The strange birth of the European

Critics of European integration point to the weakness of common cultural and political ties on the continent. But European identity can emerge even in difficult conditions.
A map of Europe from the mid-nineteenth century. Credit: Getty Images.
A map of Europe from the mid-nineteenth century. Credit: Getty Images.
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This essay originally appeared under the title ‘United in Adversity? European identity in times of crisis’, in ‘The Road to Europe: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2012’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.


Since at least the debate over the Maastricht Treaty, every crisis of the European Union has generated contrasting views about the sustainability of EU integration and of the existence of a European identity. One group of Eurosceptics claims that integration has been detrimental to individual national sovereignty and should therefore be constrained, if not diluted. Both ‘inter-governmentalists’ and ‘sovereignists’ support this claim. For members of these two groups, the multiplication of crises at the EU level justifies their view that their countries’ national interests must be defended against the interference of dysfunctional EU bodies, such as the European Commission and the European Central Bank, that are unable to solve their most urgent problems. Some deny the existence of any European identity. They argue that there is no basis for claims of a common sense of belonging – be it of common language, culture, history, or political ideals. For them, it is impossible to legitimise European integration in the name of mythical common values or other abstract notions such as constitutional patriotism, or a European demos. 

A second group of Eurosceptics, however, believes that there is a European identity based on common history and shared values. Yet, they too decry the EU integration process because they see it as a threat to this European identity. For them, the processes spurred by the Schengen crisis have facilitated the alleged ‘invasion’ of the old continent by non-Europeans. 

A third group of Eurosceptics – this one from outside Europe – differs in both its analysis and conclusions. These sceptics argue of EU countries to co-operate in various policy spheres illustrates the resilience of national interests and thus a lack of sufficient European solidarity (as illustrated most starkly by the Euro crisis). They often prescribe increased, rather than decreased, integration to strengthen a ‘community of interests’. Some believe that more integration can generate an effective, instrumental conception of European identity. This identity would not be based on common ties, shared values and mutual trust but, rather, on common political, economic and security interests. 

A fourth group – again, of non-European Eurosceptics – claims that there is no European identity because Europe is a ‘non-entity’, a sort of geopolitical black hole characterised, as the Washington Post put it in 2003, by ‘economic anemia and… military impotence’. In the New York Review of Books, Timothy Garton Ash described such sceptics as ‘Euroweenies’ who are ‘petulant, hypocritical, disunited, duplicitous, sometimes anti-Semitic and often anti-American appeasers’. 

By contrast, Euro-optimists unite in linking the EU integration process to various positive concepts, however abstract, such as the development of a European dream, ‘EU-topia’, supranationalism, a United States of Europe, post-national democracy, or simply of Europe as a normative power (to name only a few). Euro-optimists point to what they regard as strong evidence of an existing European identity. They define these either as common values inherited from the past and legitimising the EU project, or ones generated as the result of the integration process. 

The first position was supported by the European founding fathers who, after the Second World War, defined Europe’s identity according to criteria traditionally used at the level of the nation state: historical memory-building, a common identity and culture, common political and economic interests.

Today, both EU institutions and treaties refer to a common set of values and references. According to Article 6 of the Treaty on European Union, for example, the EU is founded ‘on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law’. The Berlin Declaration, adopted on March 25, 2007 to mark the EU’s 50th anniversary, underlines ‘common ideals’, such as human dignity, gender equality, peace, tolerance and solidarity. Furthermore, in accordance with the principle of ‘unity in diversity’, the EU should promote the diversity of its culture while ‘bringing common heritage to the fore’ (Article 151 of the Treaty establishing the European Commission). The Lisbon Treaty likewise includes a reference to the ‘cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe’.

The second approach is based on the assumption that common policies create effective solidarities between states and citizens, as well as a common political culture and shared values. Such progressive Europeanisation fuels, and is fuelled by, the consolidation of a European public space, which in turn is both the source and the consequence of a European civic nationalism. European identity is thus an identity in the making, premised on an incipient European demos. 

These well-documented perspectives offer convincing arguments. Yet both opponents and proponents of EU integration often link the notion of identity to other concepts that are not always relevant. Opportunities for – and obstacles to – the emergence or the strengthening of a European identity are therefore evaluated according to criteria that do not directly relate to what may constitute a European identity. Critically, these perspectives fail to address a key question: how can we define Europe’s identity today? 

