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Europe, the EU and European identity

European identity was the negative construct of a Europe torn apart by world war. It was a negative outcome of an attempt to forge a European identity in the Cold War, squeezed, as Europe was, by the rivalry of the USA and USSR. But negative cultural formation cannot carry the day.

The European Union can only be understood against the backdrop of the catastrophic history of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The two World Wars, and the Great Depression between them, shattered any assumptions of certainty and stability that Europeans might have once had.

The rise of Nazism, fascism and Stalinism, in particular, turned the Enlightenment on its head making Europe the centre of barbarism and brutality. It was not Islamic extremists, China, or other non-western powers that had so disrupted global peace. It was, above all, Europe. And the catastrophic consequences of this went to the heart of postwar European thinking.

The European Union is, at its core, a project of Kantian peace, an attempt to create a peaceful union of European states that had been at war with each other for many centuries, but whose orgy of violence in the first half of the twentieth century left Europe exhausted. The Marshall Plan had reawakened hope for European development and the formation of the European Community in the postwar years created a vision of a European ideal that had been eclipsed by the fire and ashes of war.

This ideal remains fundamental to the European project even though the reality is fraught with the compromises of geopolitics.  The EU has been through turbulent cycles of deepening and broadening – first the core states, then Spain, Portugal, Greece, then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, membership was extended to central and eastern European states. But behind all the turbulent transitions, European leaders like Chancellor Kohl were eager to move forward the European ideal through the policy and practice of extending and entrenching the Union.

The EU in its most robust form stands at the pinnacle of this vision – an integrated Europe with a single market subject to common rules and a shared framework of human rights and justice. The plurality of European nations could flourish within an overarching shared commitment to democratic rules and human rights standards. Power and authority could be remoulded upwards and downwards: cities, sub-national regions, nation states and the supra-national structure of the EU could all exist together in a cosmopolitan structure defined not by - to my nation right or wrong - but by a shared political culture of democracy, markets and social justice.

Inventing diverse nations and democracies

Of course, the idea of a people, whether national or European, is a complex social construct. By drawing lines on maps, by conquest and by other ‘top-down’ processes, elites carved out bordered spaces in which a diversity of peoples lived. The creation of national cultures was often initiated by elites to bind people into common territories. However, national cultures were never merely the result of such initiatives.  Elites never invented nations on arid ground. Rather, nations were created upon deep legacies of history and culture, a sense of common rights and duties, and a shared recognition of overlapping fates.

The struggle to create democracy, moreover, was not just a struggle against the autocratic elites that has shaped European history so significantly.  The idea of a democratic people, just like the idea of a national culture, was the result of interplay between elite developments and popular pressure. The demoi that emerged in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries were both catalysed by great democratic reformers and constituted through struggle to claim a democratic right of membership in community. The democratic rights that followed were often hard won in bitter struggles of labour movements and later in the conflicts surrounding the right to vote for women and marginalized minorities.

Europe’s postwar boom and bust

While Europe benefited from the postwar boom and the virtuous circle of institution building and economic growth that pervaded the postwar settlement, tensions in the European project could be put aside by the sheer evidence of success. All national boats in Europe could rise together in a European Union where common governing structures could trump national states in critical areas, and where sovereignty was pooled in significant ways.

This period of self-reinforcing European interdependence produced the noble development of the EU as a common political structure which recognized diversity and difference under a shared rubric of law and regulation. In the 1990s, the Euro-barometer showed the highest levels of European identification. It seemed that European politicians could have their cake and eat it too – a strong Europe in a land of plural states.

The build-up of economic pressures at the turn of the twenty-first century was temporarily masked by the continuing efforts of the US, the EU and China to accelerate ever more down the road of economic growth. The crash was never far behind. The collapse of Lehman Brothers was the match that lit the global financial crisis which at first could be characterised, as the Chinese did, as the North Atlantic Financial Crisis.

But as time went on it was clear enough that this was too easy a characterisation and that many of the countries of the European Union were deeply implicated in the malpractices and misadventures of investment banking, subprime mortgages, excessive leveraging, and complex and volatile financial instruments. Moreover, the European Union governing structures which were once seen as a fine balance between centre and nation looked suddenly weak. The EU, although far from alone in this, had allowed a regime of light touch regulation in financial matters, and had been built on the quicksand of a single currency without wider fiscal and monetary controls.

European identity and the missing horizontal

Against this background, the question of European identity is once more raised in stark form. It is possible that this question could be once again set aside if the EU manages to stabilise the European economy and the recent evidence of renewed growth is affirmed.

However, the financial crisis has raised fundamental questions about identity and politics. European culture, like all cultures before it, cannot simply be the result of elite efforts. It has to be built on a foundation of common values and beliefs, which need nurturing over the long term.

There were opportunities to set down these roots in the postwar period but they were rarely explored. It was easier for the leaders of Germany and France, along with their allies, to shape Europe in their own image and interest. European governance was always a compromise between the interests of its leading powers and rarely, if at all, the product of wide scale horizontal communication between peoples.

The great projects of European cultural integration were above all projects of infrastructure, science and institution building. These are important, but they do not touch the fuzzy core of the complex patterns of national culture.

Today the EU is under strain. The financial crisis exacerbated underlying tensions among member states, which in turn were compounded by the weakening monetary and fiscal position of several of them. In addition, the crisis gave an enormous impetus to emerging regions, particularly China and South East Asia, which put further competitive pressure on Europe.

Against this background, signs have emerged of increasing social disintegration and a resurgence of nationalist sentiment; anti-Semitism, racism and far-right politics are re-established as the dark side of European culture never entirely addressed.

European identity was the negative construct of a Europe torn apart by World War. It was a negative outcome of an attempt to end German Europe and to forge a European identity in the Cold War, squeezed, as Europe was, by the rivalry of the USA and USSR. But negative cultural formation cannot carry the day when the driving forces – the geopolitical threats to Europe – disappear. The questions then arise: who are we Europeans? What does it mean to be European after the Cold War? Can European identity survive the global financial crisis?

Kant’s peace as a vision for today

It remains one of Europe’s greatest achievements to have created a Kantian peace where there was once only devastation and war. The attempt to create common political structures rooted in human rights and rule of law remains one of the most inspiring political projects in a global world fraught by the contradictory pressures of globalisation and nationalism.

In an era where global bads pervade – global financial instability, global economic imbalances, the risk of pandemics and epidemics, climate change and so on – coming together in large political blocs to deal with common challenges can only be the right way ahead. Yet this right way has to be built on solving common problems, enjoying common governance in the face of common threats and on the commitment to principles and procedures that alone can create peace, unity and freedom in a diverse world; that is, the principles of democracy and human rights.

European identity cannot be based on an integrated European culture. It can only survive as a way of solving problems, united by a common political culture inspired by Kant and embodied in the rule of law, multilevel democracy, and human rights. This remains a Europe worth having. 

This article was originally published in The European on February 7, 2014.

About the authors

David Held is master of University College, Durham University, professor of politics and international relations there. He is also a Director of Polity Press and General Editor of Global Policy journal.

Kyle McNally is a Research Fellow in the Global Policy Institute at Durham University. 


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