To download the text in PDF-format:
Click with your right mousebutton on the icon and choose Save Target As.


Is there a European identity?
- a lecture given at the seminar "EU for journalists" in Istanbul on February 25th 2002

The European identity is often described in a somewhat high-flown manner as having its foundations in antiquity; free thought, individualism, humanism and democracy had their cradle in Athens and Rome. On the other hand, neither Greek nor Roman civilisations can be described as European. Both were Mediterranean cultures with centres of influence in Asia Minor, Africa and the Middle East. When Alexander the Great set out to conquer the civilised world of his time, Egypt, Persia and India, he had no idea that he was acting on behalf of Europe.

Christianity with its roots in Judaism was also a Mediterranean, non-European religion. Byzantium was a Christian power which marked the limit to Roman claims of sovereignty, as did a large part of post-Reformation Europe. The result of the schism between Rome and Byzantium was the development of another culture in Russia and south-eastern Europe. Following the Reformation a large part of continental Europe was preoccupied for several centuries with religious wars and rivalry between Protestants and Catholics.

More recently, historians have played down our antique heritage. European ideals are instead traced back to the Renaissance and the concept of the individual as the smallest and inviolable element of society. The Enlightenment and the French Revolution contributed with the demand for freedom, equality, fraternity, democracy, self-determination, equal opportunities for all, clearly defined government powers, separation between the powers of church and state, freedom of the press and human rights.

The ideas that are triumphant in Europe today are those of market economy and democracy. By definition, this also includes the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia as European powers. However, Europe does not only represent modernity and tolerance but religious persecution, not only democracy but fascist dictatorship as well - Hitler was the first to use the idea of a European house - for the collectivist ideals of Communism, colonialism and racism disguised in scientific terms.

In other words, European identity cannot be defined on grounds of cultural heritage and history, and even less can it be used as the basis for European domestic and foreign policies. The explanation is as simple as it is obvious. Economic and political integration between European nation-states has not yet progressed so far that it is possible to speak of coincidental interests. On the contrary they might have diminished somewhat with the collapse of communism and disappearance of a common threat.

A balance must therefore be struck between an enthusiasm for the European project and an awareness that EU legitimacy will be in short supply in the foreseeable future. This view need not paralyse efforts towards integration, however. The phrase "an ever closer union between the peoples of Europe" could instead be useful in its general vagueness.

There may also be some validity for European integration in Edmund Burke's wise words that political order cannot be created at a drawing board but has to emerge gradually. This, in turn, means that politicians and bureaucrats must concentrate on immediately essential and clear issues and on measures the consequences of which can be judged by citizens themselves.

A stable foundation of legitimacy for the EU will only be achieved when Europeans perceive a European political identity. This does not imply that they will no longer feel themselves to be Swedes, Finns, Frenchmen or Portuguese, but that the sense of a European common destiny is added to these identities. Even after four and a half decade of European integration, this development is still in its infancy.

Nation-states evolved after a long period, often filled with conflict. They are ideological constructions and a national identity is ultimately a political standpoint. A prerequisite for a strong national identity is that citizens have a sense of loyalty to the state because it redistributes social resources and provides education, infrastructure, a legal system etc.

The same prerequisites hold true for the creators of Europe as well. As in the process that led to the creation of European nation-states, the EU will also be an elite project for the foreseeable future and the European identity an elite phenomenon. To be sure, the technocrats and bureaucrats in Brussels are a new European elite but are they representatives of European culture or merely an international "civil service" who, with the passing of time, increasingly alienate themselves from the people whose interests it is meant to serve? Is there not a danger that institutional loyalty will become stronger than "European awareness" ?

The problem becomes more aggravated when these people arouse negative stereotype reactions among citizens. Eurocrats are not regarded as the first among Europeans but as overpaid bureaucrats interfering in matters that do not concern them.

The creation of national symbols and myths and the rewriting of history were also part of the process by which European nations were formed. First came the state, followed by the formation of a national community within the territorial framework by means of gradual integration and cultural standardization.

The architects of nations emerging in the 19th century used such means as national conscription, compulsory education and the supra-regional spread of the growing mass media to create contact between the centre and periphery and seemingly natural boundaries on the basis of geography, language, ethnicity or religion. Above all, the arrival of national educational systems and mass media contributed to the sense of belonging to a national community, expanded cultural horizons and of getting away from provincial narrow-mindedness.

Efforts to create a European identity

Brussels appears to have had this in mind when taking the decision in 1984 that the EC would improve contact with its citizens and, so to speak, create a European identity, centrally and from above.

At a summit meeting in Fontainbleu, the European Council found it "absolutely essential that the Community fulfil the expectations of the European people and take measures to strengthen and promote the identity and image of the Community vis-à-vis its citizens and the rest of the world".

