International Relations

What is the meaning of European identity today ?

Elena MAGGI (2017), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in European Studies.


Who is or should be European? Is there a European identity? How can we conceptualize it? And above all what is the role of cultural values and civic principles in the narrative of European collective identity?

The first architects of the European Union conceived the European project as emerging from an economic co-operation to be followed by a gradual political integration. One of its early leading scholars, the neo-functionalist Ernst Bernard Haas (1997) formulated this idea into a “spill-over mechanism” to describe the hypothetic result of a progressive supranational rule making: “a convergence of beliefs, values and aspirations that would unite the peoples of the European community and generate a ‘new nationalism’”. If a “new nationalism“ was meant to unite the peoples of Europe in the belonging to a same European national identity, despite the growing cohesion of the EU’s political structure, the furthering of European integration does not seem so far to be faithful to Haas theoretical prediction. Even though the rise of a peculiar “new nationalism” is, without doubt, thriving in a new dimension of European politics and public opinion, it is not certain whether it can be conceived as a step forward in the emergence of a European collective identity.

Given that the European Union started out with a relatively modest goal – that of the creation of a common market and customs union (EEC) with limited authority and six member States– the pace of the integration and enlargement process has lead to the most extensive example of inter-state co-operation in the past 500 years. From the Treaty of Rome in (1957) to the Treaty of Lisbon (2007), the economic, legal and political integration, as well as the attempt to institutionalize the principle of representative democracy by the expansion of the power of the European Parliament, has indeed grown a great deal. And yet, the breadth and depth of decision and policy making at the European level has increasingly determined the questioning of the EU’s legitimacy resulting in the so called “democratic deficit”. Howbeit for the last fifty years public opinion has provided a permissive consensus willing to leave decision making to political elites, the Danish rejection of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992’s marked the end of this early integration chapter (Down and Wilson, 2012).

Today more than ever, after the striking outcome of the Brexit referendum, the future of the EU seems hinging on citizens’ perception and support for the European integration project. It is in the light of this uncertain days for the EU’s legitimacy that the existence and nature of a European mass identity is rightly one of the most central issues of the intellectual and public European debate. Embracing a Weberian perspective, Bruter stated that “without identity it seem that there can be no true, durable, legitimacy attached to a political entity, no conscious acceptance of the power of the State and of its monopolistic right to use legitimate coercion” (Bruter, 2005). In this sense, following a long and classical tradition of political theory, it can be said that the emergence of a political identity can be considered as the primary source of every political community’s legitimation. Despite the controversial interpretations dividing contemporary scholars on the conceptual meaning of political legitimacy, which will not be of our concern here, there is a general consensus on the idea that a close link exists between European political identity and its legitimacy. Distinguishing between short-term output legitimacy and one of “diffusive support” (Fuchs, 2011) in his empirical research, Fuchs (2011) proves the existence of a positive correlation between ‘feeling European’ and the support for European integration.

Embracing such a meaning, i.e. the relevance, of European political identity, we will take its conceptual significance as the central object of our reflection. In this respect throughout the intertwinement of empirical and theoretical approaches, I will question the conceptual nature and perception of European collective identity. In highlighting the ambiguity of the latter’s twofold referents – a cultural idea of Europe and the European Union as a juridical set of institutions – I will argue that, being the European a collective identity and thus a social construction, if there is such a thing as a positive meaning of European identity it is the result of the European Institutions’ manufacturing of a European nation-state centred narrative. In so uncovering I will show how such a narrative is grounded on the political necessity to foster the emergence of a unique European demos, considered the only ground to secure the legitimacy of an increasingly supranational decision and policymaking.

