Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

National identity vs European identity

The debate continues to rage in the comments to my history: starting assumptions post, much of it coming from EUtopia regular Robin, a man firmly convinced of the superiority of national identities over any “European” one:

your national identity comes readily to you but this EUropean identity seems manufactured by those who are stakeholders in this EU project or its supporters.I also pointed out that Europeans may not, depending on their nationality, have that much in common with other Europeans, and many will have more in common with nations outside of Europe

Some fair points there, for sure. But what about the claim that “your national identity comes readily to you” contrasted with “this European identity seems manufactured” – the implication seems to be that national identities are somehow organically-formed.

This certainly can be the case – true national identities are usually based on a closely-shared culture and language. Think the Basques or Celts or Roma – not confined within the borders of any one country, but with a definite sense of nationhood.

The rise of national identities

Nation states, however, are entirely different beasts. The histories of France and Germany – two of the Great Powers of Europe, and key personifications of the nation state concept – are dominated prior to the last couple of hundred years by centuries of internal conflict and power struggles as their various constituent parts battled for control. People in the 16th century may have felt “French” or “German” – but only AFTER they felt themselves Angevin, Bavarian, and so on. The same goes for Spain, Italy, Poland, Austria, Switzerland – pretty much every European state. Even England was formed from constituent parts, albeit rather earlier than many other future European nation states.

In every case, a “national” identity had to be superimposed over the smaller-scale, pre-existing identities of the units that were brought together to make up the new, larger nation state, to forge a sense of shared identity between Angevins and Provencals, Bavarians and Saxons, Catalonians and Andalucians, where previously there was not just none, but also frequently a sense of hostility and rivalry.

Much of the time this has been due to the perception of some external threat, either real or fictional – in the case of 16th/17th century France, the rise of the Habsburgs in Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, Austria, Northern Italy and the Holy Roman Empire; in the case of 19th century Germany, the perceived threat from Austria-Hungary to the south and Denmark to the north; in 1930s Germany, the perceived threat was the Great Depression, communism and “the Jews”. The reason for forging a new sense of unity is aimed both internally – to promote loyalty to the state in a time of crisis – and externally – to demonstrate that unity to your enemies, and make clear that your constituent parts are no longer potential allies.

As Robin is so keen on his English/British identity, let’s take that as a more detailed case study.

The rise of the British and English national identities

The British national identity has only been created during the last 3-400 years (first under James VI/I to try to mesh his Scottish/English subjects together – something that didn’t work – then after the Act of Union of 1707, mostly in response to the rise of France under Louis XIV to prevent the revival of the old Franco-Scottish anti-England alliance). Yet this British identity *still* hasn’t fully taken hold, with sizable chunks of the population still feeling Scottish/Welsh/English/Cornish/Irish/whatever far more than they feel British – a feeling heightened by the different cultures and traditions, languages and religions and even (in the case of Scotland) legal systems still in place in the various constituent states of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Just as the British national identity rose in response to a threat, so too did the English. The Danish/Viking invasions of the 9th/10th centuries first led to concerted efforts at defence, then to alliances, finally to the expansion of the old Kingdom of Wessex as the Anglo-Saxons fought back against the Danes. The Heptarchy – the old kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia, Northumberland, Kent, Sussex and Essex (not to mention smaller kingdoms like Bernicia, Deira, Surrey, Lindsey, the Isle of Wight, Hwicce, Magonsaete, Pecsaetan, Wreocensae, Tomsaete, Haestingas, the Middle Angles, and Cornwall which were mostly sucked into the major seven during the course of the Dark Ages) – was united as England not due to any inherent feeling of shared identity, but thanks to the Viking threat and Alfred the Great’s realisation that the best bet was safety in numbers. (A very similar idea to that which led to the European Union, in fact.)

But that’s just the creation of England as an entity – not Englishness as an identity. As Robin rightly notes, just because you can identify a geographical area with some common features (like England back in the 9th century, or Europe today), doesn’t mean that there is any sense of shared identity among the people of that area.

English national identity took several centuries to emerge after England’s unification – there were early hints under Edward I as he battled the Welsh, Scots and French (again, the threat of war being a the key), though most historians now agreeing that it was first fully conceived during the reign of Henry VII as a more or less entirely political, top-down attempt to reunify the kingdom after the Wars of the Roses. (One of the key manifestations of this new “English” identity was Henry’s entirely PR-driven decision to name his first-born son Arthur, after the legendary English King, made newly popular by Thomas Mallory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, published the very year that Henry seized the throne and brought the long-running civil wars of York vs Lancaster to a close. How much better a symbol of England’s unity could there have been than for a new King Arthur to take the throne? Shame he died, really…)

“Englishness” was maintained as an idea by Henry VIII, first to secure his throne and then (almost by accident) during his dispute with the Papacy and subsequent Reformation. It was further solidified under Elizabeth I as she tried to unite her religiously-divided country in the face of the constant threat of Spanish and French Catholic invasions (trying to create a sense of national identity that could override the Catholic identities of some of her subjects). But even that didn’t work – witness the Civil War that erupted 40 years after her death.

