European identity – once again

Is there a European identity? No, there is no such thing. That would be a snappy answer, but it would not be completely true. It is instructive to analyze this question thoroughly: Why does a European identity not exist? Will there ever be one?

Despite the myriad of European models, common cultural traits and traditions, it is impossible to define Europe and ”Europeanness” with precision [1]. Similarly, it is impossible to tell where the boundaries of Europe lie or will lie. Beyond common fundamental values and cultural traditions (which are more or less obvious to most Europeans), everyone has a subjective, rather vague idea of what Europe is. It is due to this vagueness that European identity resists definition.

Let me first of all underline that whatever European identity is, it is a concept broader than European Union identity. This was vividly demonstrated by the statement of eurosceptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus in May 2009, when he claimed that the EU defeated Europe when the Czech Senate ratified the Lisbon Treaty. Undoubtedly, European identity is the privilege of national elites that have been pressing ahead with European integration for half a century. European identity has not become part of the thoughts, feelings and lives of average Europeans. Values that we hold to be European — such as liberty, equality before the law or the rule of law — are in fact the result of centuries of social development and do not undermine national identities. There are no truly pan-European values or pan-European reflexes perceptible in daily life. The feeling of belonging to a nation remains much more important than that of being European. The European Union is a community of nations and not a nation comprised of federal territorial units (states, with some exaggeration) like the United States of America. It is dubious whether it will ever become one. Most probably not.

Like any identity, a European identity can benefit immensely from negative self-definition: defining what we Europeans are not. The most critical distinction is with America, the other bastion of Western culture. Of course, that alone would be a very weak foundation for an identity. A professor of Johns Hopkins University, who knows Europe very well, put his finger on it when he said: “There is no such thing as a European identity. I have never met anyone who said I am a European American. I have only met Greek Americans, Polish Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, etc.”

Europe has been in search of a self-identity for a long time. The first natural self-definition was on the common basis of Christianity. European values, which set this continent and culture apart from others, began to take shape with the Enlightenment. In “The Spirit of the Laws”, Montesquieu analyses Europe as a unified community in detail, comparing it with Asia. He comes to the conclusion that the preconditions for liberty exist only in Europe but not in Asia. Bronislaw Geremek, an outstanding European humanist of the 20th century, believed that Europe was built on a dual identity. European identity is partly rooted in medieval Christianity as a unifying force. In the 13th century, a united European community formed around religion as the central organizing principle. It was created by Rome as the center of power. Universities mushroomed continent-wide, teaching the common culture in a common language (Latin) and thereby creating the first European elite. The Europe-wide network of churches and cathedrals shared a common architectural style, a uniform liturgy and a uniform calendar. Christianity was the first supranational, pan-European cross-border culture. Geremek suggests that the second European community — lasting from Erasmus of Rotterdam to the Enlightenment — was the Republic of Letters (Respublica literaria) bonded together by knowledge rather than by faith. As modern languages gained ground and Latin lost its importance, the religious nature of culture was weakened. Observation, analysis and a belief in reason and science pushed religious faith to the background. European academics maintained extensive and lively relations with each other. Montesquieu famously said that Europe is a nation composed of many nations. The evolution of the European identity, or should we call it a supranational culture, has its roots partly in Christianity and partly in science.

Modern, post-war European integration is a political undertaking which in its origins was motivated chiefly by a desire to secure a stable and pacific Germany and developed as an elite project. As a result, the “mental unification” of European citizens has never materialized; a spontaneous common identity has never formed. Europe as a concept has never found its place in people’s daily lives, or their choices of values. Modern Europe was created to put an end to the eternal enmity between France and Germany. It was clear that the only way to prevent war between these two powers was to make it economically unprofitable. But guaranteeing peace on the continent will not make people feel European. European identity will not evolve by itself; every tradition must start somewhere but traditions only survive if the common experiences, principles and myths originate from the people. And for traditions to turn into an identity, a bottom-up approach is needed. Naturally, political leaders still have a huge role to play in paving the way for the evolution of a European identity. There are common Franco-German history books, common university departments, common European holidays, but that is only the start of the beginning.

