As Austrian as downhill skiing

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HOW easy is it to distinguish the characteristics of a nation's people? What, for instance, is so Spanish about a Spaniard? Is the epitome of Danishness a love of bacon and Hans Christian Andersen? Yesterday, in the London embassies of Britain's European partners, diplomats tried to explain the essentials that make their countries unique. Some were patriotic, some were proud, and others were just puzzled.

Austria: Austrians identify strongly with music and culture, said Hannelore Schmitt, librarian at the Austrian Institute: "Young Austrians are an extrovert generation: we are a small country and outward-looking, not really like the English. People from outside the country identify Austrians with certain cliches - the Viennese riding school and the boys' choir. But Austrians also identify with sports achievements: downhill skiing, Niki Lauda. The national costume is worn in the street. And we learn quite a few languages."

Luxembourg: To be a true Luxemburger, you have to be able to speak Luxemburgish. First Secretary Paul Steinmetz said: "We all speak French and German proficiently. But in 1984 Luxemburgish was officially made the national language.

"We have been occupied by the Germans and the French. The Germans don't understand our language unless we speakslowly. Our identity is about religion - 90 to 95 per cent Roman Catholic and some Jewish people. We are a middle-class country. And we have the Grand Ducal [royal] family. Since the Second World War they have been very popular."

Denmark: Birthe Fraser, press and cultural attache at the Danish embassy, says the flag symbolises pride for the Danes: "It is much more in evidence thanin Britain. We have two national anthems - one for King Christian and the other for the country."

Can Danishness be taught? "Not in lessons. It is our cultural heritage and it starts seeping through you as you grow up."

Greece: The Greeks are very proud of their Greekness, according to Silvana Laycock. "People are very knowledgeable about their country and still practice national dancing. They still wear their national costume, they're very proud of their national culture. The flag is something they almost worship.

"Although we were occupied for 400 years we kept our traditions, history and languages alive. And Greeks are very proud that their language, from ancient Greece, is still alive whereas Latin is a dead language."

Switzerland: Calls to teach Swissness would get a very positive reaction, said Philippe Brandt, from the Swiss embassy's cultural section, in a country made up of 26 cantons.

"Most people feel first a citizen of their canton and then a citizen of Switzerland. I have never been taught the national anthem in Switzerland, and I think we very rarely fly our flag.

"I would say that Swissness is the conscience to belong to a very traditional country. It is also a conscience of neutrality, and a pride in direct democracy. Swiss opponents of EU membership say that our democracy and neutrality could be damaged.

"Swissness is really affected by being a small country with four different languages. Being a very small country is very important. We have to defend our interests more strongly."