I. Conceptual nature of European identity: controversial meaning and theoretical frameworks

     A. European collective identity: a constructed narrative of political belonging

Assuming that something as a European identity exists, or will ever come into being, what do we mean by that? In which terms and theoretical framework can we discuss the identity of the Europeans? These kinds of questions have generated countless intellectual debates within a wide range of disciplines –philosophy, sociology, anthropology, law and political science– over the past decades and, due to the quickening of European integration and its increasingly contested legitimacy, have undergone in recent years a spectacular revival. Adopting a sociological perspective European identity can be define as a form of collective identity that, as Fligstein (2012) puts it, “refers to the idea that a group of people accept a fundamental and consequential similarity that causes them to feel solidarity amongst themselves”. In this sense, European identity is mainly conceived as social construct emerging from a more or less intentional social interaction. Then European collective identity is the social manufacturing of what Eder (2011) calls a common “narrative of borders” that on the basis of certain shared political and cultural values defines the political community and thus produces a sense of shared belonging together. Along this line Cerutti (2008) individuates two distinctive and complementary moments of sameness and distinction in the process of identity building: firstly the perception and recognition of a set of communalities around which the individuals recognise themselves as members of a group, the “mirror identity”; secondly the distinction between the characteristics of the in-group and the out- groups, a “wall identity”. Within a constructivist theoretical framework, an additional conceptual distinction can be drawn, one that, as we will see below, has important implications for the method and sources used in survey’s analysis. According to the sociologist Karl Eder, European collective identity and identification are not synonymous since the former “is a social fact, whereas identifications are subjective dispositions in the mind of people” (2011). Therefore in order to avoid a positive substantialist notion of collective identity, the reification of European identity as a given, it is necessary to consider the latter not as a proper analytical category but as a “category of everyday languages that hinders rather than helps to understand what kind of collective identity might emerge in the polity of the Europeans” (Eder 2011). Indeed, there is a fundamental ambiguity embedded in the very notion of ‘European’ identity determining the impossibility to recognise a single proper referent and thus a single meaning of this peculiar collective identity. Is European identity designating the process of identification with “the idea of Europe”(Delanty,1995) as a cultural, historical and geographical construct or rather with a set of rights and universal principles embedded in the European Union’s political institutions?

     B. The ambiguity of European identity’s referents: cultural and civic perspectives

While aiming to contribute with an empirical survey to this mainly theoretical debate Michael Bruter (2005) in his preliminary conceptualisation of European identity has provided some fundamental theoretical instruments to clarify the constitutive ambiguity of European identity’s referents. Bruter distinguishes two main conceptualizations determining the theoretical approach shaping research analysis: “top-down” and a “bottom-up”(2005). The first angle of research is characterize by an objective perspective of European identity, focusing on who should be considered European and what European identity should be, that is to say the process of top-down construction of a substantialist identity’s meaning in which the individual recognizes itself by internalizing the identity’s narrative. In contrast, the second approach consists in a subjective bottom-up perspective considering who feels European and what do people mean by that. In other words, it analyses the active process of individuals’ identification and the determinants of their subjective interpretation of pre- existing categories proper to the collective identity’s narrative. It is by adopting a bottom-up behavioral approach that Bruter (2005) will prove the existence and significance of two distinctive, yet correlated, components of political identities shaping individuals’ active identification process. Looking at the existing literature on the relevance of states and nations, Bruter distinguishes a first “cultural “perspective, conceiving the belonging to a particular “culturally meaningful human community such as the nation” to be defined by “a shared civilization and heritage, cultural values, religion, ethnic or eventually ethnicity” as well as the perception that “fellow Europeans are closed to them then non Europeans” (2003). The second or “civic” perspective rather conceive political identity as the identification of citizens with a political structure, such as the State, defined as the set of institutions’ rights and rules that preside over the community’s political life. It is exactly by means of this distinction between two components of the identifier’s subjective representations of the “imagined community” (Anderson, 1991) that we will be able to distinguish the two referents of European collective identity, the idea Europe and the European Union .

