European Identity A view from the Czech republic

Article published on Jan. 27, 2003
community published
Article published on Jan. 27, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

A European identity is a combination of many influences. Developing a new identity on the basis of only one factor is dangerous, as the outgoing Czech president Vaclav Havel has always said.

Each European has one part of his identity (ego, consciousness or social behaviour), which is somehow 'extrovert'. I mean that besides ego-orientation, he shares a space - whether large or smaill - of his identity with a society of values. This society of shared values could be family, work, region, nation or Europe.

The Czech president Vaclav Havel refers to "stratum of identity" when describing how Czech people, effectively removed from Europe since World war II, retrieve their almost lost European identity. Each of us has identity collected in time and collected in space.

In space, identity has been influenced by identification with one´s family, city, region, work, church, nation and so on. Nothing thereof can be absolute we are not only Czechs or only students, or only catholics. We have all these identities, but we feel the pertinence of these identities in varying intensity and in dependence on a different context. The last stratum of identity are European and global identities.

In time, our identity is divided into many historically determined "stratum" which directly influence our present across gaps of ages. Havel said that "identity and continuity are connected vessels", and that is why, for example, we cannot forget our totalitarian past in order to build democracy only as an antithesis to the old régime.

This idea is valid not only for former communist states, but is also applicable to the building of today´s democratic identity in Europe.

European identity has developed for many centuries. This neverending process has in each moment of history its concrete face and its concrete cultural, political and social expressions.

The Ancient and modern periods, medieval theocentricity and modern anthropocentricity have contributed to the formation of European identity in layers the present layer and the layer of the near past are the strongest factors which are most influential on the contemporary European identity.

For more than fifty years democracy has dominated in the western part of Europe. During this time has been developed by open-minded politicians of many useful democratic institutions which we hidden behind the "iron curtain" could only dream about. This progress was built on the wreckage of an era of nationalism which thank God is already over. However each development in the direction of democracy, which was for more than forty years oppressed from both sides (nationalism, coming from the past century, and communism which has the ambition of being the ideology for the next century), is a small miracle indeed.

The western experience is the only sensible path to follow. But not step by step new central and east European democracies have to learn from "older brother´s" mistakes. We can passively receive law, economic rules or political institutions, but what we must find for ourselves is an approach to the common European idea.

In the time dimension of identity we have brought our specific experience of living in totalitarian society which could serve us today not only as a "memento mori". This experience teaches us to be more interested in political engagement and thanks to that we have the capacity to properly appreciate the values of democracy and civil society than many western Europeans take for granted.

The space dimension of identity is where the gap between central Europeans and old EU members is the most noticable. Czech people have been for fifty long years in totally unnatural isolation. Bohemia belonged for a thousand years to European cultural territory. And three years after World War II Czechoslovakia was brutally removed from the cultural and political space which we had belonged to; alien (to us) eastern values forced upon us.

These forced values were never accepted in our society. But full contact with western values was impossible because of the iron courtain. This situation created a vacuum which was in some countries filled by strong nationalism (Slovakia, Croatia), in other countries by old imperialistic ressurgence (Serbia, Hungary), and in the Czech republic by a disorientation of society which led to the massive growth of consumerism.

Some Czech politicians (like former prime minister Klaus) told the people that building ravenous capitalism and a consumer society was the key to getting "back into Europe". Vaclav Havel prefers other values and warns against an economic boom which was not accompanied by moral development.

I have always known he was right. Today´s debate about the identity of our wealthy continent makes it evident.

PS: Havel´s presidency ends on February 2nd after more than 13 years in office.