Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Reblogged: Towards a European Identity

From five years ago (originally published 4th February 2005) – a repost seemed appropriate as someone asked about my views on European Identity just the other day, soon after a user purporting to be Jurgen Habermas cropped up on Twitter. Despite being five years old, much still stands (update: except the links, which have now been updated where appropriate). Depressingly, the debate has barely shifted:

An interesting short article on the lack of any real sense of European identity gives a nice overview of some of the problems facing the EU, and of the possible outcomes of the proposed constitution, and follows on nicely from some of my recent musings:

In Spain, there is much controversy over whether the Basque people should remain Spanish citizens or whether they should have their own state. In the UK a recent survey of teenagers found that many saw themselves as English, Scottish or Welsh rather than British. An Italian from Milan might find more in common with a Parisian than with a Sicilian compatriot. Yet despite this, a core set of European cultural, political and social values can be divined.

The article also points to another which highlights the take of Jurgen Habermas (he of “public sphere” fame) on the European project – a take which can easily provoke both sides of the argument:

Germany’s thinker de rigueur wrote that Europe’s core states could put an end to Europe’s stagnancy, sooner or later drawing in the remaining states which would be unable to resist. Separatism, however, had to be avoided. The avant-garde core Europe cannot consolidate into a miniature Europe but, as so often, must be the locomotive.

This reminded me of an article Habermas wrote a few years back on why Europe needs a constitution, which is well nigh essential reading for anyone interested in current debates about what the EU is, was, and should be in the future. I may return to some of the points it raises again, as even though lots has changed since it first appeared (it was written just pre-September 11th 2001), it still raises many valuable points. From the introduction:

There is a remarkable contrast between the expectations and demands of those who pushed for European unification immediately after World War II, and those who contemplate the continuation of this project today – at the very least, a striking difference in rhetoric and ostensible aim.

While the first-generation advocates of European integration did not hesitate to speak of the project they had in mind as a “United States of Europe”, evoking the example of the USA, current discussion has moved away from the model of a federal state, avoiding even the term “federation”.

Larry Siedentop’s recent book Democracy in Europe expresses a more cautious mood: as he puts it, “a great constitutional debate need not involve a prior commitment to federalism as the most desirable outcome in Europe. It may reveal that Europe is in the process of inventing a new political form, something more than a confederation but less than a federation” an association of sovereign states which pool their sovereignty only in very restricted areas to varying degrees, an association which does not seek to have the coercive power to act directly on individuals in the fashion of nation states.

Does this shift in climate reflect a sound realism, born of a learning-process of over four decades, or is it rather the sign of a mood of hesitancy, if not outright defeatism?

The contemporary substantification of law means that constitutional debates over the future of Europe are now increasingly the province of highly specialized discourses among economists, sociologists and political scientists, rather than the domain of constitutional lawyers and political philosophers. On the other hand, we should not underestimate the symbolic weight of the sheer fact that a constitutional debate is now publicly under way.

As a political collectivity, Europe cannot take hold in the consciousness of its citizens simply in the shape of a common currency. The intergovernmental arrangement at Maastricht lacks that power of symbolic crystallization which only a political act of foundation can give.


  1. I want to address only one point from above. The founding fathers openly spoke of a US of E, supporters of far reaching integration nowadays would be much more cautious in this regard.

    There might be a simple explanation for this. Back then, they spoke about some utopia, its easy to do that, if someone would say that today it would appear much more real and realistic. With all the consequences.

    On the other side, Europe is finding its own way slowly but steadily and as concepts mature, they may to start differ from the original concept which it was thought to emulate.

  2. There’s also the possibility that the EU’s founding fathers had a different conception of the United States of America than we do today. Winston Churchill, after all, was a Victorian with an American mother, who would have been more than aware of the USA’s 18th and 19th century history when he came up with the “United States of Europe” phrase. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the US was nowhere near as centralised as it is currently perceived to be – the federal structure only very slowly began to become as important as the state structure, and even today in many areas state powers remain prime.

    A while back I quoted an extensive passage from a late 19th century book on the American political system as it stood then. Read it in the context of the slow growth of the EU, and there’s much there that can seem relevant – especially when you note that the EU’s federal structure is still far, far behind that of the late 19th century US in terms of power and influence.

    As so often, history has much to teach us. But sadly, all too many people have only limited historical knowledge, and so all too often make overly simplistic comparisons which don’t quite work in the way they intend if you know a bit more about the background. The EU/USA one is a perfect case in point.

  3. I remember having read a comparision of the Confederation and the EU. While there lie ages in between its still interesting to think about it.

    The fascinating point there was that the discipline of the EU member states seems to be considerably better than of the states in the confederation. I remember a table of political crises where states tried to undermine confederal authority even where the primary law was perfectly clear, going so far to threaten even with violent opposition if the controversial parts should be enacted in one way or the other. …

    The conclusion was somehow that while the “federal” structure of the EU is weaker, discpline of the member states is better. A bit of an oxymoron that I was not luck enough to find an explanation for.

    Your argument is a good one btw, not only the EU keeps changing, also the US has been changing all the time.