“Indeed while conceiving Europe as a cultural identity presumably implies a reference to Europe as a civilisation that stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals, conceiving Europe as a civic identity would imply a reference to the European Union” (Bruter, 2005)

II. Measuring European identity: what does “feeling Europeans” actually mean?

      A. The emergence of a European civic mass identity

Adopting the bottom up approach, in a methodological individualism to reflect upon identity as an identification and subjective process. I aim to explore the main empirical research contributions to this intellectual debate. In so doing I wish to stress the importance of the extremely challenging measurement of the prevalent subjective dispositions in Europeans’ mental universe. In Bruter’s words “how do European citizens perceive themselves politically in a context where institutions and the elites have clearly tried for the past few decades to tell them how they should perceive themselves” (2005). Bruter’s relevant sociological survey covers a vast range of research questions: if a European mass identity has emerged in the temporal range going from the 1970’ to 2000, what part have European institutions played in the emergence of the latter and thus the influence of symbols and media coverage, but above all, and this being the main object of our concern, what do citizens actually mean when saying that they ‘feel -or do not feel- Europeans’, whether they hold a more civic or cultural conception of their Europeanness. The author is not the only one assuming a highly critical position toward the quantitative and qualitative instruments of European identity’s measure coming from the semi-annual Eurobarometer’s survey. Indeed, Bruter claims the inadequacy of Eurobarometer’s survey questions, changing over time and ignoring “the fact, now well established in the literature, that European and national identities tend to be positively correlated rather then opposed”(2003). In a model of European and sub-European –local, regional, national– identity’s complementarity, the author has measured, by means of 12 variables on a sample of 212 respondents, the relevance of civic and cultural components in European political identity. The results of the survey attest the predominance of a civic meaning and perception of citizens’ European identity. Thereafter then on the attachment to a cultural idea of Europe prevails “a civic conception of Europeanness, based on the relevance of the European Union as a relevant political system that generates some of their rights, duties and symbolic civic attributes” (Bruter, 2005). However, faithfully to its conceptual assumption of the distinctiveness but complementarity of the two civic and cultural components, Bruter assert that to a lesser extent “citizens also hold a cultural conception of their identity”, based on a perceived shared cultural heritage “and therefore [on a] somewhat exclusive civilisation”(2005). In this sense, citizens are likely “to oppose a consistent European, Judeo-Christian Western civilisation to the rest of the word” (Bruter, 2005).

