Identity building: How is Europe different from the nation?

Is it a different task to build EU identity with culture?

, by Rhiannon Erdal

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Identity building: How is Europe different from the nation?
Image credits to DebatingEurope

Identities contain, by definition, multiple layers and facets. So can European citizens curate and maintain a dualistic identity of both national and European levels? How are they different and how are they the same? Let us look at how national identities are constructed and for what reasons, to then consider how it may differ in some ways but also be mirrored in others on a European level.

National identity: Us and them

The creation of a national identity is a social construct based on certain “common points”: a shared history, language and culture, cultivating a sentiment of belonging to a cohesive whole distinct from other nations. And indeed, typically this feeling of belonging is cemented with the distinguishment of an “out-group” of those who do not belong to the same nation. So for instance, when I say, “I am English”, I am at the same time affirming, “I am not German”. It shapes our self-identity in that we assimilate elements of national identity into our belief systems and values, which in turn shapes how we see ourselves and our relationship with the world outside of the nation we belong to.

National identity could be said to work on two levels. Firstly, on the level of allegiance to a nation in the sense of an ethnic or religious entity. For example, Kurdish people maintain the sentiment of belonging to a nation through their shared ethnicity, language and culture, despite the fact they do not have an official Kurdish state to belong to. On another level of national identity, we find the allegiance to the state, that is to say, the entity of laws and institutions; these supposedly constitute the enshrinement of our values and highlight our national conscience or the way we see our nation.

Historically, the feeling of belonging to a nation, as patriotism, has been useful in fuelling a sense of a duty towards the nation. Oftentimes this duty comes in the form of defence: defence of a way of life and in defending one’s country, and so patriotism most commonly manifests itself with war. For example, defending the nation from invasion, the poetic idea of “dying for one’s country” or fighting for its span of influence. In sum, it is the belief of one’s nation trumping others, perhaps because of the way our national identity seeps into our personal one and the way in which we see the world, which may lend to it a certain bias. In fact, in Macron’s ‘Initiative for Europe’ speech in 2018 in which he outlined the importance for a united Europe he quotes Robert Schuman who said that “a united Europe was not achieved and we had war”.

The argument for the creation of a European identity

The ‘pan-European’ identity is not something entirely new. Like the identity of the nation, it has developed and continues to develop through shared “common points” such as currency and shared policy and values as well as on a more symbolic level, with the EU flag and anthem. At the same time, it is not as immediately felt as a national identity since it does not involve, for the moment at least, the sharing of a common language or traditions which are things that we live immediately and often without reflection. But, is that to say the two identities may never be conciliated?

Why should they be? Perhaps because, today, one of the biggest threats to European integration and indeed to the European project more globally is that of the awakening of populist forces. That is, the nationalist tendency of turning inwards in protectionist terms or in order to maintain the perceived “sovereignty” of one’s nation. This is understandable from what we have seen above about the way in which allegiance to one’s nation runs deeply into our personal identity and can motivate us to want to maintain its uniqueness.

However, the cultivation of a European identity is fundamental to the European project and to European integration. It is something that would help to be and act as a cohesive economic and political bloc from a place of shared values and goals, which would be reflected in its laws and politics. Further, it would create a greater sense of unity amongst both individuals and nations and help to develop European integration at a grassroots level.

Donald Tusk: “We are a cultural community.”[1]

On a national level, the consciousness of a national identity is also propagated through state media. When I think about the English identity I do in part think about Monty Python, Shakespeare and the Rolling Stones. On a European level we do have European news outlets, social media pages and collaborative media such as ARTE, or Eurovision. But is this enough to feel European through shared cultural and media products?

On a grass-roots level, an effort to curate and develop a ‘European identity’ is also reflected in European education systems. For example, already in most European schools it is obligatory to learn another European language from a young age. This is already a big step since, as we have seen, a shared language is a pillar of national identity, as it contains a history and tradition. According to psychologists such as Steven Pinker, language constitutes the very way in which we perceive the world. In this way, learning another European language can help us to share our fellow citizens’ worldview. However, currently it is still only optional in some member states such as the UK, Germany, Spain, Hungary and Croatia. As such, the EU council has committed to ensuring that all high school graduates speak well at least two European languages by 2025.

Embracing multilingualism rather than imposing a single language unilaterally provides a richer union that strives to maintain the individual identities of nation states all the while cultivating unity in its diversity as laid out in the Treaty of Maastricht. This allows for national identities to coexist with a European one, creating what are known as “families of culture”. And indeed, this cultural pluralism is something that makes Europe unique. However, the sentiment of pluralism is slightly problematic next to the feature of national identity as something limited and as defined by “inner” and “outer” groups as with the example I gave earlier “I am English, I am not German”. Can there be a dualistic, or even multiple, national identity on an individual level?

It is of course possible to conceive of oneself as belonging to multiple nations. On a personal note, I have two official nationalities, five ethnic nationalities and have grown up in two different countries. And I am far from the only one. In an ever-increasingly globalised world more and more people are finding themselves with different mixtures of nationalities, both ethnically and bureaucratically. This blending of nationalities has been criticised as “diluting” national identity. But I see it as something enriching that doesn’t and cannot take away from national identity. National belonging can be felt and lived in different ways and on different levels.

Identity on an individual level is most often cultural and yet the EU is a political entity. But I am unconvinced that they be mutually exclusive. Man is a political animal, wrote Aristotle, and as such there is no definite divide between our cultural and political lives. Indeed, the EU strives to enshrine values and goals in its politics and they hark back to historic traditions and events that have made Europe what it is today. A history that individual nations have lived and taken part in and shaped, and so the EU can be seen as a kind of extension of the nation.

Diversity, unity and “Unity in Diversity”

Individual nation identities are reinforced, as such, by their individuality. It is the collectivity of a common language, history and conscience. Secured and continued by education, culture and politics. In this way, is it really that different from the European identity? Perhaps, in the sense that national identity also rests on the division between us and them. But, on a European level can we not be us and them, together? Uniting different national identities into one constellation that would create a bigger “us” and could still be distinguished from a “them” in terms of other political blocs such as China or the USA, as such becoming a bigger and more powerful actor on the world stage.

[1] Report by President Donald Tusk to the European Parliament on October European Council meetings and presentation of the Leaders’ Agenda 24/10/17

Your comments
  • On 6 August 2019 at 16:11, by Petula Codd Replying to: Identity building: How is Europe different from the nation?

    A very interesting Article. Very well written and put together. I particularly like the part about, “Embracing multilingualism rather than imposing a single language ...... Plus the blending of nationalities which I also see as enriching.

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