Europe and Europeans - questions of identity @muntz

From the standpoint of the majority of European citizens, the European Union is, above all, either a conglomerate of nations that have come together and created a Single Market and a single currency, or an ensemble of states who share the same technological and economical ambitions, rather than an entity formed on the basis of shared values and of a common European identity. Considering these perceptions, a constant concern of the European Union has been to understand the extent of which European citizens assume their European identity and feel that they belong to the same "big family".

In understanding the logic of the "big family", it is important to define the relationship and the dynamic between the European and national identities, and to assess their implications at the Community level.

The European identity

The European identity can be defined as a set of values shared by all the citizens of the European Union.

Identity possesses a dynamic or procedural nature which, as Zdzisław Mach observed, "is formed during an interaction – by changing the transmitted, received or interpreted messages until we form a coherent individual or collective self-image" (Mungiu-Pippidi, 1999). The feeling of belonging to a community is subjective and it involves two interrelated mental processes: the definition of the self-image and, at the same time, the demarcation of other individuals or groups of individuals. Therefore, all identity theories insist on the need for “the other” to exist, in opposition to which actors build their own identities. In this sense, the European identity is better perceived when regarded in opposition to other continental identities such as the American, Asian or African.

European identity is supported by European art, culture, citizenship, common education for all EU members, etc. Nevertheless, European identity is, sometimes, perceived as being in contradiction with certain older identities that member states’ citizens are attached to, such as national, regional, religious, linguistic or ideological.

In fact, the idea of this common identity was first established by Charlemagne’s (also known as Charles, the Great) political project known as the "renovatio imperii ", which represented a synthesis of the four perceived European values: the Teutonic ideal of freedom, Roman law, Christian faith and Greek philosophy.

At the Community level, the issue of a European identity appeared in the early 1970s, more precisely in 1973, at the Copenhagen Summit, when the "Declaration on European Identity " was signed, promoting adherence to a set of common values and principles, as well as a common awareness of the Community’s specific interests. Based on this Declaration, the task of defining a European identity involved analyzing the common heritage and member states’ obligations in the process of the EU unification, the dynamic nature of European integration, as well as the degree of European cohesion in relation to the rest of the world.

A few years later, at the Laeken Summit in 2001, the European Community focused on the need to uphold and respect its member states' national identities: the national identity of a State is conditioned by citizenship and political participation, framed by History (according to time and the historical context) and geography (space), generating feelings of loyalty and affiliation, and being in a continuous process of adaptation.

The national identity

David Campbell argues that the national identity is the instrument through which the state disciplines society, and the call for national identity is a mechanism part of the strategy of "difference" (Campbell, 1998). With regards to the European integration process, the identity paradigm should focus on the similarities between the member states and not on the differences that set them apart.

Identities based on religion, sex, professional interests, or membership in local community groups may impact more significantly than national identity in the everyday life. Thus, we can explain the fact that children create their own identity, which can be different from that of their parents, considering the difference of experiences in each generation.

In this context, at the European level, the issue of an individual’s multiple identities is becoming increasingly relevant, given that a citizen simultaneously holds a European, national, religious and local identity (among others). However, these values may not be reflected on people’s behaviour if they are not supported by an adequate cultural infrastructure and a well-defined identity. Thus, outside the strictly economic costs and benefits perspective, the process of European integration represents, first of all, the acceptance by member states’ of an overarching value system for the European Union.

In the context of the contemporary Community, two opposing schools of thought coexist: one that advocates the coexistence of national, regional and local identities, and thus supports multiculturalism, and another, built upon the desire to unify national interests in a single policy, so as to create a "European nation state", in detriment of national states.

The European identity issue at the Community level

In 1849, French writer Victor Hugo spoke of the day when all nations in the European Continent would come together in unity, constituting a European brotherhood, while at the same time preserving their distinct qualities and individuality.

At the present day, a united Europe inevitably implies the existence of some degree of legal pluralism, cultural, linguistic as well as institutional diversity, due to each country’s cultural and institutional backgrounds.

A European political space would include a new societal model, particularly a novel understanding of political society, one in which diversity would be recognized from a reciprocity perspective. However, its definition entails significant implications in  matters of national, regional, linguistic and religious identity.

In the words of French writer, Edgar Morin, "the European identity, like any identity can be a component of a poly identity" (Morin, 2004). As Europeans, we hold a local, regional, national, transnational (e.g. Slave, German, Latin) identity and possibly a religious or a doctrinal affiliation, and it would be unfair to state that these two overarching identities (European and national) exclude each other, even if they may be conflicting.

Negotiating identities (national, regional, linguistic, among others) requires their redefinition and a reconsideration of certain conceptions, such as those of universality, nationality or citizenship.

Naturally, for the EU to become a common political and cultural space to which Europeans can relate themselves to, the existence of a European identity is necessary even though it remains quite difficult to define, considering how the Union is a conglomerate of people with different national identities, cultural and religious backgrounds, Histories and languages.

In this context, multiculturalism is regarded as a potential solution to the dilemma of setting a European identity, as it involves the process of negotiating within the multiple perceived identities. This could allow people to perceive the European Union not as a Nation-state, but as grounds for coexistence.
In conclusion, the European project is characterized by two opposing trends: one which emphasizes the importance of national identities and the right to difference; and the other that advocates the right for a common identity and to a universal culture.

What we should remind ourselves is that the European project is based on the existence of a European people and not on the abolishment of national identities. Moreover, given that identities are constructed and reconstructed through social action (they are not static), multiculturalism seems to be the only solution to address the identity mosaic that characterizes European society. It allows for the existence of multiple national identities, without imposing one above the others, while aiming at reducing the potential for conflict, by building an overall sense of tolerance.

Further readings:

1. Campbell, David, Writing security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, Manchester University Press, 1992.

2. Hersant, Yves; Durand Bogaert Fabienne, Europes. De l’antiquité au XXe siècle, Ed. Robert Laffont, Paris, 2000.

3. Kastoryano, Riva, Quelle identité pour l’Europe: le multiculturalisme à l’épreuve, Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Paris, 1998, p. 21.

4. Mugiu-Pippidi, Alina, Transilvania subiectivă, Ed. Humanitas, Bucureşti, 1999, p. 5.

5. Wachtel, Nathan, L’acculturalism dans Faire de l’Histoire. Nouveaux Problemes, Ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1974, p. 35.

Edited by: Margarida Hourmat
Photo credits: @muntz via Flickr