Europe is an immensely heterogeneous continent and is growing ever more diverse with successive enlargements. Europe’s history is one of bloody wars and hostilities. Europe does not have a common language; the modern lingua franca is English, the language of global culture and of the steamroller empire, the USA. The evolution of a European identity will be a long process; there can be no doubt about it. There have been many attempts to unify Europe, largely through conquest and subjugation, but none of them tried to create a common European identity; forcing a central ideology on the continent was the closest they came. De Gaulle’s vision of a Europe stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Urals was a political idea, which was essentially based on the 19th-century principles of cooperation between nation states. European peoples have been united temporarily within one empire, but sharp cultural borders never ceased to exist for a moment. Is there any way to change that?

A large-scale public opinion survey asked European citizens how their feeling of European citizenship could be reinforced some six years ago. Unsurprisingly, one third replied: by elevating the welfare state to the European level. A clear rift between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ member states is observable in this respect: in the poorer Eastern part of Europe (where accession to the Union is seen as justice having been served), more than half of the population considers European action in the area of social welfare essential, while in the richer west less than a third think so. About 27% of the survey’s respondents picked the European Constitution as their first choice and 16 ticked the box next to a directly elected European president. These latter two choices are conspicuously political and not related to people’s daily lives at all. Which only goes to show how distant Europe is from the man in the street; the EU is a political rather than a daily issue. Only one in twenty respondents thought it would be important to have a common European Olympic team.

Few Europeans are involved in “European activities”: only 43% maintain active links with citizens from another member state, although the differences are vast from one country to another. This ratio is three quarters in the Netherlands and one fifth in Hungary. Only every third European citizen traveled abroad in 2005, which may sound impossible, but by 2015 this figure increased primarily due to low-cost air tickets. More encouragingly, almost a quarter of respondents claimed to regularly read the press or books in a language other than their mother tongue. The Irish and the British were at the bottom of the list; English (or rather American) being the modern lingua franca as their native language means that they do not need to use a foreign language as much as non-English speakers. Young urban Internet-savvy graduates live the most European lives and are the most fervent supporters of European integration. The same enthusiasm for Europe is not present in society as a whole. While two thirds of citizens declare an interest in domestic politics, less than half are concerned about European politics and the level of knowledge about how the European Union functions is generally very low.

Symbols play a central role in building a European identity even though their impact is limited, except for the single currency. The European flag or anthem are not serious alternatives to and are unlikely to replace national symbols any time soon. It is a telling fact that the most tangible symbol of Europeanness — the euro — features unidentifiable bridges and buildings on the notes. Anywhere else in the world it would be unthinkable not to have a single famous building, monument, personality or typical animal on euro notes. It is easy to guess why it is so: Leonardo is considered Italian, Joyce Irish, Mozart Austrian and not European. Putting anyone famous on the back of a euro note would only lead to diplomatic wrangling between the member states, which is best avoided. Europe is not strong when it comes to symbols, maybe because it has too many: a dozen could be named for every one of its 27 member states. Politically motivated pan-European cultural projects such as the bilingual television channel ARTE do not really work. ARTE, the brainchild of Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand, epitomizes the reality of European identity: cold, high quality, elitist programming, but not pan-European in nature, merely a mishmash of German and French programs.

