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.


  1. Insideur: Please feel free to let me know which ones you don’t agree with, and I’d be more than happy to elaborate. Perhaps my wording was off.

    NM: Music to my ears.

  2. Treaties can last, and do, for many, many years. The Treaty of Union that bind Scotland to England (and Wales).for instance and Magna Carta is also a Treaty between the Crown and the people, and the EU, as you know is planning for the next 50 years. We have had Governments that have simply ignored our Constitution and “Welcomed” all that they EU has put before them. Right from 1972 the people have been lied to, or perhaps ‘misled’ is a slightly better word for Hunter to have used? Hunter was right and Heath admitted that many years later on TV.. However, I have visitors from Canada and my attention must be to them for now. I must say though, regardless of how many top legal minds have looked at the EU Treaties and compared them to our Constitution, Germany may have said the same yet their Constitution was probably new after the Berlin Wall came down where as ours is hundreds of years old and parts cannot be altered. This is why Jack Straw is introducing a new written Constitution probably with a Bill of Rights included and he will then put it forward in a referendum for the people to agree to, and in the doing they may destroy their own Magna carta and Bill of Rights. Lisbon of course will still have “competence” over-all the ‘new’ anyway.

    For your interest, I place here some argument points
    This is from HC Deb 16th Oct 1952. “The law of our Constitution provides that the treaty-making power shall rest with the Prerogative; it shall be exercised by the Executive. But the treaty-making power is a power which cannot affect the rights of the ordinary, individual citizen.

    No contract or treaty made by the Government of this country with another country can affect the ordinary rights of an English citizen, can affect his contracts, or can affect his freedom. For the rights of the individual to be taken away from him requires the consent of Parliament in legislation passed for that purpose”. I cannot find any separate, deliberate reference that has quite deliberately set out to remove the people’s “Rights”, YET. All our rights under our Constitution are listed for removal in the Civil Contingences Act which is only meant for temporary specific cases, certainly not permanently. (allegedly!)

    The Solicitor General:- “Throughout, the treaty making power resides in the Crown, in Her Majesty the Queen acting upon the advice of her Ministers. It is by virtue of the Royal Prerogative in the conduct of foreign affairs that the Government initiate, sign and ratify international agreements. As a matter of constitutional law, no parliamentary authority is necessary before the Crown may exercise those powers. The other principle is equally important. Those prerogative powers, the treaty-making powers, do not enable the Crown to alter the law within the United Kingdom so as to implement the treaty”. End of snippets. That paragraph is perhaps the most important because it highlights the fact that the Crown’s own Royal Prerogative does not allow the British Crown to alter the law or Constitution within its own Kingdom, yet here we have a Government whose sworn allegiance is to that very same Crown, transferring that same Royal Prerogative to foreigners in a Parliament in a foreign Country strictly against the Crown’s Coronation Oath. (This in order to allow the EU Legal Personality (Art 47) to ratify Treaties. I note also that it does not say in the Treaty that the Royal Prerogative may not be used for WAR MAKING, only for Treaty making. What if the EU makes a treaty with Mugabe?

    I must close now though, many thanks for the exercising of the little grey cells.

  3. Anoldun, none of what you quote shows an incompatibility between the EU treaties and the UK’s constitutional arrangements. By the way, the EU could never make a treaty with Mugabe, because the EU can’t make treaties – only its Member States can.

  4. In fact to back up what Insideur is saying, I gather the latest draft of the Lisbon Treaty (due to the concerns raised by the Irish) has been prepared with that in mind, that is to say the EC Civil Servants have prepared it and worded it thus that it will not infringe on the constitutions of the member states.

  5. See Sittings of Tuesday 1 3 June 2003 EU-USA Judicial Cooperation
    agreements. Vitorino in EU Parliament. Confirmation of that is written in Hansard “Official Report of the Grand Committee) on the Extradition Bill Wednesday 18th June 2003 (GC 298 Starting on the first page.

    The above is just one “agreement” done without any debate in national
    parliaments and before LISBON. I hope you can raise the debate in the EU
    parliament, it is quite interesting.

  6. Anoldun thanks for an excellent case study. The key problem here is the way that the term “EU” is used.

    The “EU” can and indeed does sign international treaties, but not as a single, stand-alone entity. In this case, as you can see from the key clue word “Council” in the quote from Baroness Ludford MEP, the EU-US agreement you refer to was negotiated and signed by Member State governments, and not by the European Commission or European Parliament.

    The “Council” is berated by Lords Stoddart and Wedderburn (and in the quote from Baroness Ludford MEP) for having carried out these negotiations in secret, without having consulted the European Parliament or national parliaments. But this “Council”, as explained above, consists of Member State governments. Indeed, many would argue that if such treaties had to be negotiated and ratified by the other EU institutions – European Parliament and Commission – this would represent an attack on the sovereignty of the Member States.

    So the irony is that while Lords Stoddart and Wedderburn are displeased with the Council’s secrecy, they would probably not be any more satisfied with involvement of the European Parliament and Commission. Their other point, which I have a great deal of sympathy with, is that Westminster is treated very poorly by HMG nowadays. But that is really a flaw in the UK’s own system, and not with the EU.

  7. Just to follow up, here is the text of the treaty. Article 3 is the key.

  8. You are missing the point. It was not debated in our Parliament. However, that is old news, and my concern is Lisbon and this Country’s future, if it has one. You are way out in the first part of your last paragraph.

