Europe as cultural unifier : weaknesses in prose and practice

Perspectives Internationales 05/02/2013 1

Perspectives Internationales revisits the notion of the EU as a “Cultural Unifier”. Drawing a parallel between the UK model and the European Union, comparable as a collection of cultural identities bonded by political and economical means, Louis Amoriello discusses, through a skeptic approach, the possibility of building a European identity.

The rhetorical beginnings of what would later be a union of Europe began with the idealistic and poetic speeches of world leaders and political thinkers. It was during his famous 1946 speech in Zurich that Sir Winston Churchill through his stirring prose attempted to heighten the urgency of the prospect of a union in Europe. ‘And why should there not be a European group which could give a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship to the distracted peoples of this turbulent and mighty continent? And why should it not take its rightful place with other great groupings and help to shape the onward destinies of men? In order that this should be accomplished there must be an act of faith in which millions of families speaking many languages must consciously take part.’[1] With a dramatic call to ‘let Europe arise’[2], Churchill spoke of the desperate need for the continent to bind itself together in a cultural and political defense against further aggression and war. Complete with soaring rhetoric and broad visions of a united Europe on par with Churchill’s earlier speech, the Schuman declaration was a hopeful step towards reconciliation and defense against a future conflict between contentious and influential European powers. ‘Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.’[3] It is in the words of men like Churchill and Schuman that the conceptual strength of the European project falters. An enlarged patriotism and common citizenship have yet to truly develop in Europe. The great act of faith deemed so vital to Europe’s future success has not materialized. The integration process has not created the de facto solidarity so praised and sought after by Schuman and the founders of the union. Developments such as the concept of European Citizenship have taken only half-steps towards their lofty goals and using the United Kingdom as a comparison highlights the inability of the EU to forge a new cultural identity. Upon closer inspection, the case for European Union as cultural unifier appears thin and naïve.

