Is there a European Identity?

Kathinka Dittrich van Weringh
Chair of the European Cultural Foundation

The concept of identity – beyond its primary meaning of individual identity which is psychologically so important even in times of post-modern deconstruction of the individual – signals a sense of belonging. The question is: to whom or to what do we feel to belong, want to belong? To social, cultural, economical, political groups or communities? To our families, friends, kindred spirits? To a certain gender? To a belief, ideology? To specific memories and experiences? To certain topics and activities? To a borough, a city, a region, a nation, to Europe ? To…?

We all know that it is even more complicated: Do we need to speak about identities beyond the individual? Hasn’t history shown how dangerous collective identities can be? The construction of the nation states in the 19 th century has “used” culture, education and the military service for the nation building process, and already then wise men have warned their compatriots, mostly without being heard. So did Franz Grillparzer, a civil servant of the multinational Hapsburg empire, and a great poet, whose prophetic words “From individuality to nationalism to bestiality” have been remembered in the midst of the 20 th century, when Nazi terror almost made an end to Europe and its cultures

However, we also need to acknowledge, that “identity” in the sense of belonging to a protective, enriching community is a meaningful notion for many and by no means only for the desperate, the poor, the “exploited”, though they are often a “privileged” target group of populist politicians and ideologists. No doubt: “communitarian movements” appeal to many, that have become disillusioned by an ultra-liberal concept of democracies and markets. No doubt that the collective spirit of strong communities is offering “Heimat”, and no doubt that nation states are still the dominant framework of reference and belonging for a vast majority.

The issue of identity and identities is complex enough. We do not understand it fully yet. And, on top of it, we are increasingly confronted with the concept of “dual identities”, “hybrid identities” and a European “identity”.

The fact that the question of an imaginary or real European identity arises at all shows that post war societies in Europe have changed dramatically and with increasing speed after the fall of the Wall in 1989, to use a symbol for the beginning of the end of the cold war and the beginning of the beginning of a re- united Europe, that, at the same time is confronted with new technological and economical challenges on a global scale. The changes occur at varying degrees dependent on the varying political, economical, social, and cultural backgrounds in different member states. “Late” nations or only recently liberated nations find themselves in a community (or project themselves into a soon to come community) with “old” nations, and “old” nations are questioned by immigration and the multicultural challenge.

Established codes of behaviour that formed a social glue have undergone erosion. In the late fifties for example a Protestant in Germany was expected to also marry a Protestant, and behave accordingly. Or, on a less decisive, but culturally formative level: if you belonged to a social group that expected its members to love opera, you could not admit, that you also enjoyed detective stories, or, even worse, the yellow press, let alone the upcoming discos – certainly not as a woman. And, back to politics: there was a clear and “helpful” enemy and all the images which were useful for constructing “Western” identity: communism. All these and many other classical points of references of identities are gone.

In addition: with more or less open borders in today’s Europe the concept of a nation state, enhanced in the 19 th century, does not carry any more (if it ever did!) or, paradoxically, is being re-invented as the last resort of symbolic “independence”. Europe shares many tragic memories of the missioners of the concept: one territory, one history, one people, and one language. Nowadays many (hi)stories are told in many languages by heterogeneous peoples. Many beliefs are adhered to in churches, synagogues, mosques all over Europe. Nation states were and are eager to join the European Union, which creates again an extremely colourful and diverse unity of differences under one roof. But: try to define what is Lithuanian, Rumanian, German…? Is there one German culture? Are there not many cultures in Germany ? Also in the geo-political sense many people have patchwork identities. Just one example: the internationally well known writer Sándor Márai was born in 1900 in Kaschau, in the Austrian/Hungarian Empire. After 1918 this town became Czechoslovakian, with all the consequences for its citizens. Later it mutated into the Hungarian Kassa, then fell back to Czechoslovakia and is now Kosice in Slovakia.

Let us face it: people always had – conscious or not - many, and sometimes conflicting “identities”. Is there, in addition, such a “thing” like a European “identity”? Can one develop a sense of belonging to what sceptics define solely as an economic free market zone and - for some - as an emerging security zone? Indeed, that increases the confusion, allows for Sunday speeches and camouflage, yet this question also bears the weight of politically existential choices. We have learned to define the values of constitutional democracy, the rule of law, and human rights as the most advanced lesson from our tragic and glorious past. Europe, the EU, is the unprecedented attempt to unify nation states without levelling differences. The EU, born over decades out of the need and will to peacefully negotiate differences, out of solidarity and mutual respect, even if imperfect and constantly “in the making”, offers a model of political order which was never seen before. Doesn’t such an experiment “in vivo” need a sense of belonging, emotional bonds? “Constitutional patriotism” (Jurgen Habermas) may not be enough. Does Europe need to be more than a soulless entity”?