     B. The reverse side of a “civic” Europe: an ethno-European identity

If identity is as Bruter (2003) puts it “a prisoner of language”, the questions asked in the Eurobarometer’s survey seem to embed an identity’s narrative belonging to the conceptual categories of national identity building. In this sense, it is argued that the Eurobarometer contributes to inform a conceptual perception of European identity on the wake of the old symbols and narratives belonging to the national social space. The latters, according to Eder “do not coincide with the reality mediating the social relations of the Europeans” (2011). Then starting from Eder’s criticism of the Eurobarometer’s methodological nationalism, we will evaluate the extent to which a European top-down discourse, dominant as Schmidt(2011) recalls until the 1990’s, has contributed to the manufacturing of a European national identity faithful in a way to Haas‘s “new nationalism”(1997). As Fligstein puts it “ the main empirical problem with this model- a European national identity- is that neither a European identity nor a groundswell of political support for an expansion of the EU has come into existence” (2012). Therefore, it is my intent to evaluate the extent to which, the fostering of a ‘thick’ European collective identity’s narrative, i.e. the feeling of belonging to a culturally meaningful human community such as the Nation, having one of its main referents in the cultural idea of Europe, has fail to develop a growth in support for European integration, a solid ground for EU’s legitimacy, rather resulting in the increasing affiliation with the “flip side of the civic European identity [..] the ethno-nationalist side of Europe” (2012). The contribution of Neil Fligstein (2012), based on a comparative analysis of 2004 and 2010’s Eurobarometer data, will thus be of particular interest for us. Following a bottom- up approach, the author bases his conceptualization of a “European national identity” (Fligstein,2012), on the distinction between a civic and ethnic nationalism, in line with Bruter’s civic and cultural components of the identification’s process. While “civic forms of national identity tend to focus on citizenship as a legal status obtainable by anyone willing to accept a particular legal, political and social system” (Fligstein, 2012) an ethnic form of nationalism “requires that people adhere to national culture by virtue of having born into it” (Fligstein, 2012). Thus an ethnic based conception of European identity defines who belong in the imaged European community by an ‘othering’ process, labelling immigrants from outside Europe as well as indigenous minorities as non- Europeans. Comparing Eurobarometer’s data from 2004 and 2010 Fligstein (2012) operationalizes socio-economic variables (occupation, education, income) and demographic ones (age, gender) with interaction patterns of people across Europe, what Bruter called “ European experience”(2005). Fligstein (2012) shows that the socioeconomic and demographic variables predict interaction patterns causing Europeans from the highest socio-economic groups as well as young people, the winners of the globalization process, to be more likely develop a cross–class solidarity and thus a European identity. Evaluating the effects that the 2007-2011 economic and on-going migrant crisis have had on European integration, Fligstein (2012) affirms the heightened role of a strong ethnic, culturalist and exclusivist perception of European identity. Indeed, despite the fact that survey’s data shown the prevalence of a civic meaning of Europeanness, this civic pattern is confined to those identifiers perceiving their political identity as “European only”, in favour of peace, tolerance and cultural diversity. As a matter of fact the latters are only 3% of European citizens while 46% of them remain webbed to strictly national identity. In this respect, as Fligstein puts it “there is evidence that a more ethnic sense of what it means to be European exist as well” (Fligstein, 2012). Indeed, if the emergence of far right wing parties has been one of the most striking political trend in Europe during the last 20 years, those who orient their identities and their preferences toward the national level have found a home for their rhetoric, celebrating “national ethnic uniqueness and invok[ing] the Christian and historical heritage of European citizens as a way to justify the exclusion of outsiders groups” (Fligstein,2012). As a matter of fact, according to the Eurobarometer data, since 2004 public concern with immigration is rising with 60 per cent of European citizens ranking immigration problems higher then terrorism, pensions, taxation, education , environmental issues.

