Europe’s identity crisis

In the last ten years, Europe was engaged in managing the effects of a multiple crisis: an economic and financial crisis, an institutional crisis, a political crisis and last but not least the still unresolved refugee crisis. The outer environment of the European Union has changed significantly. The relationship to both Russia and United States has altered in recent years. The Ukraine crisis and the annexation of Crimea demonstrated that Europe is facing a new Russian foreign policy. The American president, Donald Trump expressed his skepticism in relation to the Union several times: he celebrated the results of the BREXIT referendum and óstopped TTIP negotiations. The migration pressure from the Middle-East and North-Africa constitute continuous challenge to Europe. In line with that the Normative Power Europe concept (Manners, 2002) was fundamentally questioned: neither Eastern Partnership nor the European Neighbourhood Policy proved to be effective tools. In 2016 it also turned out that the United Kingdom is leaving the Union, which is not only an economic and power loss for the EU but also created a constant question mark to EU’s achievements.

European integration has arrived at a crossroad: if it cannot reach to its citizens and establish bottom-up support for the project of European integration it may soon fall apart. Without the support of individuals, Europe’s future is uncertain. On 25 March 2017, the Union has celebrated the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome. The founding fathers, Jean Monnet and Robert Schumann were thinking of a Europe that can guarantee a lasting peace and economic prosperity, capable of overriding national interests. Can the European Union credibly contribute to the achievement of these two objectives, which are still the main goals of integration, sixty years after the foundation? Many think, especially the euroskeptics, that they are unable to do so, so we should forget about supranationalism and favour intergovernmental cooperation and build integration on looser cooperation of nation-states. Others think that deeper integration is needed for effectively meeting future challenges. As the White Paper on the Future of Europe published in 2017 by the European Commission or the 2017 State of the Union address by Jean-Claude Juncker demonstrate, the thinking on the possible future scenarios of Europe has recently become more intensive. Carrying on and deliver a positive reform agenda of European integration or re-focusing integration on the single market or putting differentiated integration into the centre of EU’s development and allowing those member states that want to do more or by selecting among the policy areas, doing less but more efficiently or doing much more together – these are the five possible scenarios presented by the Commission. (White Paper on the future of Europe, 2017)

When European integration was established with the participation of six Member States in the 1950s, establishing a common identity did not emerge as a common objective. The European elites were satisfied with a “permissive consensus” on the individuals’ side. However, later, as the integration progressed, the European leaders started to realize that in order to legitimize the community there is a need to establish the direct link between the citizens and the community. Thanks to this, from the 1970s, the European Community started to take significant steps towards establishing the structural and symbolic elements of a common identity. The Declaration on European Identity in 1973, the Tindemans report in 1976 and the Adonnino report in 1984 were all signs of an increased interest on the side of the European Community to establish a direct link between the individuals and the Community, though it was not until the beginning of the 1990s when the concept became involved in the founding treaties of the Union. The Maastricht Treaty introduced the concept of the “Citizenship of the Union” and also declared the intention to foster common identity building through cultural tools in 1991. The Union’s ambition to support the establishment of a common identity can be seen in the later legal documents such as the Amsterdam, the Nice and the Lisbon Treaties. Beyond the structural elements, the European Union strived to create the symbolic elements of the common identity as well. The blue flag with the golden stars “representing the union of the peoples of Europe”; the anthem, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony; “Europe Day” on the 9th May; and the common currency, the Euro; all symbolise a sense of belonging to the EU. The question is however, that the European identity of a constructed nature has become a strong reference point for the collective self-understanding of individuals?