I will answer this question in four stages. First, I argue that there is no direct causal relationship between EU integration and a sense of European identity. The current financial crisis, for example, affects the support for specific policies but does not necessarily preclude a sense of belonging. Identity should not be confused with supporting the existence of the Euro. Second, there is a diversity of European identities, not one. In this sense, the EU’s slogan ‘Unity in Diversity’ also means ‘Diversity in Unity’ – because there are variations in the nature and degree of Europe’s identities. Third, crises have a paradoxical effect on identity: although Europeans express concerns about the ability of the EU to face critical challenges, they tend to feel more European in times of emergency. Finally, identities do not emerge and evolve in a vacuum. The EU is one part of Europe and Europe is one part of the world. Solidarity relations beyond states or nations can be among strangers; but they can also be against strangers – either foreigners from the outside, or the ‘enemy within’, as illustrated by widespread hostility towards immigrants and minority groups in Europe. 

I will briefly develop these four arguments in order to delineate the contours of Europe’s identity in times of crisis. In doing so, I will argue that crises, far from impeding the existence of common values, generate opportunities for the EU to promote and cultivate a particular European identity among various options. ‘Unity in Adversity’ thus captures an important truth. The future of Europeanisation should not be a source of concern. What is more problematic and controversial relates to the securitisation of identity, at both national and EU levels. 

The debate over European identity has been distorted by claims of a relationship between a sense of belonging (broadly defined) and the outcomes of European integration. The popularity of this misleading assumption increases in times of crisis. Today, the lack of solidarity between political elites (as illustrated by the euro crisis) is often explained by a lack of a community of interests due to contrasting national interests and, therefore, the absence of both common values and a sense of belonging. Yet, the link between EU integration, national interests and identity is more complex than has been commonly assumed, for at least four reasons. 

First, EU integration is the result of the existence of both common interests and conflicts of interests. Paradoxically, historical evidence suggests that crises tend to fuel the integration process more effectively than any consensus on the importance of shared values and a common destiny. For example, the revival of EU integration that was agreed at the 1969 Hague summit was designed to overcome the dramatic impact of the 1963 and 1965 crises. The first attempts to coordinate national economic policies within the framework of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) were the result of the international financial crisis that followed the ending of the convertibility of the dollar in 1971. The low level of success of EMU, as well as strong limitations to European Political Cooperation, led to further efforts to improve collaboration between the increasing number of EU members – as illustrated by the creation of the European Monetary System (EMS) and the adoption of the Single European Act. 

The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 was framed in response to various crises that occurred in Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was designed to solve several internal EU problems (such as the institutional ‘democratic deficit’ and the lack of cooperation between member states in the field of foreign and security policy). The Treaty of Amsterdam of 1997 was supposed to address the limitations of the Maastricht Treaty, while other EU initiatives were generated by a new wave of crises. The EU member states, for example, strengthened their collaboration in the field of common foreign and security policy in the aftermath of their dramatic failure to deal with the Balkans war. The Schengen regulations became part of the acquis communautaire as a response to the asylum crisis of the 1990s. My point is not to deny the large gap between the EU’s stated objectives and the actual outcomes of the integration process, but to bear in mind that EU integration is a permanent work in progress, one fuelled by crises. 

Second, the relationship between interests and identity is not straight-forward. Conflicts of interests can take place among countries or governments sharing common values. Transatlantic solidarity, for example, was severely shaken during the Bush administration, with Americans and Europeans expressing their disagreement over the Iraq war, the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo, the role of NATO, food safety provisions, privacy issues and the protection of the environment. Since then, relations between Europe and the United States have improved: 77 per cent of Americans and 71 per cent of Europeans continue to feel they share enough common values to work together. 

Conversely, a convergence of interests can occur between countries having different values, as illustrated by the support provided by the EU to Colonel Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in order to fight illegal immigration in the Mediterranean region for several years before his downfall. 

