European Identity: A Threat to the Nation?

Professor M.J. Wintle
European Studies, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Biographical Note

Michael Wintle (MA, PhD) is Professor of European History at the University of Amsterdam, where he directs the degree programmes in European Studies. Prior to 2002, he held a chair of European History at the University of Hull, UK, where he had taught since 1980. His current research interests are in European identity and especially the visual representation of Europe, cultural aspects of European integration, European industrialization, and the modern social and economic history of the Low Countries. He has published widely on Dutch and European history, including the following recent books: Culture and Identity in Europe (Avebury, 1996); Under the Sign of Liberalism (Walburg, 1997); An Economic and Social History of the Netherlands (Cambridge UP, 2000); The Idea of a United Europe since the Fall of the Berlin Wall (Macmillan, 2000); Ideas of Europe since 1914 (Palgrave, 2002).


As a general rule, identities are only widely discussed when we think there might be something wrong with them, or some kind of identity crisis is apparent. In the last decade or two, there have many conferences organized and books published on the subject of European identity, and so it is safe to assume that there are some perceived problems in this area. In an attempt to illuminate such problems, and even to provide some answers, we shall deal here with definitions: what exactly is collective identity? How does it work? What might a European identity consist of? And how might it compete with national identity? In this way some of the confusion surrounding this issue can be cleared away.

First it must be recognized that we are dealing with a very important issue: identity is am extremely powerful agent, and can be dangerous. Furthermore, ‘identity construction is a political process … "We" utterances must be treated as partial statements of claims rather than as descriptions of a reality.’ It is always necessary to ask who is promoting which particular collective identity and why, and who is resisting it. Expressions of identity are aspirational, for it can well be argued that there is no such thing as a complete, finite and perfect collective identity. Indeed, to strive for such completion is dangerous: we must endeavor by democratic means to restrain ‘the volcano of identity passions’. Identities can be destructive and negative in their effects, and although they are almost always ‘positively valued’ by their owners, their faults and defects can pose serious political and social problems for them and others. With identity we are playing with fire.

Secondly, whatever the politicians and populists may say, virtually all the academic experts agree that identities are constructed according to the social, cultural and geo-political environment, and are subject to change over time and from place to place. Identities are not self-evident, and not given, they are man-made and constructed. This is not to deny entirely the influence of climate, physical environment, bloodline, genes and the rest, but rather to accept that these ‘givens’ are only some of the elements in the complex make-up of a collective identity. Their importance is usually determined by the degree to which they are recognized within a ‘constructed’ identity, than by the self-evident power of their ‘essentialist’ nature. Collective identities, then, are largely to do with nurture, not nature, and are defined in the main by culture rather than genes. To be sure, popular myths about in-born, shared characteristics and essentialities can take on their own momentum, and generate enormous political forces once their credibility is established – as happened in Nazi Germany and in many other ultra-nationalist situations. But in spite of popular conviction on occasion, collective identities are not immutable: they change over place and time.

Moreover, identities are multiple in nature. One may have a single identity, but it will be made up of many levels of loyalty and identification. An individual’s or a group’s identity can consist of allegiance to such things as gender, family, class, region, religion, age group, kin group, nation, and so on: all these things are important, and seldom does one dominate to the exclusion of others. Identities, especially of groups, are best represented therefore as matrices, the compositions of which are not fixed. Identities change, because they are based on perceptions, which – again – change over space and time.

And if collective identities are based on perceptions, such perceptions are not only of ourselves, but of what we think ‘we’ are not. All kinds of collectivities, including peoples, states, nations and indeed continents, identify themselves partly by defining their own characteristics, but also by defining those which they think they do not share. This ‘othering’ process, or the construction of identity by defining alterity, is to do with noticing difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’, whether real or imagined. Some differences seem obvious and physical, to do with skin or hair colour; most perceived differences are however behavioural. Indeed, it is often easier to identify characteristics in an ‘opposite’ group than it is in one’s own. It is a kind of identity-formation based on the perception of stereotypes, or even scapegoats; often malignant prejudices are involved, and indeed it is essential to expose any such misconstructions which may underpin a European identity.

A European Identity?

Is there such a thing as a European identity? It is now generally accepted that there is, even if some people, proud of their patriotism, find the whole thing rather awkward. In an endless stream of questionnaires and surveys, it is clear than increasing numbers of Europeans do identify in one way or another with Europe, and claim to have some kind of European identity, often alongside a national identity. How can that European identity be defined?