Europeans’ identity formation shall be imagined as a dynamic process in a multilevel structure, where regional, national and European ties represent adjacent elements of collective identities (Smith, 1997, Koller, 2004, 2006, 2011, 2012, Checkel, 2009, Ágh 2012, Risse 2004, Salazar, 1998, Christiansen et al., 2012). The identity of an EU citizen is best described by the post-national identity-net model (Koller 2004, 2006) which means the dynamic coexistence of multiple identities and includes the time dimension as well. According to the identity-net model, the individual is not only a member of his nation, but a member of local, regional, national, European, global and other communities. Since the individual is a member of communities of different nature at the same time, identity construction (Anderson, 1991, Hobsbawm-Ranger, 1983) can be initiated from different centers too. The national government or the European Parliament as well as the local retailer or an online forum could affect identity-formation (Koller, 2004 and 2006). In this multiple structure, the identity construction initiatives can amplify or extinguish one another. Constructing identity elements is not the only way how collective attachments are formed. Not only does the environment shape the collective identities of the individual, but the individual is also shaping his environment, including the contents of her/his status and membership in the community (Risse 2004). Thus, not only the societal structure has an impact on the individual, but also on the individual has an impact on the surrounding structures. The top-down effects of collective identity construction and the bottom-up socialization processes occur parallel. Based on public opinion survey data, that are available since 1982 in a standardized form (Standard Eurobarometer surveys), it can be shown that the European dimension is now present among the collective identities of individuals. In addition to their national, regional and local ties, the majority of EU citizens are also attached to Europe. Nevertheless, there are significant differences between Member States with regard to the intensity of a European identity. In a Union of 27 + 1 Member State with minorities and immigrant communities, including much higher number of ethnic and cultural communities, on the basis of common ethnic and cultural roots it is not feasible to create a common European attachment. However, through civic participation of European citizens, a common basis for European identity can be established. Habermas’s post-national constitutional patriotism theory is in line with that, emphasizing the shared solidarity of the EU citizens and the mutual trust that could be evolved due to participating in a wider polity. (Habermas, 1996). Emphasizing the civic nature of the European identity was the mainstream thinking of the pro-European elites for decades, who deliberately tried to avoid the politicisation of the European affairs and solely emphasized the technocratic nature of its set up. In this logic the evolution of European identity was considered, as the functionalist and neo-functionalists claimed, a result of the spill over effect of the integration process (Haas, 1958, Lindberg, 1963). What they failed to recognise, however, that despite their attempts to de-politicize Europe, as the integration process was gradually deepened and the polity widened with new members, especially with the East-Central European members in 2004 and 2007, the re-politicisation came to the fore. Member-states started to criticize the rules of the games set by EU institutions more often and were less eager to take sacrifices for the interest of the others. The principle of solidarity begun to erode. EU member states therefore often act according to their national interest and prefer intergovernmental solutions. The beginning of the 1990s could be named as indicating a new era of a politicized Europe, which has been more intensified since then. The politicisation of the European Union remained an unchanged trend throughout the 21st century. Nevertheless, an era of multiple crisis, from 2008 on, also contributed to strengthen Euroscepticism. European citizens developed a strong anti-Europe sentiment indicating their dissatisfaction with all or just some elements (European policies, institutions, decision-making processes) of the the European project. Euroscepticism became an essential element of national political rhetoric in almost all EU member states (Taggart – Szczerbiak, 2013). The national political elites often use the anti-EU narrative to attract voters in domestic politics (Arató-Koller, 2013). As recent Eurobarometer data indicate: 41% of the EU citizens trust the European Union, 48% tend not to trust the EU in 2017, which is clear sign of the weakened civic pillar of European identity. (Eurobarometer 88).

There has been another important challenge of European identity. The European integration became differentiated, which means a gradual turning away from the unified integration model to a model where it is possible that not all but only some member states or even non-members are cooperating in the emerging new policy areas, temporarily or permanently, or even that a common initiative could be born outside the EU’s institutional and legal framework, as it was in the case of Schengen. (Kölliker 2001, De Neve 2007, Dyson-Sepos 2010, Koller 2012) This has the consequence that membership itself started to be redefined in the EU. While up until the 1990s, there was a clear division line between the full member-states and the outsiders, currently, being a full member of the European Union only represents one kind of memberships among the overlapping layers of surrounding circles of communities. The Schengen zone, the Euro zone, the European Economic Area, the Visegrád Cooperation, the Baltic or the Danube macro-regions as well as the the banking union all represent memberships of various nature. Due to the spread of differentiated integration, the self-definition of the EU itself and the definition of otherness has gained new interpretations that altered the way of collective identity formation. Forming a new club and delineating its boundaries means including the joining members and excluding those who do not participate in a cooperation, therefore differentiated integration is also about defining “ins” and “outs” within and outside the Union. (Koller, 2012)
To conclude, the European Union is experiencing difficult times in terms of self-definition and providing a positive impetus for its own future. So far, the Community was not successful to invent a successful narrative and transmit messages of real, emotional content to its citizens. But, in a highly politicized political era, where Euroscepticism is gaining support, it cannot further avoid doing that.



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Dr. Koller Boglarka

Boglarka Koller currently works as Dean of the Department of European Studies, Faculty of International and European Studies, National University of Public Service. Boglarka does research in Elections, Public Opinion and Voting Behavior, Political Organizations and Parties and Comparative Politics.