Constructing a European identity: Yes, but how?

, by Juliette Chevée, translated by Sarah Declercq

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Constructing a European identity: Yes, but how?

A few weeks ago on the occasion of the summit of the Heads of State on the budget negotiations Pascal Lamy acknowledged the difficulties in building a European identity. “Communities are forged on national warrior myths. The myth of the homeland is a nation in danger. The problem of Europe is that it was born on a contra-myth, peace”, explained the president of the WTO in a tribune in Le Monde dated 21st November 2012.

The problem presented by Pascal Lamy is not new. And yet, the projects to construct a civic and cultural Europe have multiplied, from the first cultural action plan launched by the European Commission in 1977 to the widely spread Erasmus program.

But are these efforts really successful? In the French university system, the national average number of students coming back from an Erasmus year, reported to the size of their university, was 1% in 2008-2009 (according to the Europe-Education-Formation-France agency). And a social mix of students enjoying this program is far from being achieved. The crisis is not helping for these poor results, as there is a threat of funds’ withdrawal.

The European identity, an artificial concept ?

Facing such difficulties, the moment has come when it is legitimate to ask whether the encountered problems are due to the fact that there is no pre-existing European identity. The stories of ‘common heritage’ that are constantly hammered upon to try to prove somehow that a German has enough in common with a Greek in order to pull him out of the stagnation he is in are maybe only inventions? Creator myths put in place to consolidate and justify an economic union with a political union?

According to certain Europhiles, the seeds of the European Union existed already in the mind of Immanuel Kant. The debate on the candidature of Turkey continues to raise questions on the limits of Europe and this famous ‘common heritage’. But when thinking about it, is this artificial characteristic not common to any identity? Identity is never innate, it is constructed starting from some elements that a group of individuals consider as shared. This is demonstrated by the French identity: “Our ancestors, the Gaules…” was a common formula used in the history books of the Third Republic (and often even in the current books in a more subtle form), to teach the students the roots that bounded the French people. But this did not mean that much to students from the distant overseas territories to whom it was imposed without any distinction.

From the ‘school of the Republic’ to the ‘school of Europe’

However the ‘black hussars of the Republic’ have proved two things. First, a national identity, even if it tries to be based on historical facts, remains mainly a mental construct. Secondly, but this is quite evident, the school plays an important role in the acquisition of shared values on a large scale.

We want to construct a European identity? It has to go through school. Of course, you could argue, we are taught (a bit) about Europe at school. And our members endeavour to pass the message. But to create a real feeling of unity among Europeans, there has to be more of it.

A couple of weeks ago, one of our collaborators suggested to set up a YEE (Year of European Education). The principle is there, but the idea is without doubt a bit too ambitious: Although a part of the costs would be compensated by the fact that there would be ‘exchange between young people’, there would still be at least the cost of a plane or train ticket and not everybody can afford this. And, given the threats that already weigh on the Erasmus program, it is not certain that the EU is willing to finance such a project.

Besides, we should also consider that living a year abroad is not everyone’s dream. How would you manage to make Eurosceptics change their mind by pushing them to send their child to the other side of Europe, with strangers? The experience would be too brutal to be beneficial.

Finally, imagine the mess in the ministries if from one day to another, they would have to make a one year cut to school programmes in order to be able to send the students abroad!

But we could possibly transform this idea in a sort of ‘European civic service’. During decades we have financed military services and the conscription still exists in some countries of the EU (Denmark, Austria, Finland). We could imagine on a similar model a mandatory period, not anymore at the service of a national army, but at the service of another European state. But the problem of costs would still exist.

A common programme for common values

A more timid idea, that already seems very ambitious to some, would be to establish some common school programmes, or at least to coordinate the ministries of education. Unifying the programmes in their entirety would obviously be too complicated, given that each reform of the French programme is prone to controversy. But why not replace the ‘classes of civic education’ (by the way, rather useless these days) by ‘classes of European civic education’? Certainly it would be feasible to create a common class for all Europeans, which programme would be unified.

In an even less restrictive way, we could at first create a chapter that each state would commit to include in its programme (for example in France in the history-geography course), either during the last year of secondary education or during each year of high school. Preferably, this chapter should also be included in the programme of the “baccalauréat” (and of its European equivalents) in order to encourage students to become interested in it.

Not daring enough for someone, complicated to set up for others (but in the EU, everything is complicated), it would only be a droplet in what the students learn during the year, but at least it would be shared among young Europeans.

The construction of an identity is a matter of education. Education goes through school. The harmonization of what is taught at school is thus an obvious step towards the construction of a European identity.

Image © Jeunes Européens-France

Your comments

  • On 24 February 2013 at 16:11, by Protesilaos Stavrou Replying to: Constructing a European identity: Yes, but how?

    Identities, national identities and identities per se, are products of the imaginary, though not necessarily in the sense of “inventions” by an individual or group acting deliberately to forge them and bestow them upon those whom it is intended for. They are the externalization of a politico-historical process of hypostesizing and concretizing certain assumptions, or of generalizing and aggrandizing some perceived truths.

    Education is indeed fundamental in this respect, yet it is secondary to the primary narrative the intelligentsia must concoct. In other words, education will disseminate that which has already been canonized. Notwithstanding the technicalities of a harmonized or uniform education system, one may withhold judgement to consider whether questions have been posed as to the ultimate ends or the very need of an identity; whether this problématique has been thoroughly and satisfactorily examined.

    National identities performed the function of identifying the state, the rising state of modernity, with a given territory and a people, not only in present time, but as an extension and continuation of an historical presence. The historico-cultural context in which this process took place, has, arguably perhaps, changed substantially, implying that what applied to the past might not necessarily hold today, in the extent, content and form that it did.

    Whatever the case, this seems to me as an inconclusive discussion. To place it in its broader framework, I may redirect the reader to two of my recent articles on this topic:

    1) On the European identity and the nation-less democracy:

    2) On European meta-nationalism: A critique of the exogenous impetus to integration:

    Thanks and keep it up!

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