Original publication: April 2017
Author: Markus J. Prutsch, Research Administrator
Short link to this post: http://bit.ly/2mZqOTs
Available languages:

European Identity

Download the Study

This study provides some reflections on the concept, challenges and prospects of ‘collective identity’ in a European context, although without claiming to provide an exhaustive analysis of the issue. The text comprises the following constitutive parts:

1) an introduction, briefly elaborating on the concepts of ‘identity’ and national collective identity in particular;

2) an outline of the intricacies of a pan-European identity, and a presentation of past and present European Union policies in this regard;

3) an exploration of the prospects of European identity, with particular emphasis on the potential of different approaches (cultural vs. political; top-down vs. bottom-up), and the role of historical memory for a European sense of belonging to emerge;

4) a series of concluding recommendations.

creativemarc / Shutterstock

creativemarc / Shutterstock

Over the last decades, ‘identity’ has been a widely used – indeed inflationary – term in public discourses, characterised by a broad range of meanings ascribed to and expectations associated with it. While scholarly research agrees on the constructivist and dynamic nature of ‘identity’ and its inherently featuring both an individual and collective dimension, the term evades any clear-cut definitions and is characterised by conceptual ambiguity. Its concrete explanatory value and its usability as a reference point for actual policymaking are, accordingly, restricted. Despite the terminological and conceptual challenges associated with it,  however, ‘identity’ has gained the status of one of the most pervasive concepts to describe and politically steer community-building processes, especially at nation-state level (‘national collective identity’). Notwithstanding the ‘nation (state)’ having become the model for political organisation in the modern age, overcoming differences in communities as large as nations and making their constituent members accept an assumed sameness and common identity has proven a difficult task. Nations are – first and foremost – ‘imagined communities’. All the more challenging is community and identity building in transnational contexts.

European identity’: intricacies and policies

Irrespective of the problems associated with identity building in environments marked by ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity, the issue of a ‘European identity’ continues to enjoy significant scholarly and political attention. In this context, two competing understandings of European identity and its repository can be distinguished: I) Europe as a cultural community of shared values; II) Europe as a political community of shared democratic practices. The idea of Europe as a cultural Gemeinschaft (‘community’) is in the tradition of identitarian concepts of identity applied to the nation state, and puts emphasis on common cultural legacies and historical experiences. The idea of Europe as political community stresses the bonding capacity of democratic institutions and active civic engagement, giving rise to a democratic political culture (‘constitutional patriotism’). Both concepts of European identity have their respective appeal, but also face substantial criticism as regards their desirability and feasibility.

European policies aimed at fostering a collective transnational identity – be it directly or indirectly – have been wavering between these two alternatives, with approaches focusing on a civic understanding of ‘Europeanness’ which has generally gained momentum since the turn of the century (and in parallel to the European project facing increasing obstacles). This is manifest in the Europe for Citizens Programme launched in 2006, which pays tribute to historical remembrance and thus to the cultural dimension of European identity, but also puts emphasis on active citizenship (political identity). Equally manifest in Europe for Citizens is another discernible shift over time, namely from an almost exclusive ‘top-down’ to a more ‘bottom-up’ approach, cherishing individual experience and action. At the same time – and concomitant with the uncertain fate of European integration as such– growing discomfort vis-à-vis the idea of a European identity and an increasingly polemical debate on the issue are discernible.

Prospects of a European identity

While the prospects for a European identity proper appear grim, considering the general difficulties of transnational identity building and the current political framework in particular, fostering a European sense of belonging among citizens is within the realms of possibility. For the EU, such fostering is nothing less than a sine qua non if the Union is to endure as a political entity requiring corresponding legitimacy and public support.

Inevitably, any European layer of political identification requires positioning towards and arrangement with entrenched national identities. With a view to minimising potential conflicts between those identities and a novel ‘post-national’ type of allegiance, basing the EU’s legitimacy exclusively on its output is an appealing perspective. But while ‘output legitimacy’ merits more attention to be paid both in theory and politics than is currently the case (given the scarcity of structural prerequisites for ‘input legitimacy’ alone, e.g., a common culture or a European demos), other sources of identification with ‘Europe’ and the EU more particularly are indispensable. This is not just because the EU’s means to pursue ‘good policies’ for which it can claim ownership is limited, but also because relying merely on output puts any body politic on shaky ground. What seems best suited for a European sense of belonging to emerge is supplementing output performance with policies that promote in parallel both a political and a cultural identity, and bring bottom-up initiatives centre stage.

In this context, a key role for the genesis of any ‘European identity’ can be ascribed to history and remembrance. The underlying rationale is: if European peoples cannot even agree on how to handle their past, how can they possibly find common ground in dealing with the present and tackling the future? For quite some time, European policies have indeed made an effort to foster a ‘European historical memory’ in order to add legitimacy to the European project. Yet doubts arise as to the suitability of these efforts for a European identity to develop, since they are characterised by a narrow focus of historical remembrance on the experiences of 20thcentury totalitarianism and follow a barely disguised rationale of self-legitimisation. Concentrating European efforts for transnational historical remembrance on the Holocaust and National Socialism as well as Stalinism proves problematic in two respects. Firstly, such an approach fosters a simplistic and biased black-and-white scheme of history that makes Europe’s ‘dark past’ appear as the logical alternative to its ‘bright present’, thus doing injustice to the richness and complexity of European history. Secondly, narrowing historical memory to National Socialism and Stalinism, elevated to the status of a ‘negative foundation myth’, reduces incentives to critically examine stereotypes and sacred cows of one’s own national history, and hampers the development of a sense of shared European responsibility for the past (and present).

Accordingly, a reflexive and process-oriented ‘culture of remembering’, rather than an imposed and prescriptive ‘remembrance culture’ (with standardised views on and reference points for Europe’s past), is argued to  be the nucleus of a common European identity. Such a ‘culture of remembering’ puts emphasis on how rather than what to remember and requires capacities for a (self-) critical ‘reworking of the past’ to be generated at national level, providing incentives for scrutinising diverse and often divisive memories under a consciously transnational and European perspective. For successful implementation, corresponding education policies are indispensable. These policies would be ideally guided by the leitmotif of ‘sapere aude!’ (‘dare to know!’) and would lay the foundations for a vivid civic political culture. The envisaged ‘culture of remembering’ would form an integral part thereof. The ultimate vision is that of a civic culture finding expression in a sense of shared possession of and responsibility for the common good and citizens’ active participation politically as well as socially – a cardinal element of which is cognisant and unbiased ‘work on history’.

Conclusions and recommendations

The findings of this study as regards the state and prospects of a ‘European identity’ can be condensed in the following eight suggestions:

1) Recognising identity to be an elusive and intrinsically constructivist concept;
2) Acknowledging collective identity as being central to any body politic;
3) Weighing the chances and limits of national identity-building patterns being transferred to a supranational level;
4) Recognising the need for European identity to be both political and cultural;
5) Revising existing identity policies with a view to strengthening bottom-up approaches;
6) Defining historical remembrance as a focal point of identity struggles, yet also a potential nucleus for a European identity;
7) Fostering a civic ‘European culture of remembering’;
8) Acknowledging the central role of education.

Link to the full study: http://bit.ly/585-921

Please give us your feedback on this publication

Print or share this “STUDY in a nutshell”:


Leave a Reply