The Adonnino Committee was set up for this purpose, with the task of starting a campaign on the theme of "A people's Europe". This work would be based on a quotation from the preamble to the Rome Treaty on "an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe", and on the Tindemans Report of 1975 which recommended that Europe must be close to its citizens and that a European Union could only become reality if people supported the idea.

An outcome of the work of this committee was the decision that the EC should have its own flag. When the flag was raised for the first time at Berlaymont on 29 May 1986, the EC hymn - the "Ode to Joy" from the fourth movement of Beethoven's 9th symphony was played for the first time. Thus, by means of a flag and European national hymn, the Union acquired the attributes of a nation-state. A European Day was also established. The choice fell on 9 May, the date on which Robert Schumann held a speech in 1950 that resulted in the first community, the European Coal and Steel Community.

Consequently, the Adonnino Committee appears to have assumed that a European identity could be created on the initiative of politicians and bureaucrats. In 1988 the European Council decided to introduce a European dimension into school subjects such as literature, history, civics, geography, languages and music. Legitimacy for future integration would be created by invoking a common history and cultural heritage.

This has resulted in a book, "Europe - a history of its peoples", written by the French history professor, Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, which, to quote the author, covers a period from 5,000 years ago to tomorrow's news.

The EU is thus attempting to create a European identity from above. A common European frame of reference is being created by means of a standardized set of symbols and myths. A European driving licence already exists and an EU passport, although it took ten years to agree on its colour and appearance. The Maastricht Treaty also introduced the new concept of a citizen of the Union, although his/her rights and obligations have still to be defined.

Every European people has its more or less genuine historical myths, experiences and view of history. There is no European equivalent to the Académie Française, Bastille, Escorial, La Scala, Brandenburger Tor or the opening of Parliament at Westminster. There is no European unknown soldier. Jean Monnet rests at the Panthéon in Paris. The fame of Robert Schumann's resting place at Scy-Chazelles cannot compete with Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, where General de Gaulle lies buried.

Common history has been experienced by many as against and not with each other in the great European wars. The main task of the "Europe-makers" cannot therefore be to provide Europeans with a common identity originating in antique or medieval times but to develop political self-confidence and ability to act in line with the role of Europe in the 21st century. This will not happen by elevating the EU to a free trade zone in accordance with British ideas, or into some kind of American-style United States of Europe which is imposed on people against their will.

Basis for European patriotism and identity

Only long-term, patient growing together will provide the basis for a democratic Europe comprised of its citizens. For many decades, the EC was a practical community. We are only now en route towards a community of destiny and experience. If anything is be learnt from European history it is that Europe as an entity can only be completed in agreement with and not against the will of the nation-states and what they consider to be their legitimate interests.

At present, regionalism and nationalism undoubtedly have another strength than pan-europeanism. Perhaps Europe needs more 'multi-national shocks' like the Gulf crisis and the Balkan wars that demonstrate our total dependency on the USA in conflicts that affect vital European interests.

Other problems will also arise that call for joint action and which in due course will aid the establishment of an identity, such as for example:

*   the necessity to use our common strength to meet the technological challenge from Japan and the USA and, in the not too distant future, the "new tigers".

*   common action to overcome environmental problems, pressure from immigration and to handle international organised crime.

A successful European policy in these and other areas could help in the development of "constitutional European patriotism" in the same way that "loyalty to the Constitution" became a reality in the German Republic, replacing the nationalism that no German was able to feel after the terrors of the Hitler period.

An absolute precondition for developing a common political culture and constitutional patriotism in the EU is that its citizens are informed about and participate in the super-national decision-making process. A European public opinion must emerge before there can be talk of a European citizenship.

European trade unions do however not exist at present, nor other interest groups nor, above all, trans-boundary European parties and a European general public.

The Maastricht Treaty brought this deficiency into focus, negotiated as it was by experts in a European code incomprehensible to its citizens. As a result, the reputation of the EU was further diminished. A prerequisite for a solid European identity is therefore the development of European parties, or at least a party network, and political debates on transboundary issues. When employer organisation and trade unions begin to meet at a European level to look after their members' common interests, we will have taken the first steps because politics will have reached beyond the national level.

The optimum we can achieve at the end of such a process would be a European "constitutional state" and EU citizenship that is felt to be genuine and not an artificial construction.

The way is both difficult and long, however, and more likely to be curbed than speeded on by enlargement eastwards. It has proved difficult enough to bridge the cultural and linguistic differences between Catholics and Protestants, Latins, Germans, Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians in Europe. The task of integrating the Baltic, Slav and Orthodox Europeans and secular Muslim Turks will be infinitely more difficult. The larger and more heterogeneous membership becomes, the greater the need will be to differentiate between various member states and to create a Europe moving at different speeds and where the political union, monetary union, common security and defence policy will not extend over the same geographical areas. A union of up to 30 members at varying stages of economic development can only function if it is organised along multi-tracks and at different levels.