EU citizenship as a mechanism for unification

Although the concept of EU Citizenship is the most praised and oft-admired example of Europe’s desire to forge an over-arching cultural identity, one does not logically follow the other. In 1992, Article 8 of the Maastricht Treaty made ‘every person holding the nationality of a Member State” a “citizen of the Union” and rights were granted to each person including the opportunity to vote in local and European-level elections. It was now possible after Maastricht, for legal residents of one member state to vote in the elections of their state of residence; a Frenchman legally residing in Germany could vote in local and European Union elections for example. This was heralded as the first steps towards a new European identity that would eventually break the barriers of nationalism and lead to one cultural voice in Europe.  The fact that a European Union citizen now has an EU passport and is free to travel, live, and work within the Union is seen as the beginnings of this transformation. Like the insistence that institutional reliance would spillover into further sectoral integration, surely free movement of peoples and EU citizenship would lead to the eventual cultural identification of ‘European’ over any one specific nationality. Like many aspects of European Union construction and implementation, this smacks of rhetoric and false bravado. While many scholars and political thinkers have attempted to use this as a shining example of the positives of integration, the reality is not so promising.  In EU Citizenship: Implications for Identity and Legitimacy, Rey Koslowski sets out an argument saying that this concept of EU citizenship represents ‘a new form of political membership with important implications for the future evolution of the European polity.’[4] The author calls this form of citizenship novel and a potential source of legitimacy for the European Union itself. Within this argument, however, one can see inherent flaws. In the construction of such ideas, the European Union fundamentally has seen things incorrectly and taken half-measures towards nebulous ill-defined goals. ‘The Amsterdam Treaty of June 1997 states that “Citizenship of the Union shall complement and not replace national citizenship”.’[5] In this sentence alone, Koslowski hurriedly glosses over history and attempts to define some sort of new co-existent identity system where European citizenship fills some sort of perceived gaps that national citizenship leaves. In complementing and not replacing national citizenship, the Amsterdam Treaty highlights the exact problem repeated for decades within this integration project. There is an over-arching and grandiose vision of a world without national borders and a Europe of Europeans living together with shared political goals and cultural identification. This grand vision is then spouted in countless speeches and declarations in an attempt to bolster support from the electorate and show the project in an undoubtedly positive and hopeful light. When these goals are attempted to be realized within treaties and agreements, national preferences win out. An emphasis on sovereign interests leads to an inevitable watering-down towards lowest common denominator consensus. After the fact, scholars and political thinkers attempt to legitimize the relevance of the Union’s actions by defining new ways of thinking and showing these small, feeble examples as unique and revolutionary. In the concept of EU citizenship, it is shown as a novel form of identity that will happily coexist with national identity. Ignoring the facts of interstate bargaining and the primacy of national interests that led to provisos such as the Amsterdam Treaty’s, scholars assign concocted meaning to such concepts and attempt to rewrite history. While political leaders and leading European philosophers espouse a breaking down of national identity and a harkening in of a new widespread European ethos, scholars after the fact try to disregard such rhetoric, and portray the European Union as never actually having supported such ostentatious visions. EU citizenship, therefore, is portrayed as never having been a concept that would break down national barriers. That goal was never a reality, so the fact that this citizenship exists alongside national citizenship is shown as some sort of victory for the forces of integration. This is a regrettable manipulation of history and unfortunately this method can be seen in countless examples from a myriad of authors in attempts to assign legitimacy and authenticity to European Union decisions that in the end remain meager and half-hearted. Koslowski provides one glaring example of such incorrect hindsight. ‘From its inception, the EU has consisted of institutions alongside and above states – not as their replacement. The creation of a larger territorial entity has not produced a superstate; it has left existing nation states in place.’[6] This is an almost stunning disregard for the facts of history. Since its inception, the European project sought to indeed replace states not only in institution-building, but in political loyalty and cultural identification. Monnet’s project had as its very purpose the elimination of nation-states. Yes it would be gradual, yes it would start with supranational institution building, shared sovereignty, and eventual spillover into further integration, but the method of Monnet was a plan towards supranationalism. This was not a plan whose goal was a union of Europe ‘alongside’ nations; this was a grand vision of a Europe devoid of nations entirely. This is a crystal clear example of the selective history utilized in literature on the European Union. The creation of this large territorial entity has indeed done little towards the creation of a superstate. Existing nation states have certainly stayed in place but this is not out of desire, it is out of necessity. In terms of the wishes of Europe’s founding fathers and defenders of federalism and cultural unity, Europe exists alongside nation states because so far the integration process has been unable to achieve its goals. The goal from inception has indeed always been the gradual replacement of Westphalian nation states and quite simply the nation states exist today because the grand project of Monnet has failed to bring about the changes it wished. To claim otherwise is to ignore history in a feeble attempt to once again legitimize the European project, and assign meaning and significance to its failings. If the goal was never federation and cultural unity, then surely the Union so far is a success story. If the desire of Europe’s founders was to exist happily alongside the nation state and never fundamentally challenge nationalism as a concept, then yes the fact that the EU is in its current complimentary form would pose no threat to its legitimacy. If the concept of EU citizenship was never meant to be seen as a way towards cultural unification and was simply meant to be a nice compliment to national identity, then surely it too as a concept is happily victorious. It is in such limited and selective readings of the history and inner workings of global politics that the European Union shows its flaws. There have been grand visions and verbose goals spouted from the very beginnings of the European project. These visions and goals proved hopelessly broad and unworkable in a system of nation states vying for power and influence. One cannot ignore that the goals existed in order to show the failure of their realization as some sort of success story. One cannot disregard history so that limitations of relevance are rewritten as planned and premeditated. The concept of EU citizenship, therefore, is not a success in its complimentary nature. EU citizenship is not a shining example of the wonders of integration; it is a formerly extravagant vision of a united European populous that failed in its achievements and had to be scaled back in scope due to the primacy of national interests and identities.

