European Elections Special


European identity is more diluted than the concept of identity normally suggests, but it is nevertheless a new reality that has normative significance.

An important aspect of social and political change over the past two decades has been the Europeanization of identities. This can be seen in at least two ways.

First, there is the increasing important of European identities in the sense of identities that involve some degree of reference or orientation to Europe. There is considerable empirical research demonstrating the existence of European identification at least as a secondary identity that complements national and regional identities. European identity especially among young and educated people is much stronger than what is often thought.

As with many identities, a European identity may co-exist alongside other identities, since individuals generally have more than one identity. Indeed, such European identities may not always recognise themselves as such, since the European dimension is only one level and interacts with other levels. The emergence of the notion of Europeans as bearers of European identity is a relatively recent phenomenon and has been much influenced by European policy making around cultural issues, such as the European Capitals of Culture programme, Erasmus exchange programmes, European research, and a communication policy, the idea of a European citizenship.

There can be no doubt that Europe has become the phenomenological basis of a shift in identities away from the nation as the exclusive reference point. Mobility is a key aspect of European identities. The more Europeans travel the more likely they are to have a degree of European identification. This suggests that the clash of values is more likely to be generational than territorial. It is not then the case that one part of Europe is more European than another. These cleavages are not primarily national.

Europeanization of national identity

Secondly, European identity can be seen, not as an identity that is outside or anti-national, but as an internal transformation of national identities. In these terms, it is not a case of European versus national identities, but of the Europeanization of national identities that is significant. Thus it is the case that many national identities have found within the project of European integration the means of advancing their interests, but too of re-orienting their self-understanding.

Germany is a very good example of this process of the Europeanization of national identity in the context of a more critical approach to history. As Habermas has argued, the movement of European integration had unavoidable normative lessons to offer Germany, and Europe. Other examples are Portugal and Spain. In these cases European integration offered a means of re-positioning national identity in the aftermath of the end of the dictatorships when democracy was slowly introduced. In the case of Ireland, European integration was a means of re-orienting national identity in a more positive direction than one that was predominantly shaped by negative relations with the UK.

Depending on what indicators one chooses – identities or institutional arrangements or life-styles and mobility – the UK may be more European than countries that often see themselves as European. It follows from this, finally, that European identity exists on different levels and is expressed less in zero sum terms than in degrees, that is to say it is always more or less present. The consolidation of a European symbolic culture based on the EU has entered into the national cultures even if it is also partly external. The symbols of the EU – the blue and yellow flag, anthem, currency icons, burgundy passport covers, pink driving licences etc – have in most cases been absorbed into national cultures and are not in a significance sense the basis of collective identities.

A supra-national identity?

European identity is more diluted than the concept of identity normally suggests, but it is also open to more and thus involves more interpretations. The result is that there is more, not less, contestation as to the meaning of Europe as well as greater uncertainty as to what it consists in. For this reason, again, what is at work here is the internal transformation of identities through constant re-interpretation. National culture and national identities are themselves highly diverse and there is often greater internal differences within a given country than between countries. It is not the case of a coherent national identity resisting a dominant European identity any more than it is a matter of national identity being replaced by a new European identity. This is one of the more significant forms that post-national identity takes today. Rather than a supra-national identity, it is a self-understanding that has recognises the relativity and plurality of the notion of the nation.

Europe is not a fixed reference point, but a variable term whose meaning will always change in response to changing circumstances. Rather than deny the existence or possibility of a European identity, it is perhaps best found in the myriad of discourses in which Europe figures as a term of reference as well as itself a mode of discourse. In this way more and more issues are framed in the terms of Europe – both in positive and in negative senses – and thus bringing into existence not just an order of discourse but a new reality that has normative significance.

Read more in this debate: Thomas Risse, Sophie Duchesne, David Held.


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From the debate

The Search for a common European Identity

Be tenacious and fight!


European identities are fact, not fiction. Politicians underestimate popular support for the EU and surrender the arena to right-wing Eurosceptics.

by Thomas Risse

Smoke and Mirrors


There’s no use looking for European identity for now. EU’s challenge is not to carry on: it is to win democratic rights and hope for a good life.

by Sophie Duchesne

Touching the fuzzy core


European identity cannot be based on an integrated European culture. It can only survive as a way of solving problems.

by David Held

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