Can European Identity Compete With National Identity?

Double trouble
Can European Identity Compete With National Identity? - Rain Eensaar

This article aims to point out a recent polemic, the burning issue of the legitimacy of the European identity as opposed to existing national identities. The concept is highly contentious, partly because there is a question of whether or not European identity is compatible with the maintenance of national or regional identities. It has been recently argued that if there is a European identity, it may conflict with national identities1. First, the article identifies the difficulties of finding a concise definition of "Europe" or "European." Second, it explores the necessity of ritual, myth and symbol in the process of forging an identity. Third, it describes the latest instruments of unity, namely, the Euro and the concept of European citizenship. Fourth, it provides two examples, of where the "other" has played a major role in changing identities over time.

In order to grasp the peculiarity of the concept of European identity, it is essential to understand what is meant by "Europe" or "European." Such a task is far from straightforward since despite, or perhaps because of, popular usage, there is no consensus on the term's actual meaning. Is it a term that has as many definitions as people defining it? Is it a geographical term? If so, where is the eastern border of Europe? If it includes Turkey2, does it also include Russia? If defined geographically, European countries are still different culturally, linguisti­cally and religiously. In fact, Samuel Huntington has proposed that since the ideo­logical division of Europe has disappeared, a new division has emerged: the cul­tural division of Europe between Western Christianity and Orthodox Christianity, replacing the Iron Curtain of ideology with the Velvet Curtain of religion3.

Does being European mean possessing membership in the EU? The EU has gone through several enlargements; does it mean that new members became European, but were not before? Were Norwegians about to become Europeans while they were standing by the ballot boxes in 1973 and 1994?

Is European just the mix of its various national identities? Anthony D. Smith asks: "If “Europe" and "European" signify something more than the sum total of the populations and cultures that happen to inhabit a conventionally demarcated geographical space, what exactly are those characteristics and qualities that distinguish Europe from anything or anyone else?"4. Further, he rightly argues that proposed geographical centers of Europe such as in Burgundy, along the Rhine River, Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and Vilnius, are all "historical claims, not geographical 'facts"'5.

Perhaps it would be better to leave Europe undefined. In the end, the question of who is or is not European may provoke more dilemmas than solutions. As with the camel: the practical approach is not to define it, but to describe it6.

According to Durkheim and several other scholars, ritual, myth and symbol play the key role in producing and maintaining solidarity among members of a community7. If so, then what is the European myth? What is the European memory?

Lene Hansen and Michael C. Williams argue in their recent essay on legitimacy and the crisis of the EU that:

... the entire argument concerning the mythic necessity of the EU hinges on an opposition between myth and rationalism that simply cannot be sustained, for the opposition between rationality and an historical, mythic culture of identity repre­sents one of the most powerful and defining myths of the modem world-that of modernity as a whole8.

There might be some truth to this, but the European dilemma is moreover a choice between historical myths and memories on one hand, and a patchwork of decisions about creating a culture based on political will and economic interest, so often subject to change, on the other.

Europe, lacking a solid and unifying myth from the past, has instead proposed a myth for the future. Since the onset of the organizations that we today call the EU, it has been looking forward and denying the past. The myth of a common future has been emphasized to the detriment of working on the problems of the past. Even Helmut Kohl has stated that "Germany is my Fatherland, Europe is my future''9.

The problem that the EU had (and in fact still has) to solve is that shared memories, traditions, myths, symbols and values possess different meanings in different European nation-states. For example, Anthony Smith argues that such events "as the Crusades, the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment affected some areas, peoples and states more than others, and few hardly at all"10. In sum, all communities have participated in at least some European traditions and heritages to some degree, but at times they were allies with one another and at other times were bitter enemies. If there is something we can call a European experience, it will come into being over a long time-span and as a product of particular historical circumstances, often anticipated and unintentional. What experiences are common to all Europeans and in what way do they differ from the experiences of non-Europeans?

As seen above, all communities share both a sense of present identity and a past. Historical revision, in the case of the EU was a natural requirement. Norman Davies writes that the first stage in forging a common European identity seeks to root out the historical misinformation and misunderstandings that proliferated in all European countries. The second stage is to build a consensus on the positive content of a new "Eurohistory" that at best made sense only to the original "six"11.

