Bridging the Gap to the European Identity

Bridging the Gap to the European Identity

Robert Schuman has argued that a „true community requires at least some specific affinities. Countries do not combine when they do not feel among themselves something common.“ Using Schuman´s terminology, we may ask if the EU has at least ´some specific affinities´, if the citizens of the states in Europe believe that they have all something in common. In a speech to the European Parliament in 1999, the President of the European Commission Romano Prodi insisted that the further development of the EU institutions must „gradually build up a shared feeling of belonging to Europe.“ Indeed, it seems that a stronger sense of the European identity is needed in order to advance the process of the European integration.

Especially since the rejection of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe by citizens of France and the Netherlands in 2005, various analysts attributed the failure of ratification of this treaty to the distance that regular EU citizens feel between themselves and the EU institutions. The European Commission itself recognized the reality of this gap, and therefore set into motion Plan D, which was meant to bridge this distance. The ´eurosceptics´ stress this distance, too. Perhaps  the most outspoken critic of a deeper European political integration, Czech President Václav Klaus, spoke in front of the European Parliament on the 19th February 2009 of „a great distance (not only in geographical sense) between citizens and Union representatives“. The Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty according to some analysts because they felt overlooked by Brussels and feared the loss of their identity. Should the EU citizens feel more European than they presently do, then this gap could be much narrower. One can assert that one of the most pressing challenges facing the European integration process is the development of a European identity, which would be felt by the majority of the EU citizens and would not override national identities. But what is the European identity? And does it necessarily override national identity, as the skeptics assert?

President Klaus spoke at the European Parliament about the non-existence of a European demos, European nation. It is indeed difficult to imagine European nation being a nation in a similar way like a German or Swedish nation. We simply lack a common language spoken by all (all the official EU documents have to be translated into 23 languages) and our historical experiences and cultures greatly vary. But nonetheless, there are historical, cultural, social and political factors of European identity.

European countries have a shared history over many centuries and it has given rise to an interconnected and mutually dependent community of destiny. Shared nature of both individual and collective experience have fashioned a special relationship between the peoples of Europe, which had the effect of forging an identity. A significant part was played by a highly developed trading system involving large-scale trading of goods, know-how and labour. It formed a large internal market which, despite the restrictions imposed by the revival of nationalism in the 19th century, flourished up until the First World War. The horrible experiences of the Second World War led to plans to unite Europe in a way that would prevent any future wars.

Some believe that there are indeed shared traditions (legal, political, and shared heritages, religious and cultural) among European countries. The shared historical experience is underpinned by a considerable degree of cultural unity, which was mediated by Christianity. Christianity acted for centuries as a cultural link between various European countries and created a basis for their cooperation in various realms (though at times wars were fought based on different interpretations of the Bible). Latin served as a common language for the educated people and university learning led to an exchange of ideas between distanced countries. Some assert that European culture is built upon common cultural foundations, symbolized by Athens, Rome and Jerusalem. It is interesting to note that cultural foundations of Europe lie to a large extent in the Middle East. The myth about Europa depicts how Europa, a daughter of the king of Sidon, was kidnapped by the god Zeus into Crete. In a symbolical language, the myth puts the origins of Europe in the Middle Eastern area. Even the etymology of the word ´Europe´ suggests semitic origins of the word derived from ´ereb´, or ´west´. The Jews and even the Arabs influenced European cultures to a great extent (e.g. the Bible was written entirely by the Jews and the Arabs preserved Greek philosophical writings for the then barbaric Europe and inspired European countries with their science, philosophy and arts). 

On the other hand, even though there are common roots in our cultures, it doesn’t mean that everything is derived from them – as Emmanuel Barl stated: „I am quite sure that Tristan and Isolda, Romeo and Juliet, Don Quijote or Faust are not Greek in their sense for Roman order or conversion to the faith of st. Paul.“ Charles-Olivier Carbonell asserts that it is beyond any doubt that Europe as a civilization is more than Athens, Rome and Jerusalem. Even before Christianity met Islam, at least three more components- Indoeuropean, Celtic and German were strong in Europe. However, not even one can be considered as the cradle of European civilization.