III. Multiples pathways to European identity formation: another forms of late national identity?

      A. European national identity: A Europe of values?

Even if, as Fligstein clarifies, “anti-immigrants sentiments and policies may be loosely linked to the core of the integration project” (2012), a connection is to be recognised between a national-like conception of European identity and a more culturalist and exclusivist perception of Europeanness. In this respect, I will recognise in the European institutions and medias the main entrepreneurs of a European identity holding a certain conception of the nation as the only and ultimate horizon of identity-building. Indeed, the dominant top down narrative of European identity has been mediated, according to Eder, by symbols of national state power “borrowed from a nationally defined polity such as a European flag, a European anthem and the ritualized commemoration of successful political act such as the act of foundation which is represented in the fifteen stars flag” (2011). In light of the positive association between political identity and legitimacy, the main question underlying researches on European political identity becomes precisely whether the latter needs to follow the same path undertaken by its member states in the formation of a national identity. In this respect, being a European collective identity still in the process of coming into being, the pathway it should follow is a controversial issue which divides the literature. I will thereafter analyse the two main oppositional paradigms of political identity building, European culturalists and European post nationalists, in order to determine the extent to which a European collective identity could represent the opportunity to go beyond the boundary construction of a national body. According to Justine Lacroix (2002) we can distinguish three theoretical postponements finally resulting in two main oppositional paradigms: a Europe of values or a Europe of rights, a nation-state centred view of European identity or a post-nationalist one. Under the first category we count “national republicans” and “civic nationalists”(Lacroix,2002). The first labeled by Delanty as an “essentialist position” (1995) recognise only one ground for both a political identity and citizens’ loyalty to political institutions in a cultural similarity and homogeneity, arising only in the context of nation-like communities. From this assumption derives the essentialists’ scepticism toward the European project as well as their rejection of the possible emergence of a European political identity, being impossible for the EU to follow the desirable path of its members states’ identity formation. In their view, “the ethnos can only be turned into a demos at the national level” (Lacroix, 2002). Other, civic nationalists that Lucarelli calls “European culturalists” (2011) consider it possible for a European identity and demos to exist, yet a relative ‘cultural homogeneity’ remains in their view a necessary and essential condition for a European deliberative democracy to emerge. In the case of the EU the requirements for a cultural identity become elements such as the common cultural heritage of classicism, Humanism, Christianity etc.. In their view no fixed political identity could ever emerge out of a pure civic and juridical conception of citizenship based on universal principles. Every political identity needs to be sustained by “a force already prevalent within men’s hearts” (Lacroix, 2002) that is by the internalisation of a common substantial culture of shared values. It can accordingly be implied that both civic nationalism and national republicanism can be reduced to a “nation-state cantered view”(Lacroix,2002) including both Eurosceptic and Europhiles, defenders of an intergovernmental “Europe of nation” and partisans of a supranational new “European fatherland” (Lacroix,2002). Despite the fact that the latters two approaches are commonly assumed to be oppositional they follow the same methodological nationalism informed by the same nationalist paradigm. In Lacroix’s words: “The debate between Europhiles and Eurosceptic is often not a debate of opposites but of equals – equals in their inability to understand political and social organisation in non- statal, national terms” (Lacroix, 2002). Indeed the cultural policy chosen in the mid 1980’s by the European institutions – the resort to European myth, European history, introduction of a new flag and anthem– goes hand in hand with the symbolic terrain upon which the authority and legitimacy of the nation state has traditionally been founded between the 1870 and 1914.

     B. The politicization of a cultural idea: toward a post-national European identity

“Those supporters of the European Union who insist on the need to safeguard national references may have to bypass the nationalist principle, whilst those who envisage European integration as a broader substitute than the nation may surreptiously reassert the nationalist principle “(Ferry, 1991)

Constitutional patriotism, first theorized by J. Habermas in the mid 1980’s, is then the only discourse pledging for a European political identity to go beyond the nation state model. Indeed it is argued that it would be neither realistic nor desirable to suppose the European Union, in the heterogeneity of its subcultures, to be the ground of a secular nation- building phenomenon. The latter rarely takes place without the exertion of a relevant amount of external and internal violence, by means of which a cultural homogeneity of the ethos is shaped in one and only demos of shared historical, cultural and geographical commonalities. Even if motivated by the pretended political necessity of a thick and thus cultural political identity – considered the only ground for a supranational European democracy– there is a great danger in conceiving the European Union project as a pathway toward the emergence of a European national identity. If the latter has its only foundation in shared cultural values grounded on an “idea of Europe”(Delanty,1995) that is essentially a cultural model – a cultural construct based on a geo-political entity– its politicization in a European collective political identity, ground of a European political citizenship “inevitably results in a distorted and regressive adversarial value system” (Delanty, 1995). If collective identities are always relational, the foundation of political identities on the universalization of relativistic cultural values as those embedded in the nation-like European idea, inevitably lead to a binary typology of “Us” and “Them” where the purity and the stability of the “We” is guaranteed first in the naming, then in the demonization and finally in a more or less violent denial of the Other (Delanty, 1995). Then the only way out of this ethno-nationalist conception of a European political community and identity is to be found in breaking the connection between the cultural idea of Europe and a European political citizenship, when being citizen of a political community, the European Union, is no more synonym of the affiliation to a geo-political culturally meaningful one, Europe. In this sense, the liberal post- nationalism argument contend that “democratic identity need not to be rooted in the national identity of the people: the social bond in liberal democratic states should be legal and political rather than historical, cultural and geographical” (Discussion sur l’Europe, 1992). It is exactly in this sense that Justine Lacroix opposes a Europe of values to a Europe of rights affirming that a “Europe of values is neither necessary nor desirable” (Lacroix, 2009). Indeed rather than on shared cultural and civilizational belonging, a European post national political identity should be established on the basis of those universal legal and moral principles that underpin the concept of democracy and the rule of law. Whether a post-nationalist identity is grounded on the necessary dissociation between a civic conception of citizenship and the cultural idea of nationality, this will never imply the denial of individuals’ national identification. It becomes here apparent that the necessity is one of critical attachment rather then abandoning national identities, adopting a scrutinizing attitude toward one’s historical and cultural legacy in taking responsibility for it. In other words: decentring national memory in a self- critique stance, recognising the existence of the other in acknowledging the crimes committed against him.

