The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

Ethnopolitics and the European Project

Montserrat Guibernau

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)

Can there be a European identity? More specifically, if the European project proceeds—and if the political institutions of the European Union grow stronger and more responsive to the will of its citizens—should we reasonably expect Europeans to acquire an additional, shared political identity, a supranational identity? The answer depends on how we define such a new form of collective identity: that is, on what type of attachment we imagine.

Experience suggests that popular identification with a nation-state comes only at the end of a long process, typically involving linguistic and cultural homogenization, wars and other conflicts with common enemies, acceptance of a common tax burden, establishment of citizenship rights and duties, construction of a certain image of the nation endowed with its own symbols and rituals (instilled by the state), and progressive consolidation of national education and media systems. All of these lead to a sense of belonging and a deep emotional attachment to the nation.

The character of European identity should not be expected to resemble national identity for the simple reason that the EU is not a nation-state, much less a nation. It is a new kind of political formation born of the actions of an elite determined to weaken nationalism and build a united Europe through a carefully designed network of institutions, laws, and treaties aimed at fostering interdependence among its member states. To varying degrees, the twenty-eight member nations of the EU have been willing to relinquish certain aspects of their jealously guarded sovereignty in order to benefit from membership in an economically prosperous and dynamic internal market. This, of course, is why the EU’s ability to deliver economic prosperity is so indispensable to even the limited degree of political integration the Union has so far achieved—and why it will be even more indispensable to any effort to increase and strengthen such integration.

But the EU is charting a new path to achieving such integration. Unlike most nation-states, it is committed to respecting the diversity of the cultures and languages that define its peoples. So far, there is no single unifying culture or language in Europe, and no serious proposal to create either, however practical a common language, in particular, might be. Additionally, instead of sharing external enemies, Europe and Europeans have a common history of internal confrontation and war more conducive to enmity and distrust than collaboration and mutual interests.

The sense of belonging and attachment that defines national identify has been replaced, in the case of European identity, by an instrumental, rational, and functionalist sense of membership. This reality probably suits the member states. After all, they set up the aims and structure of the EU, even while setting and funding its budget. In some instances, the member states use the EU as an excuse for action or inaction within the domestic arena—even as a scapegoat when necessary. Indeed, the member states have a direct interest in limiting the power of an EU-based European identity because “too much Europe” potentially could weaken national identity and eventually draw a people’s loyalty away from the nation-state.

What we have then is a still-embryonic European identity that relies on the shared consciousness of belonging to an economic and political space defined by capitalism, social welfare, liberal democracy, respect for human rights, freedom and the rule of law, prosperity, and progress. But are these attributes sufficient to generate enduring loyalty to the EU, especially when it fails to provide tangible economic benefits? The experience of the recent economic downturn suggests that they may not be.

The EU remains a fragile institution that needs to consolidate and manage the consequences of various enlargements, which have dramatically increased economic, political, and social diversity within the Union. The EU also needs to choose between expanding to include new members, and thus strengthening its status as a market, and pushing further political integration among its existing members. The latter option has generated little support from the United Kingdom, among other countries. For the Union to endure, the member states must believe that they will not get a better deal by withdrawing. This, again, is why economic prosperity is so crucial to maintaining support for the EU, its values, and its principles. Prosperity is also indispensable to promoting European identity, achieving greater solidarity among Europeans, and boosting Europeans’ engagement with the European project.

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Montserrat Guibernau is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. Her books include Nations without States (1999), The Identity of Nations (2007), and, most recently, Belonging: Solidarity and Division in Modern Societies (2013).

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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