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Old Europe looks in the mirror

As a greying Europe looks across at the new face of America, Europeans have been navel-gazing, wondering why the continent that gave the West its first female leader and its first Jewish leader has not yet elected a head of state of a different race.

Picture the excitement. It is the spring of an election year and the Democratic Party contender is making a speech. The crowds, young and full of hope, are cheering, the banners wave, "Yes, we can!" The leader in waiting, facing a veteran politician 20 years his senior, tells the crowd they must not look back to the past. He envisages a new dawn for this Western nation.

And then, inexplicably, he loses. The year is 2008 but the place is not America and the candidate is not Barack Obama. It is instead Europe, where the former mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, stood last April for the leadership of Italy and lost to Silvio Berlusconi. Veltroni had explicitly modelled himself on Obama - he even wrote the preface to the Italian edition of Obama's bestseller, The Audacity of Hope.

Two continents and two candidates, divided by race. Obama is black; Veltroni white. But while the US president-elect was chosen by voters who looked beyond race, Veltroni lost to voters who favoured conservative and anti-immigration parties. As a greying Europe looks across at the new face of America, Europeans have been navel-gazing, wondering why the continent that gave the West its first female leader and its first Jewish leader has not yet elected a head of state of a different race. The answer, curiously, has little to do with racism - and everything to do with identity.

Scan the projected face of Europe and it is, still, resoundingly white (and resoundingly male). With the notable exception of Britain, where ethnic minority faces have pushed into the media and corporate boardrooms, much of Europe's elite remains mono-ethnic. In Germany there are few Turkish faces on TV; in France few Muslims in senior business positions; in Italy, few Africans in politics. That isn't chiefly racism; it's history.

Increasingly, Europe is not America. African-Americans have been living in the United States for 400 years, far longer than the mass immigration of Turks, Arabs, Indians and Africans who arrived in Europe after the Second World War. Black Americans have been involved in all the pivotal events of America, whereas the history of large-scale immigration to Europe is only a few decades old. This difference alone explains what has really held back the ascent of a European Obama: not racism among Europeans, which is often overstated, but a difference in how Europeans conceive their identity.

In the towns of Bavaria, the villages of Burgundy or the hamlets of Tuscany, a dark face still signals a foreigner. Germans and Italians look at the children of immigrants in their midst, many indistinguishable in speech and customs from them, and are unsure whether those who look different are fully committed to preserving their national identity. Their concept of citizenship is still shadowed by colour lines.

Citizenship and identity are further complicated by religious difference. As the religious identity of Muslims in Europe has solidified, cultural questions have arisen. Many white Britons who would happily vote for a black politician might stumble over a Muslim candidate. It is not the race or the religion per se that worries the electorate: it is their concern that the candidate's Britishness, his concept of identity, may not be the same as theirs. As in Britain, so on the continent.

For minorities in Europe, it's the politics, stupid. Over the past 30 years, leaders in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain have all spent years toiling in the political wilderness before emerging into national politics. Tony Blair led the Labour Party for three years before becoming prime minister; he had been elected to Parliament in 1983. In Germany, Angela Merkel led the Christian Democrats for five before becoming chancellor. In such circumstances, a European Obama would have to patiently climb the political ladder before having a chance at the top job. The fact that, despite changing social demographics, there are few places in Europe where an ethnic minority candidate represents a majority white constituency makes his or her ascent even harder.

The picture is not that different in America, with one exception. Every US president of the past three decades has run a state before ascending to the presidency (except for George HW Bush, who ran the CIA). In contrast, Barack Obama spent just two years as a senator before his candidacy. But the US political system allows for outsiders to run against the establishment. Obama took his case directly to the electorate and convinced them he was the candidate to break the Washington pattern.

And convince them he did. For American voters, a connection with their president is important: they want to feel their politicians are personable ideologues. George W Bush in 1999 dressed himself in a good ol' boy persona, and it is how Hillary Clinton tried to press her advantage among blue-collar workers. One of the recurrent themes of the McCain campaign's attacks on Barack Obama was that he was different, and somehow not fully American. What Obama's victory proves is that a growing section of US voters believe that this mixed-race man, with a peripatetic childhood spanning two continents, reflects how they increasingly see themselves: multicultural, worldly and youthful.

In the end, what really made an Obama presidency possible was the capacity of Americans to look past the traditional idea of what it means to be an American. Not everyone believes this, of course - but enough voters mobilised themselves to bring change to the White House. This speaks well of the country and will resonate in much of Europe and the world, where social mobility is still wrapped up in class, race and gender.

There is a long way to go, on both sides of the Atlantic. What took centuries in the United States may take decades in Europe. "We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose," said Mario Cuomo, another immigrant's son who delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, over 20 years before Obama. Those words may yet come true for the 44th US president. While Obama's inspirational campaign and election has made history, it hasn't changed it: the wounds of slavery are still raw and what balm a black president provides to African-Americans will have to be followed by real and lasting change. Baghdad is still burning and Guantanamo still stands. But Barack Obama's victory has shown that America, for all its divisions, can aspire to a higher ideal. By doing something as simple as marking a name on a ballot, Americans have changed the way the world views them - Europe can do the same.

Faisal al Yafai is a journalist and commentator. He lives in London.

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