The European Union came into being by peacefully overcoming centuries of wars and conflicts. This fact and the equally peaceful recent 2004 enlargement with two more members to join in 2007, Rumania and Bulgaria, shows:

The European Union is a success, also in terms of political culture.

Admitted, other sceptics say, but the post war history is forgotten by the young generation, and the post 89 euphoria has been succeeded by economic expectations. And do not forget: How can there be an emotional sense of belonging to Europe as a whole, which is embracing so many different cultures, languages, historical memories, artistic expressions? Isn’t Europe still mentally divided between the “West” and the “East”? Hasn’t the enlargement created new intra – European borders on its Eastern frontier, separating kindred spirits within age old cultural spaces?

I agree that there is some truth in these arguments. However, many dreams have become reality, and many adhere to a ” transnational dream with a potential of success… created by the wisdom of age”, as an outsider, the American author Jeremy Rifkin defines the European Union in his recent book ” the European Dream”? Where else in the world do we find a similar ” soft power”, one that prefers negotiations to wars, accepts self-obliging European institutions and treaties – the most important being the European Constitution, based on basic rights in their very specific European implementation, one that promotes and protects its cultural diversity through the principle of subsidiarity and other measures? – as an insider, the Bulgarian sociologist and philosopher Tzvetan Todorov explains in his booklet “Le Nouveau Désordre Mondial” that appeared in Paris in 2003.

Yet are the European institutions strong enough and what about their democratic legitimacy? Can people feel a sense of belonging to distant bureaucracies; do they understand European decision making processes that are mostly steered by governments and their national agendas? These critics have a point. But: The European Parliament, elected by the people of Europe, is gaining legal power, and it is emancipating in making use of it. On October 27 last year, it dared for the first time in its history to refuse a new Commission to be presented by its new President, whose choice is clearly limited by the proposals imposed by member governments.

Is Europe ‘s integration a cultural project?

The EU member states agreed to introduce a cultural component into the binding European treaty of Maastricht in 1991; they consequently allowed a small- far too small- European budget for culture and education; they have decided not to let culture and the arts fall prey to international market forces in the WTO negotiations (which means that there is still a fixed book price, or a reduced VAT on cultural goods – measures that are unfortunately not yet introduced in Central and Eastern Europe); they are beginning to realise that the creative cultural and artistic potential of Europe is not only vital for social cohesion but is also a crucial element for Europe `s competitiveness in our globalised world; it dawns on them that the official European Neighbourhood Policy and the emerging European foreign policy need a stronger cultural component. No question:

The cultural and artistic diversity is Europe ‘s unique strength, and its real capital.

Far too romantic, opponents argue, it is all a matter of efficiency, of cost and benefit calculations. All that people want are jobs, a decent life and money. Yes, I would argue, there seems to be little space for solidarity; yes, the European institutions who provide structural compensation for this lack still enjoy limited recognition; yes, there is hardly an European public space where joys and fears can be shared; yes, citizens in Western Europe show far too little curiosity and understanding for the complex transformation process that is going on in Central and Eastern Europe; yes, there is ever less public money for culture and the arts and for international cultural co-operation on all levels; yes, we are all more rooted in our local, regional and national environments; yes, we all want jobs, a decent life and money. But: we also long to share a common good: peace, freedom, justice, political, social, economical and cultural solidarity. This shared belief was decisive when people and peoples peacefully abolished dictatorships in all parts of Europe, right wing ones, such as in Spain, Portugal and Greece, Soviet left wing ones as in Central and Eastern Europe. Masses demonstrated everywhere against the Irak war two years ago with special passion in Spain, Poland, the United Kingdom, countries where the governments were all for the war. People of all ages and backgrounds defended democratic elections in Ukraine last November, despite ice and snow. All this shows:

Europe is being built on shared values.

In addition: many achievements, for which the founding fathers of the European Union fought with their heart’s blood and which have an effect on every day life are nowadays simply taken for granted. Bulgarian wine, Polish geese, Dutch butter, Hungarian paprika, cheese from France, to start with the most banal items are no longer seen as “foreign”. To travel from Munich to Paris without French money and without a passport, or, much more complicated, to travel, let us say to Latvia or Rumania without a passport and a visa, or, for a Rumanian to fly to Madrid, to study where you like, to work where you wish, all this is not experienced as a sensation any longer, despite the fact that there are still official and unofficial obstacles, financial ones included.

Individually and collectively we are all on the move in Europe crossing physical and mental borders. The traditional rather rigid concept of identity has become less static, more open, more comprehensive and much more demanding on our capacity to judge, to evaluate, to choose, to acknowledge our many identities, to accept that identity building is a process, consisting of many and not only predetermined elements, to become aware that we already share and live this Europe of ours, this unfinished (maybe unfinishable) cultural project.