Irish may point way to a deeper sense of EU identity

Opinion: Euroscepticism is scarcely surprising but ‘euronationalism’ is

“Once mass populations have been socialised into a powerful sense of national identity – as Germans, as Finns, or as Irish, for example – this is extraordinarily difficult to dislodge. To the extent that people’s loyalties are thus deflected from commitment to Europe, the construction of a powerful European superstructure is impeded. Yet, the process of institutional deepening has continued.”

“Once mass populations have been socialised into a powerful sense of national identity – as Germans, as Finns, or as Irish, for example – this is extraordinarily difficult to dislodge. To the extent that people’s loyalties are thus deflected from commitment to Europe, the construction of a powerful European superstructure is impeded. Yet, the process of institutional deepening has continued.”

Fri, Nov 29, 2013, 00:01

For those familiar with research on the nature of nationalism, the evolution of the European Union represents something of a puzzle. As the institutions of the EU have extended their reach, and as the number of members has grown, it is not surprising that the EU has attempted to promote a deeper sense of European identity.

But in a Europe of nation states this represents a singular challenge. Once mass populations have been socialised into a powerful sense of national identity – as Germans, as Finns, or as Irish, for example – this is extraordinarily difficult to dislodge. To the extent that people’s loyalties are thus deflected from commitment to Europe, the construction of a powerful European superstructure is impeded. Yet, the process of institutional deepening has continued. How has this been possible?

There can be little doubt that the European Union of which Ireland is a member in 2013 is profoundly different from the EEC that Ireland joined in 1973. Although the end goal of the European “project” is more usually taken for granted than defined, to the extent that this is a federation of European member states, significant progress has been made.

The EU is run by a set of political and bureaucratic structures that are unusual, but recognisably similar to those of a federal state.

It still lacks two of the defining features of a federation: it does not yet control military and security services capable of ensuring that its writ runs and that its external interests are protected, and its foreign policy functions are shared with member states rather than independently managed by the EU.

The EU also lacks many of the distinctive features that have helped to shape identity at the level of the nation. Rather than having a shared language, it is a linguistic kaleidoscope.

It is true that it possesses the elements of common culture in its shared religious past, notwithstanding the profound sectarian antipathies that have marked the Christian tradition in western Europe, but the importance of religion in Europe has been receding.


Powerful myth
The EU does, however, possess the ingredients for the creation of a powerful myth of the past, stretching back to the Roman Empire (see, for example, Wednesday’s Irish Times supplement, “The New Europe”). It also shares other features that are commonly built into nationalist ideology: symbols, including an anthem and a flag; a self-defined collective “mission”, the pursuit of peace; and, perhaps the most central of all ingredients in the formation of a collective identity, an “other”, a role once filled by the Soviet Union, but with several alternative candidates now available.

Accommodating the diverse states of Europe to this vision cannot be easy. For many of them, the “other” defined in the nation-building process is now a fellow member of an important political structure. For the Irish, in particular, whose memory of a struggle for national independence left its imprint on the collective consciousness, compromising this independence once again might seem a particularly demanding sacrifice.

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