One project that received support from the European Commission (initi­ated in 1989-91) was labeled "An Adventure in Understanding." It was planned in three stages: a 500-page survey of European history, a 10-part television series and a school textbook to be published simultaneously in all eight languages of the EC12 • Its authors made it clear that their aim was to replace history written according to the ethos of the sovereign nation-state and their nationalistic instincts. It defined Europe as the territory of the member states of the EC, with Scandinavia, Austria and Switzerland thrown in. However, the timing was unfortunate since it reached the market at the very time when its geographical frame had just collapsed. Therefore, the project was highly criticized; it was called "Half-truths about half of Europe" and" ... Soviet-bloc historiography"13.

So far national educational systems, particularly the British system, 14 decide what to teach and are determined by national, not European, priorities. Most school history textbooks are national in content and intent. Until there is European standardization of the public education system, there is not much hope for "Eurohistory," in spite of suggestions to move forward in this issue15.

The EU has, despite its short existence, already made attempts to introduce popular myths and symbols. In 1984, the European Council set up an ad hoc committee, chaired by Pietro Adonnino, remembered for its recommendations on the cultural and social aspects of the People's Europe and on the symbols of politics such as the Community emblem, flag, passport and anthem. Common passports and European frontiers might help to create an element of perceived common identity for those who travel beyond the European frontiers and for those who seek to enter them. But how many Europeans accept them as symbols of their new identity?

In any case, in a recent opinion poll16 people were asked how they describe themselves and given four choices. The answers were the following: 45%, by nationality only; 40%, by nationality and European; 6%, by European and nationality; and 5%, by European only. Thus, there is little evidence yet that there exists European demos. Clearly, as Smith points out,

when it comes to the ritual and ceremony of collective identification, there is no European equivalent of national or religious community. There is no European analogue to Bastille or Armistice Day, no European ceremony for the fallen in the battle, no European shrine of kings or saints.17

Yet Paul Howe suggests that strengthening a European identity requires building the foundation for a European political community by introducing "community binding measures" like common passports, European citizenship and stronger political institutions at the European level. Moreover, Howe points out that this development of political structures and identity creates the conditions for the development of cultural underpinnings. "Slowly but surely beliefs about community will start to adjust to the political and legal infrastructure if that infrastructure protects a prosperous and peaceful community"18.

One of the latest great leaps towards European identity has been the intro­duction of the new currency. Currency conversion is almost entirely an economic project, but it is also intended to be a symbol of European identity. Olaf Hillenburger states in an official publication of the EU that this was one of the reasons why it was called the Euro. Another advantage of this name was that it is short and it can be written in the same way in all European languages19.

Another attempt to forge the European identity has been the introduction of the concept of European citizenship, which entered into force on the November 1, 1993, when every citizen of a member state of the EU became also a citizen of the EU20. However, despite the significance of the development, most citizens still identify themselves by their nationality. Why?

Perhaps there is some truth in the argument that the public is more concerned with practical matters: income, price stability, better working condi­tions, cleaner air, more recreational facilities, and does not care whether these amenities are provided by their national government or by Brussels as long as they are available. EU citizenship does not add significantly more rights to the member state's citizens than they already enjoyed under their national citizenship21.

In fact, EU citizenship is symbolic and has the same effect on individuals as if the treaty had referred to them as citizens of their member states instead of citizens of the EU. Citizenship in the EU does not yet embody duties towards the EU, although unspecified duties are mentioned in the Treaty's definition of citizenship22. Furthermore, the Treaty of Amsterdam made it clear, adding to article 8(1), that "[citizenship of the Union shall complement and not replace national citizenship;" the competition between European and national citizenship will continue. Perhaps the citizenship of the EU needs time to settle; yet it is unlikely that, without substantial differences between national and European citizenship, it will have any real impact in the foreseeable future.

Despite strong arguments suggesting that citizenship does not necessarily adhere to the sovereign state, Brubaker argues that:

Those who herald the emerging post-national age are too hasty in con­demning the nation state to the dustbin of history. They underestimate the resilience, as well as the richness and complexity, of an institutional and normative tradition that for better or worse appears to have life in it yet.23

Consider also Raymond Aron, who wrote 25 years ago that "[t]here are no such animals as 'European Citizens'. There are only French, German or Italian citi­zens24."