Cultural diversity - obstacle or prerequisite for a European identity?

European political oratory often maintains that Europe can only be defined through its unique heritage of diversity and lack of conformity and that, paradoxically, its very diversity has been its unifying principle and strength.

However, European linguistic diversity is probably the greatest obstacle standing in the way of the emergence of a European political identity and thus the European democratic project. Multilingual European democracies certainly exist but the prime example Switzerland has chosen to remain outside the EU.

A democracy is non-existent if most of its citizens cannot make themselves understood to each other. Rhetoric apart, not even leading European politicians are today able to socialise with each other without an interpreter, and very few can make themselves understood to a majority of European voters in their own language. Not one European newspaper exists and there is no European television programme apart from Eurosport, and most of its viewers watch matches between nations. In short, there is no public European debate, no European political discourse because the political process is still tied to language.

The question of language is basically one of democracy. Political discussion would be divided between A and B teams with many excluded because of their lack of linguistic knowledge if only English and French were the official EU languages. At the same time, the problem of interpreting is becoming insurmountable. Over 40 per cent of the EU administrative budget is already spent on language services. Eleven languages make 132 combinations possible in the translator booths. The addition of another 10 Eastern and Central European languages brings this figure to 420 and 462 if Maltese is added. Some form of functional differentiation will therefore be necessary, making some languages more equal than others. although this would have a negative effect on European public opinion in the small member nations.

At present, an average 66 per cent of EU citizens are monolingual while 10 per cent speak at least two foreign languages. Ireland is at one extreme with 80 and three per cent respectively, while only one percent of the population in Luxembourg is monolingual and no less than 80 per cent speak at least two foreign languages. In order to function as Europeans and safeguard our interests, we Swedes must become tolerably fluent in at least one other major European language apart from English. Swedish remains the basis of our cultural heritage and domestic political discussions, but in order to play a constructive part in Europe we must develop into citizens of Luxembourg as far as language is concerned.

Consequently, Europe is neither a communication- nor experience-based community, to borrow some German ideas. Both factors are indispensable in the development of a collective political identity. This is created by sharing experience, myths and memories, often in contradiction to those held in other collective identities. They are, moreover, often strengthened by the comparison with those that are distinctly different. Not just Robert Schumann, Alcide de Gasper, Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer should be counted among the fathers of European integration, but Josef Stalin as well. The Cold War enabled a sense of unity to be mobilised among Western Europeans, but who can play the role of opposition now in order to provide Europeans with a common identity? The USA is part of the same circle of culture. Japan is of course a homogeneous and different society but is too far away and does not constitute any political or military threat. And its economic strength is directed primarily at the USA.

There is an inherent danger that Europe will choose to define itself vis-à-vis its surrounding third world neighbours and that the Mediterranean will become the moat around the European fort. The creation of a pan-European identity risks being accompanied by a cultural exclusion mechanism. The search for a European identity could easily take the form of demarcation against "the others", a policy which leads to a racial cul-de-sac while at the same time the mixing of races continues to rise in Europe.

A European identity must therefore be distinctive and all-embracing, differentiate and assimilate at the same time. It is a question of integrating the nations of Europe, with their deeply-rooted national and, often, regional identities and to persuade citizens to feel part of a supra-national community and identity.

Can half a continent with 370 million citizens and 11 official languages really be provided with a democratic constitution? In the ideal scenario for the emergence of a European political union, the European Parliament must first be "de-nationalised" and this assumes a European party system. Secondly, it must have the classic budgetary and legislative powers. The Council of Ministers must be turned into a second chamber and the Commission should be led by a "head of government" appointed by Parliament.

National parliaments would consequently lose their functions. They could be transformed into federal parliaments in smaller states, as in Germany, and would thus have the same position vis-à-vis Brussels that they have today. It is easier said than done to abolish the democratic deficit by giving greater powers to the parliament in Strasbourg, because the dilemma of representation versus effectiveness would immediately come to a head. If every parliamentarian represented about 25,000 citizens, as is the case in Sweden, the gathering at Strasbourg with about 15 member nations would have to be increased to 15,000. If in the name of effectiveness, the number was reduced to 500, with constituencies of more than a million citizens and everyone was guaranteed an equal European vote, Luxembourg would not be represented and Sweden would have a maximum 13 representatives in the European Parliament. It might be capable of functioning but could not by any means claim to represent a European electorate. The democratic deficit would continue.

