What is European Identity?

Article published on Jan. 30, 2003
Article published on Jan. 30, 2003

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

As identity is an intellectual construction, a European identity is not simply a pipe dream. It does exist, yet it remains to be developed, not in place of national and local identities, but above them.

With enlargement looming, the question of defining Europe and its identity is being analysed more and more by various writers and journalists. This debate has in fact been going on for centuries, from Greek myth to the Roman Empire, from Charlemagne to Napoleon, from the birth of the nation state to the current construction of the EU. This article is about Europe, or, more precisely about the whole of Europe, which exists beyond EU frontiers.

The Will to Live Together

Identity is something which distinguishes us from others. If we analyse European identity according to general principles which characterise it, i.e. geographical, cultural and strategic, then it becomes clear that European identity does not exist in the traditional sense of the term. This said, identity is also based on a more spiritual, irrational principle the desire to belong to a community, a will to live together that comes from sharing the same values and objectives.

Let us first tackle the argument according to which national identities are an obstacle to the existence of a European identity. This argument is simply inadmissible. However, due to the very diverse historical experiences of different European countries the idea of identity has varying implications according to different groups. For example, a German and a Frenchman both have different ideas on what makes an identity. From this it may be concluded the identity is evolutionary: it is not constant, in fact, it is a construction. It is thus possible to create identities, just as national identities were created in the 19th century.

Of course it is difficult to identify those characteristics which are both common and specific to all European countries and define them as specifically European characteristics. Indeed, Europe does not have a geographical, strategic or cultural identity. Europe is not a continent because of its population or its structure. It is in fact a small cape of the Asian continent to quote Paul Valerys famous phrase. This principle has often been invoked on the subject of the accession of Turkey (and Israel and Russia too). Moreover, race or language can not define Europeans. As for strategic identity, the opening up of Eastern Europe ended the East-West divide, and there are currently no exterior powers which pose a threat to Europe. Furthermore Europes cultural heritage does not belong exclusively to Europe as it provides inspiration for countries beyond European frontiers. Mozart and Picasso belong just as much to Americans and Japanese as they do to Europeans. European cultural heritage stems from disparate cultural sources which are rather dissimilar, differences between Southern Europe and Scandinavia serve as an example.

European Identity as a Move Towards Global Identity

Despite all of this, as we travel across continents and meet those with a different world identity we consider ourselves to be European. Identity works on various levels for example someone from someone from Dublin will be identified as being from Dublin when in Cork (a Dubliner), in France they will be from Ireland (Irish), and in Africa they will be from Europe (European). This shows that European identity is simply a stage, moving toward a global identity. (If aliens land in Strasbourg tomorrow I will surely be an Earthling.)

The conclusion that we may reach is that identities are generalisations. After all, we are all individuals, unique, each of us different to the other. Whatever the case, to generalise is human nature. Generalisations help us form complex ideas and theories which we apply to our surroundings by creating civil societies. Europe, despite its faults, does exist as far as defining identity goes. It would be inopportune to claim that by creating a European identity we would be creating something new. Moreover it would be unjust, if not tragic, to impose a new identity on people in order to replace national and regional identities that currently exist.

Is it not in fact the case that European identity is capable of transcending its own diversity? By removing this diversity we would be denying our own specificity which is the main element that constitutes our identity. There is no need to construct a new identity as the EU is being constructed; national identities evolve over time. If European identity needs to be built upon then so be it, but national identities must be respected and not substituted as this risks provoking defiance. The need to protect our diversity is real. If Europe makes it through the difficult period to come, i.e. enlargement, whilst supporting its own diversity, it may serve as a model to the rest of the world. The aspirations of humanity are, or rather should be; to live together in peace and to ensure that as many as people as possible are comfortable, safe and well.

National Identities as a Blessing

Finally I would like to stress the great potential of the EU. In order for the European project to be successful in the long-term it must go hand in hand with moral values. At the same time we must bear in mind that the specificity of our European identity resides in its diversity. It should not define or construct itself in opposition to national identities but with them, and through them, as diversity is an asset. National identities must not be looked upon as hindrances, but as both gifts and blessings. In a way, however, national identities do render a European identity fragile, as there is the risk that it may disintegrate when confronted with major problems or important decisions. This is exactly what occurred when the European Community was unable to speak with one voice during the 1991 war against Iraq and the war in Yugoslavia. National identities remain important despite growing economic and structural inter-dependence between countries. This does not mean that these identities cannot co-exist. Attempting to replace one identity with another would be intolerant and would fail to take historical, social or cultural phenomenon into account.

Considering the bloody past which Europe has survived (two world wars, global expansion, colonialism, imperialism etc.) it should serve as a model, as proof that co-operation and reconciliation i.e. peaceful co-existence, is more profitable than war and hostility.