In general, people decide who they are by reference to who and what they are not; it is the same with identities. They are often forged through opposition to the identities of other communities. Thus, the question arises, what is Europe's other? A decade ago, the possible other of the ideological Cold War era ceased to exist. At present, there is no clear answer to the proposed question. Perhaps the United States has become the other against whom the EU measures itself.

The British have experienced a similar process, though it took place at least two centuries earlier and in a different setting. Since the Act of Union in 1707 that joined Scotland to England and Wales, the thorny march towards the one and only British national identity began. It can be argued that the march is not finished; instead, there are signs suggesting that the British are on a circle-road. Being an "invented nation," Welshness, Scotishness and Englishness have remained powerful identities. Moreover, as so many of the components of Britishness have faded, there have been predictable calls for a revival of other, older loyalties-a return to Englishness, or Scotishness, or Welshness.

Linda Colley concludes in her fascinating book about the Britons that Protestantism (and its resistance to Catholicism) as a religion now has a limited influence on British culture. Wars with the states of continental Europe have in all likelihood come to an end, and the British no longer feel the same compulsion to remain united in the face of the enemy from without. And crucially, both commercial supremacy and imperial hegemony have been lost25. The essential cements have largely ceased to function. The British no longer have nor believe in a distinct and privileged identity. It is argued that any attempt to foster a European identity among citizens of the member-states will have negative implications for national identities. Yet there is no obvious reason why the question of identification should be conceived as a zero-sum game. On the contrary, it might have a positive effect, because the search for identity is sometimes a wish for the reassurance of existing identity. The case of Ireland confirms the latter possibility.

Before Ireland joined the European Community in 1972, many Irish genuinely feared that membership in a centralizing European organization would mean the end of their fragile, threatened national culture. Surrender of sovereignty in economic matters would, it was feared, lead to the surrender of national identity, the end of their particular national characteristics, and of their ability to protect their own culture. That Ireland may in fact have greater control over its destiny inside rather than outside the Community pervaded, however, with Ireland's continued informal dependence on Britain. There was an overwhelming Irish vote in favor of EU membership: 83% voted yes26.

Almost 25 years of membership have supported the latter views. The Irish see that their limited surrender of sovereignty has given their small country rights which they previously did not have, the right to participate in decisions affecting them, and access to markets previously not open to them. In the case of Ireland, membership into the EU and greater prosperity have enabled it to spend more on education, culture and the protection of national heritage. Wider contacts with other European cultures have led it to a deeper appreciation of its own language, music and literature27.

As seen above, the concept of European identity is running aground, both theoretically as well as practically. The main obstacle seems to be the fact that it is developed in the framework and terminology usually identified with nation-states. Hitherto, the people it attempts to unify show little enthusiasm for assuming a European identity in place of their national identity.

It might be argued that the concept of European identity, whatever it might be in reality, has instead strengthened national or regional identities, providing French, Germans, and other members of EU countries with the necessary other of being considered European instead. At the same time, it is also a popular tool of Euro-pessimists who cultivate uncertainty about the issue to their own ends.

If a European identity emerges, perhaps with the help of numerous EU initiatives, it must compete with existing national identities. An essential prerequisite for the European identity is the critical rereading of the common and separate past of all European nations. Otherwise it will not be possible to create a new, widely spread and accepted identity. The possibility and merits of multi-layer identities should not be disregarded, as in the case of the United Kingdom. However, the respective European process will be gradual and time-consuming.

In sum, whether the European identity project has any success or strength to compete with its national equivalent, deeply rooted in the past, is not clear. The outcome is important because it reflects the current conflicts among European states and peoples. Nevertheless, it must also be kept in mind that different people have their own constructions of identity, their own sense of what they are. Which thesis will be flawed in the long run, however, remains to be seen.


Rain Eensaar obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration, Uni­versity of Tartu, Estonia, in 1996. He also has an advanced degree with distinctions from the University of Sussex in European Studies. Currently, he is a European Studies scholar at The Univeristy of Johns Hopkins-SAIS Bo­logna Center.