Europe as an entity can only be achieved with the help of and not against nations and their special characteristics. European integration will not be completed because of some natural necessity but only if enough political energy is brought to bear. The future of the EU rests therefore in the common interests of member states and not on the political will of a European people for the simple reason that such a thing does not exist.

Regional and national identities will grow in importance in a world that is becoming evermore difficult to oversee and which is evermore rapidly changing. Citizens will be living more and more in a state of tension between several loyalties, their home district, state, nation, Europe and the international community, increasingly required to think globally but act locally. New ancient regimes and new regions are emerging everywhere in Europe. By actively supporting the process of regionalization, Brussels and individual capital cities can show that EU is taking its institutions closer to its citizens and thereby creating greater scope for cultural and linguistic diversity than the nation-states have been capable of doing. By contributing to a new vision - the Europe of diversity and regional government based on subsidiarity - the idea of Europe can be made more comprehensible and attractive.

In this way, the regional identity can strengthen the emergent European identity. Now that regions are increasingly turning to the EU in their fight for resources for regional development and to attract investment, Brussels and the EU will be seen as regionally friendly rather than the national capital.

The nation-state is thus being nibbled at from two directions. At the same time, we will experience a renaissance for nation-states and regions and their gradual merger in a transnational community. Those who support the region and nation must not necessarily reject Europe, but the traditional nation-state with community-based traditions, identity and loyalty will remain indispensable as a strength and source of political stability. Nation-states are therefore essential in order to legitimize a new European order but structural asymmetry, conflicting interests and unexpected courses of development will lead to relations between the nation-state and European integration that are difficult to manage and oversee. Europe will continue therefore even in the future to be squeezed between what the German philosopher Karl Jasper called "Balkan and Helvetian tendencies, i.e., between Yugoslav and Swiss development models.

Nations do not exist once and for everl but are created. They are what Benedict Anderson called "imagined communities". The idea of a European community cannot arise from the German concept of "Blut und Boden", or from the idea of a European "Volk" or a European "cultural nation".

Nor can the European identity be created through central directives from Brussels or member nations' capital cities, or by being conjured forth at seminars and conferences but rather through the citizens of individual European states knowing that they personally have something to gain from integration and they hereby say yes to the EU in their daily referendum.

As we have already experienced, a forced unifying process produces counter reactions in all the member countries. A European identity is possible only where there is a community of interests among the citizens. If this is missing or not felt to be sufficiently strong, the EU will have a democratic deficit irrespective of what new competence is given to the European Parliament.

The single market will bring about transboundary mobility and thereby albeit slowly contribute to the emergence of a European identity but it ill be one of many relativized by different national and regional identities (such as, for example, Benelux, Ibero-Europe, the Nordic countries). Immigration will strengthen the multi.cultural component that is indispensable for a new sense of identity. At the same time, it will nourish the social tensions and racist and nationalist comments, but can also lead to political mobilization and the insight that these problems can only be solved at European level.

A European 'supra-nationality' will be accepted first in situations where there is no hierarchy of national, regional and supra-region identities but when every individual knows about them as self-evident and as part of their daily life. A policy for preserving diversity will thus be a precondition for creating a European identity that neither should or would become a replacement for a national identity but which can create support and strength for political institutions that are neither national nor the framework of a European superstate.

Questions of cultural policy, education and a historically deep-rooted social system and values must therefore remain the concern of nation-states. It is thus a case of render unto the nation state that which belongs to it and to EU that which is the EU's; a security and foreign policy structure, the single market, a common crime,asylum and immigration policy.

The hitherto clear links between state and nation will thus grow looser. European integration from this point of view will not mean that a new superstate will appear but that power is spread out. Cultural identities will remain rooted at national level but will spread further down to ever more distinctive regional identities. We will have neither a new European superstate nor sovereign nation-states. Nations will not disappear but we will have nations with smaller states and national cultures with softer outer casings.

Relations between European and national identities could take the shape of a foreign and security policy in the wide sense as a fundament of a common European political identity, a "nation" to which one feels a sense of political belonging without the need to feel part of a European "Volk" or a European "cultural nation".

The German concept of a nation would endure at national level although in its original form as conceived by Johann Gottfried von Herder in which a nation need not necessarily express itself as a state. By standing on secure and solid cultural ground, every people with their own distinctive character and cultural capacity achievements can contribute to an international community.

Cultural nations will thus become divorced from a territory. People will have a sense of belonging to a special area and its cultural and political history but this area need not necessarily be linked to a nation-state with defined territorial boundaries. The European political identity could emerge in this way while at the same time leaving the cultural national or regional identity intact while European diversity will not only remain in place but grow as well. The democratic deficit can never be abolished unless this kind of development takes place, nor would the project of a European Union be realized.

Ingmar Karlsson

[ Close Window ]