Third, a European identity is not simply predicated on evaluating the success or failure of common policies. To have a sense of European identity or to be ‘for’ or ‘against’ the EU are not the same thing. The rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in 2005 by the citizens of France and the Netherlands provides a good example. Opinion polls in France revealed that only a quarter of those who voted against the Constitutional Treaty were sensitive to ‘sovereignist’ arguments about maintaining French identity. Three-quarters of the ‘no’ voters did not reject Europe per se but expressed their preference for a ‘different and better Europe’. 

Furthermore, a majority of European citizens support EU integration despite the current financial crisis. Data from a Eurobarometer survey show that, for example, 56 per cent of Europeans support the ‘European economic and monetary union with a single currency, the Euro’, although there has been a two-point fall since autumn 2010. It is worth noting that there is a majority of support in the Eurozone countries (up to 66 per cent). There are also no signs of deterioration in the figure for the EU’s global approval ratings, which are actually improving: 40 per cent stated they had a positive image of the EU (up 2 per cent since autumn, 2010) and only 20 per cent had a negative image of the EU. 

Fourth, public perceptions of the EU are often not directly related to a common sense of identity. It is often assumed that a low level of trust in the EU (as well as in the EU’s institutions and common policies) reflects a lack of “European-ness”. Indeed, according to the findings of a Eurobarometer survey conducted in the spring of 2011, only 41 per cent of respondents said they trusted the EU, compared to 43 per cent in autumn, 2010. Levels of trust in EU institutions have declined, returning in 2011 to 2007 levels: 45 per cent of respondents trusted the European Parliament, 40 per cent trusted the commission; 40 per cent trusted the European Central Bank and 36 per cent trusted the council. Does this means that they felt less European in expressing their distrust for the EU? It is worth noting, by way of comparison, that only 32 per cent of Europeans said they trusted their national government and 33 per cent trusted their parliament. 

Does this mean that French people, for example, are less French when they do not trust their national institutions? Like the attitude of many other Europeans to their respective countries, French people actually express both a high level of ‘French-ness’ (up to 52 per cent declare themselves ‘French only’ and 10 per cent say they are ‘Europeans only’) and a high level of political distrust: while 50 per cent of them distrust the EU and 41 per cent have a negative image of the EU, only 35 per cent trust the French Parliament and 28 per cent trust the government. 

Hence, levels of trust are not an effective indicator of identity, either at the national or European level. The European public is actually fairly ignorant about issues of EU politics. Instead, citizens use the context of domestic politics to form opinions about the EU’s integration process. As noted by C.J. Anderson in a 1998 essay for the journal Comparative Political Studies: ‘Attitudes about the advantages or disadvantages of integration are likely to reflect other political beliefs that are the result of citizens’ experiences with domestic political reality.’ 

Diversity in unity: the plurality of European identities 

The ongoing debate about the contours of Europe’s identity is sustained by the notion’s polymorphic character. It is therefore necessary to draw a distinction between different aspects of identity. 

First, there are three possible forms of identification: affective, cognitive and evaluative. Affective identification relates to a romantic, nostalgic attachment to values, collective symbols and images, common myths and historical memories – strengthened by an ethnic core based on common ancestry and culture. This identification plays a key role at the national level. At the European level, by contrast, affective identification is admittedly limited, as captured by the common comment that few people would ‘die for Europe’. 

Answers to the so-called Moreno question – ‘do you in the near future see yourself as (nationality) only, (nationality) and European, European and (nationality), or European only?’ – confirm that Europeans continue to define themselves principally in terms of their national identity (up to 46 per cent in 2011). About 40 per cent answer (nationality) and European, 7 per cent say they are European and (nationality) and only 3 per cent describe themselves as European only. It is, however, misleading to measure European identity solely in terms of a self-declared sense of being European, ranking above or replacing a national identity. People hold multiple identities and various identities coexist, rather than one displacing another.

Furthermore, the low level of affective identification with the EU is balanced by an increasing cognitive identification that relates to the civic dimensions of the EU integration. From this perspective, the EU is a ‘would-be political community’: grouping Europeans together on the basis on common rights. These common rights, in turn, fuel a sense of European civic identity. Empirical data confirm that many Europeans share a common cognitive identification with the EU: when asked whether they felt they were ‘a citizen of the European Union’ in 2010, 62 per cent answered in the affirmative and only 37 per cent answered negatively. It is worth noting that the feeling of being a European citizen is more pronounced in the eurozone countries (up to 66 per cent compared to 54 per cent in countries outside of it). 

