
Just 13 feet long, it's a direct rival to the MINI that, for the past few years, has had the premium small-car market all to itself. It's supposed to appeal to Europe's trendy young opinion formers-the 25- to 35-year-olds with around $30,000 in their pockets and a statement to make. If Alfa can seduce the "in" crowd, then the middle-aged moms will follow.
They launched it in Milan and doused us all with Italian culture. There were glorious Alfas from the (distant) past, beautiful young ladies in party frocks, fine wine, God's own architecture, and an underwhelming little hatchback.
The trim quality was good, it felt like it had been built to last beyond the end of next week, and it did nothing wrong. It was superbly competent but ever so slightly dull. It was hard not to conclude that the Germans have done a better job of a faux British MINI than the Italians have of a faux German Alfa.
The worst thing of all, however, is the name: MiTo is a mix of Milan (where it was designed) and Turino (where it was built). The name was an entry in a Europe-wide competition and the winning entrant was a German woman. What a wonderful example of European integration!