  9. Yep, interesting stuff. Again, to support I’s comments, the agreement is just an agreement made by a non-entity. The agreement has to be ratified by each member state for it to apply in that state, and I gather it has also gone through a few changes, notably as regards the death penalty issue. The following text is taken from the EC website:

    The Agreement on extradition has not yet entered into force due to the complexity of the “enter into force” conditions, in particular the ratification process:
    1. all EU member States need to exchange “written instruments” with US to stipulate relationship with existing bilateral treaties (one on mutual legal assistance and one on extradition), in conformity with the two EU-US Agreements;
    2. both the EU and the US have to go through the ratification process:
    – for the US this implies: to have 2 EU-US agreements + 2 bilateral instruments per member States (i.e. 50 in total) ratified by US Senate.
    – for EU this implies that those EU member States that have declared that they have to comply with the requirements of their own constitutional procedures as allowed by Article 24 (5) of the Treaty on European Union (DK, NL, P, D, UK, IRL, S, I, FIN, B, ES and LU, and all new member States: CY, CZ, HU, LT, LV, PL, SI, SK, MT and EE) have completed their constitutional procedures. Only after that has been done, can the Council decide to conclude the EU-US agreements.
    As for the “old 15” EU member States:
    – 7 have finalised and signed: France; Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Spain, UK;
    – 5 are finalised or almost finalised: Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Luxembourg;
    – 3 still encounter difficulties: Austria, Germany and Portugal.
    As for the 10 new Member States (+2: Romania and Bulgaria):
    – Lithuania signed on June 15 2005.

    The US-UK extradition treaty, of November 2003 can be found here:
    An analysis of it can be found here:

    As noted therein “The UK-US extradition treaty also means that the government will also avoid ‘normal’ parliamentary ratification of the controversial EU-US extradition treaty signed on 6 June 2003” through the following text: “The United Kingdom welcomes the Agreements between the European Union and the United States of America on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters and extradition. Much of the legislation necessary to implement the agreements in the United Kingdom is already in force and, where it is not, Parliament’s consideration of the draft legislation is, for the most part, at an advanced stage. The United Kingdom aims to complete its domestic requirements in the near future and looks forward to applying the Agreements at the earliest opportunity thereafter”

    The UK set it up so that it didn’t have to be debated prior to ratification. The British Government could have done so, as every Member State has to ratify the agreement, however the elected representatives of our nation chose not to. Not, I might stress, the fault of the EU in any way. You might also be interested to a parallel set of decisions recently taken on the CIA’s illegal extradition of EU Members State Citizens. You should find it on google.

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  11. Anoldun I did not miss that point – read my last two sentences. The fact that the treaty was not debated in Parliament is entirely the fault of HMG, and is indeed symptomatic of a broader trend of abuse of Parliament by the executive.

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  13. More than a thousand years after the formation of England, the Cornish….the Welsh…the Scots blah blah blah…..and the English still feel English!

  14. A sound point Manderson. It’s true that I rarely meet Englishmen who claim to feel Chinese, Tanzanian or Kenyan.

  15. Nm Sorry for the delay coming back – we’ve had visitors. This post is not so much to with identity (I’ve said what I wanted to say on that); but I do need to reply to Hunter #37.

    After the fall of the Bastille no-one gave much thought to celebrating it as a special event. The Revolutionaries had to spend a year or two putting down (violently) various Royalist uprisings around France north of the Loire. South of that line – as I noted before – life carried on pretty much as normal.

    The 14th July continued to be celebrated across France – as St Bonaventure’s Day for many years to come. It wasn’t until the Third Republic that anyone proposed a Fête nationale: and then the arguments raged as to when. It wasn’t until 21 May 1880 that a law was passed instituting 14 July. However, since St Bonaventure was regarded as a special Saint, it took many years for him to be ousted from “his” day.

    Yes, the Marsaillaise was played when the French Army marched. But, as I noted, the French Army were held in very low regard outside the more genteel circles of Parisian society. And it was not usual for it to be played at town and village marches (they were noted more for their drunken jollities).

    French nationalism did not really arrive until 1914; and by 1919 the fête nationale reached apotheosis.

  16. Well you seem to know more about the matter at hand than I do, so I would happily concede but must just suggest that surely in times of military prowess and success, nationalism naturally soars, in the same way as cricket or Henman and the like attract huge crowds when they look set to win. Surely there must have been strong nationalist sentiments prior to 1914. Look at the Franco Prussian war for example; the annexation of Alsace Lorraine from France was remembered and subsequently used as propaganda in 1914 to rally troops to the cause; surely an indication of underlying, and strong nationalist sentiment? Again, the Empirical conquests of Napoleon, or even the cultural triumphs of the Sun King, shows that the French must in fact have one of the oldest and best established senses of nationalism in Europe, simply for the fact that under Napoleon it would have been appropriate for the French to feel national pride due to their worldwide accomplishments and, under Louis, for the cultural achievements. Would this not denote a well established, if fluctuating sense of national pride, as opposed to a lack thereof?

  17. @Hunter #62. I agree that, for the bourgeoisie and the higher echelons of French society, what you say would have been true. But, given that the main means of communication to the masses was by word of mouth, at the local markets, “ordinary” folk in France knew (and cared) little of their ruling heads’ doings. Except when they were conscripted into the Army, of course – and were mostly treated like animals. Life was very, very different, even in the late 19th century in France, from what it became after WW1.

    But there is no doubting the arrogant nationalism of the French today!