Finally, a majority of Europeans express a high level of evaluative identification, relating to a cost/benefit assessment of the EU. Europeans are more likely to support EU integration if it results in a net benefit to their personal situation or their country’s national economy. With regard to their perceptions of the benefits of European membership, opinions slightly improved in 2011 after the deterioration recorded in 2010: 52 per cent of Europeans think that their country has benefited from its membership of the EU (a two-point increase). Furthermore, there are 22 states where a majority says that European membership is beneficial (particularly in Ireland, with 78 per cent). Perhaps more impressively, the view that the EU protects its citizens against the negative effects of globalisation is still shared by 42 per cent of European citizens, despite the current crisis. 

Second, and intersecting with these various forms of identification, different categories of people express different feelings about European identity. There is a strong cleavage between the upper socio-economic classes and less privileged section of the population when it comes to evaluating their degree of European-ness. Levels of affective identification, for example, vary significantly according to socio-demographic factors, such as age, education and economic status. When asked to define their identity, the oldest respondents, the least qualified and those at the bottom of the social scale are more likely to define themselves only by their nationality. These categories are traditionally the most Eurosceptic. Conversely, the higher economic categories are far more likely to define themselves by both their nationality and their European citizenship. 

Socio-demographic factors also affect both cognitive and evaluative forms of identification with, on one side, the ‘Eurostar citizens’ and, on the other, those who have a (real or perceived) sense of being the losers of EU integration. 

Third, and as a result of these various forms of identification interacting in different ways, we are witnessing the emergence of two categories of identity fuelled by EU integration. The first one is what Michael Billig and Kathleen McNamara have called a ‘banal’ European identity forged by ‘the work of mundane technical bureaucrats, boring non-state governance, faceless lawyers in Luxembourg… This banality has its pluses and minuses, but it is clearly implicated in how the EU has constructed itself as a political authority and social fact of remarkable tenacity.’ 

There is evidence of the existence of a banal sense of European-ness. When asked, for example, ‘what does the EU signify?’, 45 per cent of Europeans mentioned freedom to travel, study and work in the union – followed by the Euro for 38 per cent. By contrast, more grandiose potential achievements were listed by a small minority: peace (22 per cent), cultural diversity (20 per cent) and democracy (20 per cent). 

The second category of identity includes the Europeanisation of national identities that are different from European identities per se. It is worth noting, for example, that most of the debates relating to the EU are largely framed at the national level in terms of identity discourse, as illustrated by the issues of eastern and south-eastern enlargement and Turkey’s proposed membership. There is also the increasing impact of European affairs on domestic politics in various member states, as illustrated by recent electoral results in Italy, Spain and Greece. Candidates in presidential elections and other high officials have to be more explicit – and, if possible, convincing – about their European agenda than ever before. The result of this higher exposure to the EU, as the international relations scholar Thomas Risse has pointed out, is that the ‘more nationally constructed identities would converge in a collective European identity… with a common core of visions about European order, at least among political elites.’

United in adversity: the impact of crises

To assess the drivers of European identity, it may first be more relevant to consider how the intensity and configurations of the various forms of identification with the EU vary in times of crisis, according to different national settings. The impact of the euro crisis, for example, may explain why a majority of Greeks (up 14 per cent to 52 per cent in 2011, as compared to 2009) do not feel they are citizens of the EU or believe that EU membership is not beneficial (up six per cent, to 50 per cent, in the same period). Yet populations in other countries suffering from the Euro crisis are less Eurosceptic. 75 per cent of respondents in Spain, for example, still declare themselves ‘citizens of the EU’ and 78 per cent in Ireland believe that EU membership is beneficial. 

Europeans who face similar challenges thus react differently in terms of identification with the EU, although they all strongly criticise the (mis) management of the financial crisis. 

Second, a sense of identity is not always based on a positive perception of the EU. The Euro crisis has, paradoxically, enhanced the role of the single currency as an ‘identity trigger’. The euro as the embodiment of the EU leads among possible responses from respondents in the eurozone countries (up to 47 per cent, compared to 21 per cent in countries outside the Eurozone) and has an absolute majority in six countries, including Greece (55 per cent) and Germany (53 per cent). 

