European Identity

European Identity Tangle

European Identity
Jeffrey T. Checkel and Peter J. Katzenstein (eds.)
Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009


Collections of essays, especially of scholarly essays, are unlikely to provide a single approach or point of view. All the more so when the topic is “European identity”, which is one as complex, elusive and contested as can be. Expect therefore variety and pluralism in theme, method and stance. Don’t expect to be supplied with easy, pat answers. Expect to think a lot. Expect also to agree or disagree strongly in turn with the various contributors. You can’t help it, it’s just part of the European identity game.

But we can start with what appears to be less controversial. Has there ever been such a thing as a single European identity? Hardly. However, at one time there was undoubtedly a sense of common purpose which made issues of identity and the related differences less significant. The rise of the European Movement as well as the beginnings of European integration after WW2 testify to that. Now the very process of integration and Europeanization has changed the way people relate to Europe. First of all, all of us have become aware that we are European, in the sense that we belong to an entity called European Union which has been taking a considerable impact on our lives. And not everybody likes that. Then, as the editors write in the first essay of the collection, “The Politicization of European Identity”, “European identity has become intensely politicized in recent years […] political parties focus their energies on politicizing what kind of Europe they would like to bring about – social, green, democratic, liberal-capitalist, xenophobic, cosmopolitan, law-abiding, civilian, or military. The politics concerning Europe have thus become more contested. What once was a ‘permissive consensus’ has become a ‘constraining dissensus’. […] Europe, the EU, and European identity have become the focal points of contestation and politicization; they are no longer the topics reserved for experts. Democratic politics has prevailed over technocratic politics, with the latter shown to be nothing more than a special kind of politics – trafficking, often disingenuously, in the appearance of neutrality. Politicization and contestation in contemporary Europe are an indication of normal rather than crisis politics”. What brings about the crisis is the clash between the increasing politicization and the policy of depoliticization (or limited and controlled politicization) carried out by elites at the European level.

This processes is charted in its historical context by Hartmut Kaelble in his essay “Identification and Politicization of the EU since the 1980s”, in which he also discusses the varieties of identification with Europe that have developed over time with quite complex dynamics. For example, he points out that “the share of Europeans who expect positive actions from the EU is higher than those who identify with it”, in other words, “identification with the EU might be weak. Trust in the EU is not”. His conclusion is that politicization of the EU “also helped to reinforce identification with Europe”, while, at the same time, produced “growing tensions between elite and mass public concepts of Europe”. An aspect of such tensions is mentioned by almost all the contributors and is dealt with in particular by Douglas R. Holmes, i.e. the contrast between the civic, liberal or republican, cosmopolitan conceptions of European identity fostered by EU institutions, and the “populist”, “integralist”, culturalist ones, explicitly based on an opposition to a different Other, which have of late “inspired” significant actors in the European landscape. It is often repeated, as the editors put it, that “cosmopolitan conceptions appeal to and are motivated by elite-level politics. Populist conceptions reflect and respond to mass politics”. Is this division really so clear-cut? What about the time-honoured tradition of populist politics and ideology at elite level, or, on the other hand, the cosmopolitanism of the many groups of ordinary people working against racism, or for migrants’ rights, or transnational democracy, or a united Europe, not likely to be in the headlines as much as their populist counterparts?

A more complex picture emerges in “The Public Sphere and the European Union’s Political Identity” by Juan Díez Medrano. Here we definitely go beyond the rather worn-out trope of pro-European elites driving people like oxen towards barely understood and mostly unwanted goals. For Díez Medrano “the identity argument for constitutional crisis exaggerates the role of national and European identification in the European integration process”. While Europeans do have “a weakly developed sense of being European […] they feel comfortable with membership in the EU […] and support European integration”. They (including the French and the Dutch) even “support integration in the area of foreign policy more than the political leaders of their countries do”. The problem for him has more to do with “the lack of fit between the political elites’ European identity project and the diversity of citizens’ current political, social, and cultural concerns, and divisions over Europe’s political project among the elites themselves”. Díez Medrano pinpoints three issues of contention: the limits of supranationalisation (intergovernmentalism vs. a supranational/intergovernmental model; a parliamentarian vs. a presidential design, which in particular pits Germany against France; a neoliberal vs. a social spirit. In this context, the European public sphere is cramped and fragmented. “Non-political actors are virtually absent”, public debate on important aspects of the European project has been shallow, also, a pan-European public sphere just doesn’t exist, and what we have is at best Europeanized public spheres at national levels, each with its own interests and priorities.

This book certainly gives us food for thought. We might wonder, for example, to what extent a sense of European identity” is crucial to the future developments of the EU. Or whether an excessive emphasis on identity might in fact hinder the democratization of European politics. Or why such “populist” or “integralist” conceptions of identity have become so significant just now, not only in relation to Europe, but also within national states as well. What do you think?

Francesca Lacaita

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