Eurobarometer – a programme of opinion surveys taken on behalf of the European Commission – asked people to name the first adjective that came to their mind when they heard the words ”European Union”. Close to two thirds said democratic and modern, roughly half said protective, technocratic and inefficient. (Obviously one respondent could pick more than one adjective.) Polls reveal just how little people knew about the functioning of the European Union

A poll in 2008 showed that two fifths of the French felt they were truly European citizens. This figure has not changed for fifteen years. This poll of a thousand adults indicated that 54% of French people would feel more European if the President of the European Council (the European Council being constituted by the national heads of state and government) was elected directly, instead of being appointed by the heads of state and government behind closed doors. Attachment to the European idea has not changed in France since the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, when 37% of French people considered themselves European “often or very often”. Today this figure is 38%. Following the record low turnout in the elections to the European Parliament in 1999, when 53% of French voters stayed at home, the feeling of Europeanness was reinvigorated by the introduction of the euro and by the public debate preceding the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005. The rejection of the Constitution did not change the French electorate’s feelings about belonging to Europe. To 54% of French people, the single currency is what best symbolizes Europe. Only 12% picked the European Parliament and 9% the European Commission as Europe’s best symbol. The French see the common European economy (39%) and democracy (35%) as key values holding the continent together. The poll made it abundantly clear that the French (too) have only a rudimentary knowledge of how the European Union and its institutions work. Even though Members of the European Parliament have been elected directly since 1979, 36% of respondents thought they could not vote in elections to the Parliament, and 48% were unaware that foreign European nationals could vote in municipal elections in the country of their residence. Since then, mainly due to the stubborn economic slowdown and crisis, Euroskepticism is on the rise all across member states, which is obviously against the reinforcement of the sense of a common European identity.

Clearly, we cannot yet talk about a defined and generally accepted European identity, or a European public or a European state. Still, with only virtual borders left inside much of the European Union, economic and social ties the closest they have ever been and the EU becoming active in new areas, European citizens are bound over time to develop a feeling of Europeanness and some kind of a European identity. The concept of a European identity is difficult to define and more difficult to measure than, say, public support for European integration. As John Lukacs wrote:

“Nation and state – they are two different things. States are losing power and significance fast. Nations retain their essence. That is one of the — many — shortcomings of the European Union. We have a long way to go before we can talk about a united Europe; we are only at the very beginning of this arduous journey. European self-identity, the European spirit is but a faint glimmer.”

Europe has become more than just an economic community, but is far from being a country. European citizens are not strongly attached to the EU and there aren’t any European myths, dreams, visions, customs or languages which could constitute the bedrock of a pan-European identity. Towards the twilight of his life Jean Monnet, one of the Founding Fathers of the European Union, said to be lamenting: “If I could start again I would start with culture and not the economy”.

There is no denying that Europe’s peoples, nations and increasingly cosmopolitan new generations are drawing closer and closer, even if Euroskepticism is rising. Old enmities are fading, the old wounds have healed, which is quite an achievement in itself. This should be reinforced by education, started already at elementary level: explaining and thereby reinforcing the advantages of our community to school kids across the continent. The new Erasmus generation may bring about the change. They may see and support a European Union team at the Olympics in 2024 at least in curling.

 

[1] Emanuel L. Paparella for one refers to five different aspects or models of European identity (Revisiting Europe’s Cultural Identity, Moderndiplomacy.eu): 1. Historical-cultural identity — This model of European identity refers to a perceived common European past with cultural roots and common values. 2. Political-legal identity — In order to bypass the ethnic dimension in European identity, politicians favour a republican reading which is based upon citizenship, representation and participation. 3. Social identity — it focuses on the popular basis of politics: often referred to as a ‘people’s Europe’. 4. International identity — In terms of social collectiveness, this is probably the weakest interpretation of European identity which is typified by governance or regime approaches. 5. Post-identity commonness — this model strives to avoid the identity-trap by applying post-modernist and postnationalist theories.

Attila Marjan
Attila Marjan
Hungarian economist, PhD in international relations. Based in Brussels for fourteen years as diplomat and member of EU commissioners’ cabinets. Two times visiting fellow of Wilson Center in Washington DC. University professor and author of books on EU affairs and geopolitics. Head of department, National University of Public Administration, Budapest.