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In search of a European identity: towards a genuine political community?

The European Union never stops surprising its observers. Fifty years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome the EU has moved far beyond its original mandate. It can celebrate some great successes even though questions remain about its direction and purpose. More recently, the EU can look back at an extraordinarily successful fifteen years; the historic divide of the Old Continent has been overcome and most of the former Communist countries have joined the EU, which has launched or completed daring projects such as Economic and Monetary Union and the introduction of the euro, an EU Defence and Security Policy, and the European Immigration and Asylum Policy. Yet, at this time, the EU faces unprecedented uncertainty regarding its political future. This uncertainty has nothing to do with the effectiveness of any of the EU's key policies, or even the latest round of enlargement, the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. Rather, the uncertainty about the future results from public perceptions. The Union is struggling with a fundamental legitimacy problem. The more ambitious its goals become (in terms of intensifying the integration of its member states into a wider political union), the more it becomes clear how much this transnational community's legitimacy depends on a more pronounced identification of its citizens with the European cause. This was painfully evident in 2005 with the failed Dutch and French referenda on the proposed European Constitution.

As has happened before on various occasions in the EU's fifty-year history, this sense of uncertainty has triggered a debate on the raison d'etre of the entire process of European integration, its current course and its final destination. What is the driving force behind this bold plan to unite a continent historically ravaged by war and aggressive nationalism? What is the political role of the EU beyond coordinating the strategic interests of its member states? It is common knowledge among the policy community in Brussels and Strasbourg that it is only by referring to its collective identity that the EU can gain much needed public support and legitimacy. It is difficult to imagine a political community with no identity, with no sense of destiny or rationale that generates loyalty and solidarity among its citizens. In this respect the constitutional crisis reflects a long-standing, politically controversial struggle to define the political identity and political purpose of the European Community. The public debate leading up to the referenda on the proposed European Constitution reflected this struggle, albeit with a somewhat ironic result. Just when the EU seeks to generate discussion about its formative values, institutional arrangements and political future, it faces a great degree of scepticism--if not outright scorn--from the European public. The French referendum with almost 55% voting against the proposed constitution is a case in point. For the first time, the largely elite-run EU opened itself up to public scrutiny and debate; what does the EU represent politically, where is it heading and what effects will this have on its citizens? The EU received a very discouraging public response.

The current crisis is not the first the EU has faced in its short history. Periods of great enthusiasm and progress in the degree of integration (deepening) and the size of the Union (widening) have frequently been followed by periods of aimlessness and lack of political aspiration. The European Union has transformed itself repeatedly, growing from modest beginnings as an international organization with highly restricted competencies to a supranational form of governance challenging state sovereignty in critical policy areas. Yet the evolving EU continues to search for a powerful and convincing political identity that provides the justification for transferring power to the transnational level and that generates bonds between the EU and its citizens.

Beyond the post-war plea for a united Europe

Historically the political identity of the EU has been defined ex negativo, in opposition to Europe's totalitarian past and the devastation wrought by the Second World War. Uniting Europe meant overcoming aggressive forms of nationalism, rebuilding shattered economies, securing peace and, in geo-strategic terms, finding a solution to the 'German question'. The idea of European integration was rooted in the failure of the European nation-state system and in Europe's desire to build a better, radically different future. The blueprint for an integrated Europe did not arise out of a vision of what Europe could be, but of what it ought not to be.

Yet despite the enthusiasm of particular European intellectuals in the immediate post-war period, the first political steps towards a European Union were modest. Soon after the war, the focus shifted from ambitious plans to overcome the national divisions of Europe to pragmatic steps in the least controversial field of cooperation in the international arena, the market economy. The 1952 European Coal and Steel Community took steps that would help ensure the feasibility of the European project. First, it launched policy coordination in an economic sector that produced the main ingredients for war preparation. Second, by placing the Ruhr area under the control of a European consortium, it addressed the historic enmity between France and Germany.

The political implications of the commitment to work towards 'an ever closer union' in Europe--made in the 1957 Treaty of Rome--at first remained vague. Changes began with the small-scale, often mundane yet eventually significant integration of trade and commerce across the borders of the six original member states. This modest economic cooperation did not determine the political identity of the community. Rather, the shared sense of identity was nurtured by the deepening divide of the continent. In the climate of the Cold War, the European Community was a distinct group of Western, democratic and capitalist countries that stood in opposition to the Communist Eastern bloc.

Yet this definition in opposition to an external 'other' was only partly able to provide the EC with a sense of direction for political development. Although the 1970s and early 1980s saw considerable achievement in the acceptance of new member states and deepening economic integration, the EC lacked a clear and mobilizing political vision. The EC was popularly perceived to be a regulatory agency concerned with markets and trade but with very limited impact on the lives of its citizens. All this changed in the second half of the 1980s. The dramatic events of 1989, coupled with then President of the European Commission Jacques Delors' ambitious plan to launch a new stage of economic and monetary integration, allowed for a decisive leap forward.