Local vs national identities

Even today, there are sub-categories beneath “Englishness” that many people within England will pick as their primary “identity”: Scouse; Geordie; Brummie; Yorkshireman; Northerner – and so on. (Some of the pre-English kingdoms have retained some sense of identity remain – notably in Cornwall (mostly due to the older Celtic national identity that pre-dates Cornwall as an entity); others have been entirely forgotten – how many people in modern-day Lincolnshire perceive themselves to be Lindseyans?)

All of these local identities are far more natural in origin than the “English” or “British” “national” identites that lie above them as a broader unifying concept – and such smaller-scale identities will always exist – because before both English and British identities arose, the most important identities were (quite naturally) local – the village, the town, and at a push the county.

And little wonder – until the 19th century, let’s not forget, it would take at least a week to travel from London to Edinburgh or Penzance. The only other “Englishmen” you’d be likely to meet – unless you were a politician or noble – would be at the local market or the county fair. Why should someone from Devon feel any kinship with someone from Yorkshire? They would never meet, and even if they did they would speak differently, have different customs and traditions – and after the Reformation sometimes even different religions. (The conversion to Protestantism was a decidedly localised affair in England, despite being a top-down, state-ordained decision – there are even records of neighbouring villages in early 17th century Somerset, less than five miles apart, where one was Catholic, one was Protestant – they went on to join different sides in the Civil War, one supporting Parliament, the other the King…)

This argument about not meeting people from far away and having little in common with them when you do, of course, you could use against the concept of a “European” identity today – what does a Yorkshireman have in common with a Romanian?, etc.

Only today we are far more likely to encounter people from other EU member states than our forebears ever were to meet a fellow Englishman from the other side of the country. You can drive to Romania in a couple of days – a journey time that, when the English national identity was being formed, wouldn’t have got you even a quarter of the way from Cornwall to London. It’s quicker to fly from London to Romania today than it would have been, back in the 16th/17th/18th centuries when national identities were forming, to ride to the next town.

An attempt at a conclusion

All this, of course, goes to explain my belief that that broad, higher-level senses of belonging – at national or European level – are less important than lower-level, “primary” identites.

Yet even this isn’t entirely true – because senses of identity are entirely personal things. You can pick a bunch of people who were all born and raised in the same village, and yet there will still be a wide range of opinions among them as to what their primary identity (or identities) may be. Some may pick their national identity as most important, others that of their local area, still others their religion or their class.

Because if the case study of the manufacture of Britishness and Englishness has proved anything, it shows that the top-down imposition of a broad identity will only ever meet with limited success.

A broad identity can be a positive unifying force – the creation of a sense of “Britishness” in particular has prevented war within the island of Great Britain for the last three hundred years – though it can also cause conflict – as in Northern Ireland, where the imposition of the concept of Britishness continues to meet with violent resistance.

As such, although I don’t see a “European” identity as a threat to my own sense of identity or place, I can see how others might. And although I agree with Robin that there have been efforts to artificially create such a European identity – just as the English and British and French and German and Spanish and Italian (and so on) identities were artificially created before it – I don’t agree entirely. The growth of a European identity is also partially natural and organic as the economies and societies of Europe grow closer together, and as improvements in technology and transportation bring Europeans from different countries into more regular contact with each other – just as a sense of “Britishness” grew organically during the course of the last few hundred years as Britain’s infrastructure improved and people from Devon and Yorkshire and Scotland encountered each other more regularly, and grew to see the things that they had in common as well as those things that were different.

Some pre-English and pre-British identities have been lost; others have survived. The same will doubtless be the case in Europe if the European identity takes hold. But the process will be a long one. More than a thousand years after the formation of England, the Cornish still feel Cornish; seven hundred years after the conquest of Wales, the Welsh still feel Welsh; three hundred years after the Act of Union, the Scots still feel Scottish.

And so, in short, while I have no wish to impose a European identity on anyone who doesn’t wish it, I honestly can’t see how it can be seen as a threat. And likewise, I can’t see how any attempt to break down the perceived barriers between peoples of different identities in pursuit of a common good can be a bad thing. The creation of a European identity is not an aggressive movement, like the creation of a German identity was in the late 19th through to the mid-20th century – it is a positive attempt to bring together a continent whose entire history has been marked by warfare and conflict.

I can only see this as a good thing.