“European identity differs from national identity in the sense that it was, from the very beginning, founded on the permanent remembrance of its internal conflicts and divisions and on a sense of responsibility for the crimes committed in the past” (Lacroix, 2009).

In the attempt to clarify the ambiguity that has always characterize the ultimate aim of the European project, it can be said that the very meaning of union in diversity, of a “federalism of free states”(Lacroix, 2009) is not to create a new ‘collective us’ but rather the emergence of a European public space resulting in the political cooperation between a “people, if you wish, of others” (Weiler 2001), in a deliberation and confrontation of the distinct pre-political identities proper to different demoi aimed to realise a unique common project. As Kalipso Nicolaidis puts it: “the glue that binds the EU together is not a shared identity; it is rather a shared project and shared objectives” (2010). Following Lacroix’s argument (2009), the substantial essence of European political identity is neither antinational nor supranational but transnational. It is in these very terms that citizens understand it. When asked what the European Union means to them 52 percent of interviewed Eu citizens answered “the freedom to travel, study, and work everywhere in the EU” (Lacroix, 2009). Lacroix stresses how tis 52 percent greatly outcomes those who answered “ peace, democracy and prosperity”, the normative values allegedly constituting the pillars of the European project (2009).

“One is European not because one adhere to a set of common values but simply because one is not discriminates against when one is in another member state” (Lacroix, 2009).

Hence ‘being European’ does not mean creating a new positive social identity, but rather trying to define a locus of communication and mutual recognition between distinctive reflexive national identities and multiples demoi. If a European single demos will always go missing to the European polity, its absence rather then a democratic and legitimacy’s deficiency could represent the first step toward the institutionalisation of cultural pluralism based on a post-national conception of European identity and citizenship (Innerarity, n.d.)

Through an analysis of the main arguments dividing philosophers, sociologist and political scientists, I have attempted to question the very meaning and significance of European collective political identity’s emergence within the European integration project. To do so, I have firstly undertaken a conceptual evaluation of the sociological and political meaning of EU’s collective identity in order to clarify the ambiguity resulting form its twofold referents ­–the idea of Europe and the European Union’s institutions­. Subsequently, following Bruter’s bottom up approach, I have distinguished two different components of European political identity, a civic and cultural one. In this respect, a properly empirical and sociological analysis of citizens’ identification process has followed, allowing me to measure the very meaning the European identity acquires in Europeans’ subjective perception of it. Whilst the predominance of a civic of Europeanness is corroborated by Fligstein and Bruter’s sociological surveys, a complementarity of cultural values and civic principles results from the strict intertwinement of the cultural and political referents within European identity’s constructed narrative. Thereupon through a critical analysis of three main identity formation’s pathways, I assumed a liberal post-nationalist perspective, to argued that a ‘nation-state centred’ view of political identities has always dominated the European integration project aiming to build a thick European political identity grounded not only on civic principles but, above all, on the essentially cultural idea of Europe, i.e. on a single shared cultural and civilizational heritage. All in all I contended that if European identity is a collective narrative constructed by a stato-national centred discourse, its very meaning is neither national nor supranational but post-national, not based on relativistic values but on the universal principles that underpin liberal democracy and cultural pluralism.


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