Crises provide opportunities for the EU and its member states to promote a specific European identity. The belief that the EU is a ‘normative power’, driven in the international arena by a series of ethical values, has been promoted as a response to geopolitical issues (such as crises in the Middle East and civil wars in Africa, as well as environmental sustainability and global development assistance). This belief has now purportedly been internalised by EU institutions and, to some extent, reflected in their policies. References to values supposedly at the core of European identity frame the debates about the financial crisis: Germany sticks to the principle of responsibility, asking for more discipline and fiscal rectitude, while France claims that austerity should be balanced with the principles of solidarity and equity. At the national level, Euro-optimists point out that the European currency strengthened during the first decade of its existence (1999-2009) and that the current sovereignty debt crisis will positively motivate ‘countries to put their house in order’ and to strengthen their common governance in accordance with values articulated in EU treaties. Euro-optimists often refer to what Jean Monnet presciently observed in his Memoirs: ‘The European construction is moving ahead during crises and it will be the sum of the solutions brought about in order to overcome them.’

Identity and Security 

The fact that both pro- and anti-EU discourses are framed in ‘European colours’ illustrates the remarkable resilience of this identification process. The future of Europeanisation should not be a source of concern. Positive feelings can fuel a sense of European-ness (for those who embrace the ideals and actual outcomes of the EU integration process), or negative ones (for those who love to hate the EU). 

The securitisation of identity, at both national and EU levels, is more problematic. European identity is defined in terms of the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It consistently overlays the various forms of identification I have analysed in the previous sections. Who are Europe’s ‘others’? Others outside Europe are, for example, the United States, Russia, China and, more recently, the Middle East and Islamic countries. Europeans often perceive themselves as fellow Europeans in solidarity when they deal with these. Other ‘others’ are located inside Europe; and some Europeans define European-ness by excluding them, as illustrated by the widespread hostility against immigrants and minority groups, such as the Roma. Negative feelings against these populations predated 9/11 and the terrorist attacks that occurred in Europe. Yet fears about the existence of the enemy within have reinforced prejudice and generated exclusionary discourses against various ‘others’ who are suspected of being a threat to national identity, national prosperity and national security. The EU and its member states have increasingly framed both migration and integration as ‘security issues’ and adopted restrictive measures that raise concerns about the sustainability of European values (such as tolerance towards diversity, equity before the law, protection of human rights and civil liberties). 

Much attention is focused today on the economic and financial crisis. Yet the EU is facing a more crucial quandary: how to balance its security requirements with the respect for values and principles that constitutes the core of European identity? Given that economic gloom has prompted a rise in xenophobia and racism, the EU must urgently address the dramatic effects of welfare cuts and diminished job opportunities. Yet the same is true of the issues raised by ethno-cultural diversity in Europe. Many officials and observers simply diagnose a failure of multiculturalism while supporting discriminatory practices that, in turn, impede an effective integration of minorities. As Jenö Kaltenbach, chair of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, argues, it would be a mistake ‘to consider that the fight against racism and intolerance is only of interest to vulnerable groups. A fairer society is of benefit to all. Cultural richness and diversity have benefited Europe’s societies throughout history; resistance to racism is essential to preserve Europe’s future.’ 

As I have argued, there are multiple ways to feel European. This diversity thus makes it difficult to answer the question – what is it to be European? Different social groups, from different nationalities, provide varying answers. This is why European identity remains a ‘work in progress’ – as much as EU integration itself. Perhaps we should satisfy ourselves with the rich fluidity of European identities while being attentive to the needs of the increasing numbers of people who are not allowed to answer this question because they are perceived – and treated – as too different, too ‘foreign’, to feel European. 

Ariane Chebel d'Appollonia

Dr. Ariane Chebel d'Appollonia is a Professor in the School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University, New Jersey. Her research focuses on the politics of immigration and anti-discrimination, security issues, racism and xenophobia, extreme-right wing movements, immigrant integration, urban racism, and European policies. She has taught at universities both in France and in the United States.

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