One problem in persuading certain people to admit that there is such a thing as a European identity is that many see it as fundamentally opposed to, and designed to undermine, their national allegiance. I would argue, however, that feelings of Europeanness are not at all incompatible (necessarily) with national loyalties. It may very often be the case that one level or type of loyalty within an identity is stronger than another, without entirely eclipsing the weaker ones; that is, one’s primary loyalty can be to one’s nation, while a meaningful identity also attaches to supranational institutions like a global religion, or to Europe. Most kinds of European identity are emphatically not the same as a national identity, the collective identity from which a state – especially a nation state – derives its political legitimacy. A general feeling of ‘Europeanness’ and loyalty to Europe, in a cultural sense, does not need to conflict with national identities.

There is, it is true, another kind of European identity possible, a European version of the national identity which is the driving force behind the nation state, and which legitimizes the political power of national governments. This is to transpose the nation-state model to the European level, and to seek justification for European government, state apparatus, army and police in the feelings of loyalty and allegiance of Europeans. It has to do with the kind of national identity which generates patriotism, duty to country, and jingoism, up to and including dying for one’s country; in short, national identity. Does this kind of European identity exist?

Again, many would deny that there can be proper loyalty to a European state, because there are no common myths and symbols, and no meaningfully shared common ideology, history or culture. However, if one applies a model of nation formation and state formation to Europe, such processes are generally of two kinds, which can be called ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’. The top-down processes are mainly to do with state formation and the political unification of a territory. Modern European national histories are littered with examples – most of them successful – of governments and elites trying to engineer such unification processes. They include the standardization and unification of the coinage and currency, of language and linguistic usage, weights and measures, time, legal procedures of all sorts, and taxation; the centralization of armies, the police, and education; economic integration, and the copious use of national flags, anthems, monuments and the like. At European level, a number of organizations and elites have been involved in this kind of activity on a modest scale for some time now; most of the activity has been confined to Western Europe, and there was very little of it before the twentieth century. The European Union and its predecessors have been the most active in the field, but the Council of Europe and other bodies also engage in such attempts to foster a European identity, and have been doing so for much of the last century.

As for the ‘bottom-up’ activities aimed at the realization of a European identity, or grass-roots co-operation, there has again been considerable activity at European level, much of it relying on the loose and relatively uncommitted feelings of identity with Europe. It tends to be effected by elites rather than by the masses, but nonetheless a great many people are involved in all the pan-European sporting and cultural activities which take place, and in the education exchange programmes: these are all driven by active participation from below. In politics, this kind of Europe-association also takes place, for instance in the confederations of European conservatives, of European Christian Democrats, and of European socialists. There are European trade union movements, and many regions and minorities are active in trying to carve out a niche for themselves or locate themselves in a European context. These activities are confined largely to sports, culture and grass-roots politics, but then so is the majority of public activity. These are the beginnings of a European ‘civil society’, and while it is easy to mock posturing and failure, these activities have also been going on for many decades now, and are not easily swept away. Things may not have got very far compared to the level achieved in so-called nation states, but there has been some progress.

To summarize, feelings of European identity, and their consequences, do not need to compete directly with national identity. Collective identity is constructed, multi-level, and subject to change over time and place. European identity, in the sense of feelings of ‘Europeanness’, has existed widely for a very long time, certainly since the Renaissance, but such feelings are not the same as those which underpin national identity. In the sense of a collective identity at European level which might justify the existence and operation of a modern state, or in this case a super-state, there has been a certain level of activity in the twentieth century, especially by the EU in its top-down activities. However, it would be hard to argue that a critical mass has been reached, and certainly the achievements are marginal or at best minor, compared to the activities of nation-state governments and populations. National identity and European identity are not mutually incompatible, and European identity is really not the threat to the nation that is sometimes perceived to be.


1. This article is a revised version of an introductory address to the UNICA Student Conference entitled, ‘Unity and Diversity in Europe: the Question of Identity’, held in Amsterdam, 27-30 October 2004.
2. García, 1993: 81-2.
3. Grillo, 1980: 10-13.
4. Michael, 1996: 2-9.
5. Foucher, 1994: 56-7 & 60-1.
6. Bloom, 1990.
7. Spiering, 1996: 115-18.
8. Wintle, 1996: 22-3.
9. García, 1993: 83-4; Von Benda-Beckmann & Verkuyten, 1995: 15-18.
10. Foucher, 1994: 57-8; Grillo, 1980: 10.
11. Macdonald, S., 1993: 221-2.
12. Andréani, 1999:13; Mikkeli, 1998: 228-9; Herb & Kaplan, 1999: 61; Beetham & Lord, 1998: 33-50. Schild, 2001 suggests that recent successes by nationalist-populist parties have made the tension between national and European identity more problematic.
13. Smith, 1995: 131, 155.
14. For a summary of the issues in the literature as they apply to the example of Europe, see Wintle, 1996: 16-22.
15. Delanty, 1995: 6.
16. Fulbrook, 1993: 266.


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