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.

A better term is identification, the extent to which citizens associate with political leaders in handling the euro zone crisis and thereby give them legitimacy and trust. Many surveys show this is diminishing fast within the EU.

Other scholars disagreed with abandoning European identity, saying it is needed to talk about cohesion in a rapidly developing political system having to justify greater powers.

While the differing codes used can be analysed and classified, it would be wrong not to ask why they crop up so frequently in political discourse.

Political identities are not fixed and immutable, but subject to change and construction; the more differentiation, the more demand there can be for identity.

And at the magnificent Benedictine Göttweig Abbey in Krems, guests invited from all over Europe for the annual Europa-Forum Wachau considered the same subject, this time with the additional question – what remains of Europe?

Addressing the forum, Abbot Columban Luser acknowledged the conceptual difficulties.

European identity is not easy to define, having to do with similarity and difference at the same time. It covers common norms like peace, the right to life and human rights as well as European self-awareness.

Like several other speakers, he underlined Christian heritage as part and parcel of what it means to be European.

The veteran Austrian journalist Hugo Portisch argued that Europe’s identity is only the EU. Before integration started in the 1950s Europe did not have an identity but only a history – of many wars and conflicts. With integration, Europe saved Germany and now Germany needs to save the EU by underwriting the euro zone.

Umberto Eco was quoted by Erwin Pröll, governor of Lower Austria, as saying Europe is linked only by war, culture – and crisis. Europe needs new guiding ideas explained clearly and honestly to citizens, and patience with Greece, he said.

Elmar Brok, German leader of the conservative EPP in the European Parliament said we need a new community of European fate, developed if necessary by an avant-garde group.

Like many others at this gathering, he spontaneously mentioned the northern European creditor grouping of Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Denmark as wanting more Europe, but on strict conditions which the Euro-Med group of Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal must accept.

Next week’s EU summit will test whether the southern demands for eurobonds and direct bank financing can be sustained by the shadow of European identity thrown up in this crisis.