But the effects of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and the formation of the European Union, which moved more sovereignty to the EU level had a profound and unexpected effect on the public's interest in the EU. As long as the European Community remained essentially an elite-driven enterprise concerned primarily with intra-state regulations, the public took only a modest interest in the organization. Ironically, from the perspective of democratic legitimacy, this allowed for effective policy-making. Yet with the development of a political community, and with the greatly expanding authority of the EU vis-a-vis its member states, the issue of popular support and legitimacy can no longer be ignored. With more and more legislative authority being transferred to Brussels, the EU has become subject to public debate about the nature and meaning of this supra-national political community.

Current challenges: A la recherche d'une identite europeenne

With the collapse of Communism, the 'other' has become more difficult to identify, leaving the EU with a diminished sense of shared values and common ground among its Western member states--a kinship formally taken for granted. Moreover, the once-familiar threat of chauvinistic nationalism and belligerent conflict in Europe can no longer ensure strong commitment from the political elite and the public at large to the project of European integration. Essentially the European Union depleted the narrative plausibility of what has been driving the process of European integration in the post-war period. Not that war and aggressive forms of nationalism can be categorically ruled out in contemporary Europe. Rather, these concerns of the postwar era are simply no longer sufficient to capture the imagination of modern-day EU citizens. In this respect the Union has become a victim of its own success. European integration has diminished the likelihood of war, ethnic intolerance and imperialistic aspirations--and has thus removed the very dangers that made post-war generations almost unequivocally welcome the idea of European unity.

Furthermore, there is now no external 'other' that could easily fill this void. Although the Bush administration has done its best to alienate America's European partners, instilling within them a stronger sense of their own political identity in the international arena, it is not likely to be a sufficient basis for legitimizing further European integration nor desirable in its political consequences. Turkey as the cultural-religious 'other' might sway some emotions and boost political mobilization for centre-conservative parties throughout Europe. Yet using Turkey to strengthen identity formation is likely to be an ineffective and--in terms of its socio-political implications--a dangerous strategy. To pursue a Christian base for the European Union would have severe exclusionary effects on the large Muslim immigrant population in Europe. Also, with increasing secularisation in Europe it might turn out to be a more divisive than uniting strategy. Most importantly, nurturing latent xenophobic sentiments in a considerable segment of Europe's civil society would clash with the EU's stated political aim to represent the values of tolerance and freedom.

What then could serve as a mobilizing and loyalty-generating identity in post-Cold War Europe? Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Community, said that, if he could seize a new opportunity to launch the process of European integration, he would start from culture and not from the economy. This statement may sound attractive, but it is hard to see how the EU could make a strong cultural identity the common factor for creating bonds with its citizens and identifying a vision for its political future. Europe's defining trait is its cultural and linguistic diversity. Any notion of common cultural belonging following the historic precedent of the nation state--with a strong emphasis on shared language, territory, cultural habits or descent--would be doomed to failure. Even the EU's own political approach is contradictory in this respect. While it emphasizes a common cultural heritage of all Europeans as a foundation of its identity, it promotes the existing cultural and linguistic diversity through a host of programs. Furthermore, the latest rounds of enlargement have embraced many formerly Communist countries--with historic memories and socio-political experiences in the second half of the twentieth century that are distinctly different from those of their Western European neighbours. In the end, culture may be a more divisive than unifying or legitimating force for the EU as an institution.

If following the historic blueprint of national identity formation is neither politically feasible nor normatively desirable, what could serve as the basis of an emerging European identity? The EU finds itself in a situation that is comparable, albeit more complicated, than the situation that Canada currently faces. Both Canada and the EU confront internal national and cultural diversity that is at odds with the establishment of an ethnically or culturally defined collective identity. Yet the EU is more radical than Canada in its pursuit of an identity that is truly post-national in spite of the fact that it might still use some of its more traditional symbolic repertoire (such as an anthem, a flag, etc.). This is due in part to the fact that it still deals with deeply entrenched and emotionally potent forms of nationalism in its member states. Inventing traditions of unity along similarly nationalistic lines is not likely to succeed in the foreseeable future. In this regard, the EU is essentially dependent on a genuinely political-institutional base for its identity. This creates a dilemma that is very much at the core of the current uncertainty about the EU's popular support. To embark on a course towards further European integration, the EU needs a strong collective identity capable of Instilling loyalty and commitment among its citizens. At the same time, it can achieve this identity only by virtue of its political institutions and initiatives.

What this leaves as a reference for a post-national, European identity is a form of citizenship at the supranational level. Extending civic, social and political rights beyond national borders can be interpreted as the necessary complement for a European political community that has so far been defined primarily by its economic and monetary integration. The sense of commonality and a mutual political fate as Europeans needs to be translated into the concrete political and social practice of individuals if it is to create the strong foundation on which the popular legitimisation of the European integration process rests. Such a European identity would be dependent on a clear notion of institutionally embedded practices of political participation and social rights. A civic, rights-based European identity would open the prospect for perceiving Europe as a distinct political space beyond national boundaries. The gradual extension of citizens' rights at the European level--and not a well orchestrated marketing strategy--is the method most likely to address successfully any widespread alienation from the EU.

Oliver Schmidtke is Jean Monnet Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science and History, University of Victoria.
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Author:Schmidtke, Oliver
Publication:Behind the Headlines
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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