European Elections Special

Same Same, but Different

A common European identity is not only possible and desirable, but it is an inevitable part of the modern European experience. Europeans are distinctive from non-Europeans.

The last few years have not been happy ones for the European Union. The stresses of the eurozone crisis have fed into a deepening disenchantment with Europe, euroscepticism has been on the rise, and champions of the European project have found themselves facing a cyclone of cynicism and doubt. In the darkest moments of the debate, questions have even been asked about the very viability of the European Union itself.

Much of the problem stems from our all-too-human fascination with bad news, and in the midst of the doomsday speculation of recent years, the achievements of the European Union have been routinely overlooked. The award of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the EU was a vivid recognition of one of its more notable successes, and yet even this news was greeted with questions about whether the EU was a deserving recipient; NATO, some suggested, was more deserving.

What does Europe represent?

Among the many doubts raised about Europe is the matter of European identity. What does Europe represent, ask the critics? What does it mean to be a European, and can Europeans switch from their identification with the states and nations to which they belong? Would this even be desirable? Do we want to replace the delights of the differences among European societies and culture with some kind of bland and homogenized euroculture?

The short answer is that a common European identity is not only possible and desirable, but it is an inevitable part of the modern European experience. Surveys undertaken by Eurobarometer, the EU’s polling service, have found that nearly 60% of the residents of the EU now feel some degree of identification with Europe. Even if only a modest 5% identify themselves solely as European, this amounts to about 25 million people, almost equivalent to the combined population of Belgium and the Netherlands.

It is a small example, but I direct a graduate student exchange programme involving my home university in the United States and eight European universities, and I am constantly struck by how often our visiting students comment on how European they feel while visiting the US. Where they had previously thought of themselves primarily as Dutch, or Czech, or Spanish, their interactions with Americans made them realize how much they had in common with their European peers, and also how much their shared values – whether cultural, political, economic, or social – distinguished them from Americans.

Distinctive from non-Europeans

Of course, the question immediately begged is precisely what it means to be a European, or to have a European identity. The EU may have a flag, an anthem, and a motto (‘Unity in Diversity’), but it lacks most of the qualities that typically underlie state identity, such as a shared language, a common political system, a shared history, and the legal implications of citizenship.

But the European Union is not a conventional state, and so European identity must be defined and understood differently: it is less a legal or a political quality tied to a state than a cultural and social quality tied to a set of shared values and experiences. If we look closely, we find that Europeans not only have much in common, but that what they have in common often makes them distinctive – as a group – from non-Europeans.

Consider, for example, the instinctive European preference for collective ideas and the welfare state. This has become so obvious of late that Republican presidential candidates in the United States have taken to warning voters against the slide of their country towards a ‘European-style’ welfare system. Where Americans emphasize self-reliance and are mainly uncomfortable with large public programmes, Europeans – while admiring and supporting individual endeavour – believe more strongly that the community is responsible for reducing economic and social inequalities.

Europeans are also instinctively cosmopolitan, recognizing that many values are universal, that local and global concerns cannot be divorced, and that the importance of the universal often trumps that of the local. We can see this in foreign policy, where Europeans have a preference for multilateralism within a system of international rules, and for the use of civilian rather than military power to achieve their goals.

What it means to be European

On three other more specific fronts, Europeans have adopted distinctive positions that have helped define what it means to be a European. First, Europe is the most secular region of the world, where the gap between church and state is usually clear, and religion rarely features in political and social choices. Second, Europe has led the way in the abolition of capital punishment, making it a requirement of membership of the EU (and the Council of Europe) while also pressing for a worldwide ban. And third, Europeans have become the leading global proponents of sustainable development, making it a core part not just of domestic policy, but also of Europe’s relations with the rest of the world.

Of course there are exceptions to every one of these rules; none are universally applicable and none are uniquely European. But when added together, such features tell us much about what it means to be European, and about how to understand European identity. And these qualities are not just part of the experience of the European Union, but are also part of the broader European experience. They have become so entrenched that they will inevitably outlast any of the short-term problems faced by the EU itself.

Read more in this debate: Thomas Risse, Gerard Delanty, Sophie Duchesne.


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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



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

by Gerard Delanty

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

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