Some disagree that European identity can be defined even on historical grounds, as there were vast differences in interests between nations and as Craig Calhoun puts it, „Western Europeans have devoted a great deal of energy to killing each other and may have offered the world more innovations in the field of warfare than any other.“ When looking at the European history, it is indeed hard to claim that we were always one big happy family with only sporadic differences of opinion - rather, we were fighting and quarrelling between ourselves almost without a break with only few bright moments, when we signed temporary peace treaties as our state coffers ran too low on cash.
 It is indeed difficult to find a simple definition of the European identity. Even if we coin one together, should it not also entail all the negative aspects including wars, colonization, enslavement of other races, ethnic cleansing and concentration camps? Michael Ignatieff has noted that „Europe does not stand for toleration any more than it stands for ethnic cleansing. The doctrine of toleration is a European invention, but so is the concentration camp.“ But on the other hand, if a definition would entail these facts, would the Europeans be proud of such identity? And even if the identity was described only in positive terms, would the majority of the EU citizens necessarily feel this identity, take it to their hearts?

The European institutions have for decades tried to foster European identity by various projects, such as the introduction of the EU flag, anthem, the Euro, or the Erasmus and Socrates programs for students. The term ´united in diversity´ has been adopted as the official motto of the EU in 2000 with hopes that it will help define European identity. Does this term, however, describe anything specific to Europe? Cannot other regional blocks be ´united in diversity´ too?

If we cannot agree on what is exactly this European identity, does it automatically mean that the identity is non-existent? Perhaps it might suffice to say that the European identity is existent in all the various definitions proposed so far, but it is not a strong identity that the EU citizens would feel strongly attached to, or more strongly than to their national identity. This is quite normal and nothing to be alarmed by. We feel the identities closest to us the strongest, in a same way as we apply our moral sensitivity more to our relatives than to strangers. Naturally, the fostering of identity to larger regional blocks is a very difficult job. Over the decades, however, the sense of European identity has grown considerably. If one looks at the Eurobarometer surveys, it is visible that the sense of the European identity has been growing despite the fact that we lack an acceptable definition of what it consists of. What is perhaps even more striking is that the increase in the identification with Europe hasn’t been accompanied by a decrease in the identification with the national identity – rather, there has been over decades an increase in the attachment to national identities across Europe. These two identities have been growing simultaneously hand in hand and they are definitely not engaged in a zero-sum game. The fear of the skeptics that the EU will drive over national identities is thus baseless so far.

Although there has been an increase in the attachment of the EU citizens to Europe, the identification is still not very strong. During the last European Parliament elections in June 2004, the voters´ turnout was 45,6 per cent. The upcoming European Parliament elections in June this year will show whether identity affiliation with Europe will be stronger than five years back. But even if the results will not be much better, there is no reason to despair about the fate of the European integration. The European integration took over fifty years so far and continued even despite the numerous significant setbacks it encountered. The fostering of a supra-national identity has been always a very difficult job and one that took sometimes even centuries to accomplish.

It is problematic and perhaps not even desirable to state exactly what is the European identity, but the awareness of an European identity has been growing for decades. Moreover, the majority of the EU citizens perceive themselves as having both a national identity and an European identity and do not view these two identities to be incompatible. The national identity is unlikely to fade away in the next few years - the ethnic and national levels of identification will most probably take priority, and remain much more real for the mass of the population, than more abstract and higher level regional identities like that of Europe. Nonetheless, the growing increase in the sense of European identity bodes well for the European integration, as well as the fact that it is not perceived as overriding national identities. Some historical processes simply take time and cannot be pushed too fast from above, but rather have to soak in slowly deep below. The European integration is a historically unprecedented phenomenon that requires patience, especially when it comes to identity formation. One day the gap between the EU institutions and EU citizens may be bridged by a stronger sense of European identity, but till then we have to remember, as the Morcheeba song put it, “Don’t you know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, hey hey hey.”

March 27, 2009