New questions on identity and Europe
WORLD VIEW: The crisis prompts efforts to grasp the nature of cultural and political affiliations in the EU
IS EUROPEAN “identity” the wrong code for building the European Union, or a necessary sense of collective belonging for this emerging complex society? Should it be defined by similarity or difference? How does it affect the outcome of the euro zone crisis? Does it disguise or justify the power politics required to save the single currency?
These large questions were posed for me last week on a journey from London to Florence to the Austrian town of Krems on the Danube.
The current convulsions throw up efforts to grasp the nature of cultural and political affiliations in the EU which might help it weather them.
Alternatively their lack of traction will contribute to its fragmentation or disintegration if the euro fails to survive.
That applies in politics, the media and the academy alike. It is woven into arguments between optimists and pessimists, proponents and opponents of its survival.
Briefings in London on UK attitudes towards a deepening euro zone confirmed how increasingly distant political and popular feelings there are towards any fellow feeling for the EU yet how much its crisis affects British economics and politics.
Eurosceptics like the Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Patterson refer to the deepening euro zone as the construction of a “new country” which cannot involve them but with which they will want neighbourly relations.
Some go further and hope a referendum on whether to stay in the EU will allow them break free to trade profitably with the more prosperous world beyond Europe.
A new country would certainly need an identity, but is that what is really involved? There is little discernible political or popular will to create the kind of European federal state superseding existing nation-states so imagined.
British Eurosceptics use it as a device to reinforce their hostility to the project, just as those who favour it refer to European identity as the cohesion which will allow a deeper system happen or be created as it is constructed.
A workshop at the European University Institute on European identity in times of crisis debated the use of the term and how it can be applied in research. Such ideological usages trouble the distinguished German historian Lutz Neithammer.
He told the workshop that European identity as used in politics and the media covers up power politics, rivalries and dysfunctional institutional arrangements and is normally used by conservatives to justify traditional notions of community, stability and exclusionary policies towards minorities and migrants.
It should therefore not be used as a scientific term to denote a (false) homogeneity of European peoples whose diversity is more noteworthy than their unity.