Multiculturalism, the foundation of European identity

Article published on Jan. 31, 2003
community published
Article published on Jan. 31, 2003

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

Riva Kastoryano, head of research at the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research, France), has edited a book entitled "Which Identity for Europe? Multiculturalism put to the test". The following is a summary of a presentation on "cultural identity in an enlarged Europe. Can multiculturalism be the foundation of European identity?".
The presentation was given at a working group organised by the Jeunes Europeéns [Young Europeans] at the Ecole Normale Superieure [University Paris, France] on 25 January 2003. A summary we consider worth reading.

The debate on European identity arose only recently in Europe. It was around the question of Turkish accession that the first questions were posed: is Europe a simple economic machine or a political project? Is it a historical or geographical reality, or a philosophical project...? Europe must now define itself, and therefore its borders. Even while presenting its history as united, a central problem remains: at the national level, how to choose between state and Community soveriegnty? How to build a European identity on the basis of different national cultures? How to perform this decoupling of national and European identity in a way that give the individual some connection with the latter?

Multiculturalism could be the answer to these question, and the catalyst for a poltical construction where each State will be equal.

Multiculturalism and the nation state

What is multiculturalism? The notion worked its way through Canada and then the United States in the 1960s, where it found political affirmation in the principle of affirmative action, that is positive discrimination. It is therefore a social reality before a theory of a possible European identity.

Multiculturalism is the political expression of minorities in a nation state. Yet, by nature the latter tends towards cultural, territorial, linguistic and even religious unity. Consequently, certain fears quickly suface: is this the end of national unity? The beginning of identity clashes? The end of the quest for the common good?

In Europe, multiculturalismis experienced differently in each country. In Spain, Belgium and Switzerland it is territorially defined as in Canada (Quebec) and recognised by the institutions. In France, however, when positive discriminative policies are developed (ZEP, ZUP) under the mask of social policy, there is always a certain rejection of reconising differences. The common good, republican unity, carry the day. There are therefore different models of citizenenship at national and European level. Hence the need to redefine them, and bring them together.

The European political project and identity

For the political unity of Europe to become real, the construction of a societal model which reconciles the plurality of national cultures is necessary. A European political culture common to all nations, compatible with their histories, their traditions and values, must be found. The main task of Europe therefore becomes the management of these political cultures in the context of a universal democracy. In this case, can the model of the nation state be applied to Europe?

Here we must notice that the European institution, by nature supranational, exist and have developed a political-bureaucratic system. They have already instigated a supranational norm, independent from international law, which has power over States. There have also been several attempts at putting in place a political agenda that will bring States closer together in many areas (culture, education...), leading to a degree of harmonisation of Europe, as well as initiatives to create a European spirit. This European political space is made concrete through legal constructs (free movement, codecision, co-operation between States), but equally through common conventions between the Member States on themes such as immigration, political arenas, cultural recognition..

For all this, is Europe a nation? No, and nor does she claim to be one. There is no affective anchorage, nor any historical tradition which binds her to the population of the Union, even if the debate has evolved with the drawing up of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the debate surrounding the Convention and the attempts to write a European Consititution.

A European Civic Culture leading to a European Collective Identity

Despite the policies in place, supranationalism is not sufficient to create a European public sphere. Still lacking is the idea of a people, a collective conscience guaranteeing loyalty. Cruelly lacking is a European citizenship that is a real catalyst for this public sphere. If the public sphere exists symbolically through the institutions, it is essentially the work of an elite. It misses a popular element which would make it a real sphere for participation and poltical representation.

However, an embryo of co-operation between societies does exist at the transnational level. It is a prototype European civil society, which serves as a European sphere as well as a communicative sphere: lobby groups, States, immigrant populations.. These groups are filling a still vague idea of identity. Even in the absence of any voluntary approach, this beginning of commitment at the European level can lead to the development of a European citizenship. Legally, this has existed since Maastricht. But still, commitment to a political project demands the individual to become a citizen who acts and who exists outside the legal framework of citizenship..

Can one speak of a European multiculturalism that exists outside the nation state? For the moment, States remain the structuring force of Europe and still draw its fundamental limits. It is possible to go beyond these statist models by adopting a pluralist model based on a constitution (what Habermas calls constitutional patriotism) and also based on the recognition of different cultures. A European civic culture must be defined in respect of different identities, leading to a collective European identity. If not based on a common civic culture, European construction risks a basis on ethnic or religious or historical grounds, or still worse on a culture of exclusion.

Multiculturalism could permit people to go beyond their national differences, to the Brussels level, as suggested by federal on confederal ideas. But contrary to the federal theory, which is based on the existence of a people, multiculturalism takes the opposite route: it starts from the multiple to move towards the identification of a new entity, based on the recognition of diversity.

There remains one danger: does multiculturalism not risk to differentiate even more between national identities, to the detriment of the common good? But is this not also the paradox of democracy?