A collection of identities : the UK as a warning to the EU

It is of course undoubtedly true that many within the European Union especially within academic circles and political circles consider themselves to be a combination of both European and their own national identity. Many Italians identify themselves as European. Many Germans see themselves as both a member of Europe and a member of their homeland. There is no denying this duality exists and has grown from the concept of EU citizenship but the goal has not ever been duality. The goal of integration has always been the gradual wearing-away of nationalism. A citizen who sees themselves as both French and European is not a citizen who sees themselves as only European. One need only take a look at the movement in Scotland for independence from the United Kingdom, to see that dual identity does not offer gradual replacement of old identities. For over three hundred years, Scotland has been a member of the United Kingdom, with countless connections both financially and culturally to the rest of the members. Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom enjoy financial union, monetary union, and a political system of inclusion and incorporation, yet there remains a movement towards independence. There remains a concrete sense that being a Scot is different than being a member of the United Kingdom. There of course are many in Scotland who consider this movement impractical and incomprehensible. There are a myriad of reasons to stay in the United Kingdom including both financial and cultural and perhaps it is silly to hearken back to some ancient sense of being Scottish to justify independence. The movement for a free Scotland may not be an overwhelming majority opinion, but the opinion exists and is vehemently defended. What does this tell of identity construction? In his study on European identity, Michael Bruter discusses the emergence of the United Kingdom and how there seem to be institutional weaknesses in forging cultural identity. ‘Almost since the first days of its unification, the United Kingdom has been one of the most striking cases of unbalanced identity construction. The double process of historical absorption of formerly independent entities, and devolution of power as well as the deep economic, social, and political fractures that reinforced the heterogeneity of the country have made it very difficult from the start for institutions to help consolidating a global national identity.’[7] Bruter goes on to show that English identity seems to have taken hold of the United Kingdom’s sense of cultural identity. Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales have distinct histories with separate cultures and identifications even as there exists a civic cohesion in the UK. ‘Britishness’ and ‘Englishness’ seem to have developed into two sides of the same coin at the expense of the other cultural identities inherent in the United Kingdom. Identity construction becomes problematic and duality exists. ‘In fact, according to Pattie, Seyd, and Whiteley (2004), 57 percent of the British population chose ‘English’ as their first level of attachment, but at the same time, according to the data of the national statistics office, 48 percent of Englishmen claim to feel British while this proportion is much lower in Scotland (27%) or Wales (35%).’[8] Such low numbers in Scotland and Wales suggest a clear identification with perceived homes. A Scotsman for the most part is OF Scotland, and just happens to be in a civic union with England, Northern Ireland, and Wales that is called the United Kingdom. One should be very careful to dismiss the movement for Scottish independence as a laughable fringe hearkening back to an ancient irrelevant history. If there is one thing that history has taught us and that is painfully obvious in a study of the European Union, it is that cultural identification matters. Where one feels they are from matters greatly. A political and Economic union cannot assume it has the power to change loyalty and identity. ‘This raises a significant question in the context of the emergence of a mass European identity. In the process of Europeanization, will possible groups’ self-perceptions of being either dominant or marginal in the integration process affect their sense of European identity, and the rationalization of their dominant territorial areas of attachment?’[9]

A Europe of one people ?

If a union of four identities, with hundreds of years of shared history, politics, and economics, has NOT led to the concrete emergence of one over-arching identity, how then could this bulbous collection of twenty seven member states possibly assume that the emergence of one shared European identity is within reach? Are there any scholars of Europe who would argue that there do not exist major tectonic rifts between different areas of Europe in terms of cultural identification? A German may be likely to consider himself European but would a Spaniard or a Greek so readily identify with this supranational construct? Are there not major divisions between ‘Northern Europe’ and ‘Southern Europe’ which have made not only cultural identification difficult, but have had major implications on political and economic decisions? Can one call Europe a land of united culture if they hear constant grumblings ranging from ‘oppressive Germans’ to ‘lazy Greeks’? All throughout the continent, especially in such turbulent political and economic times, divisions are glaring. Stereotypes abound and in times of crisis, the differences and perceptions of varied cultures are emphasized. Look within Europe itself at the former Yugoslavia, and the case for the imposition of one cultural identity among varied cultures and peoples falls quickly and decisively. Within this one area alone, exists countless divisions of identity. In the Cold War, Greece was considered “Western” but the Balkans was considered “Eastern.” The imposition of one state called Yugoslavia did not address the myriad identities present in that area. Religious identities existed from Albanian Muslims to Catholic Macedonians. Cultural identities vied for influence and prominence ranging from Kosovo to Serbia, Albania to Croatia. Wars were fought and the violence seemed endless with the European Union powerless to stop the bloodshed, let alone impose one over-arching European identity. Economics and financial decisions do not lead to cultural changes. Institutions and political constructs do not lead to identity transference. If ever there was a point where the concept of spillover disintegrates, it is in this area. Monnet may have been right saying that combining coal and steel resources and production would lead to more economic and political cohesion between France and Germany, but nowhere could it be argued that France and Germany have disappeared. In terms of both concrete nation state constructs and in terms of cultural identities, France and Germany exist as powerful and resolute as ever. The United Kingdom has existed as a political and economic grouping for hundreds of years. One may argue that the UK and EU are not comparable; the UK was forged through conquest and imposition while the EU is voluntary and forged through agreement and interdependence. The fact remains, however, that both the UK and the EU are examples of a collection of cultural identities being held together by political and financial means. One can see that even through initial conquest, hundreds of years of political and financial union, and attempted imposition of a dominant identity, the United Kingdom has not in fact been successful in forging one culture. A Scotsman is still of Scotland, whether he readily identifies as British or of the United Kingdom. The movement exists today to break free of the Union and Scotland is very seriously considering it. For decades, violence and bloodshed existed between the English and the Northern Irish and until very recently, the prospect of any type of reconciliation seemed elusive. There is not one single identity in the United Kingdom and that is after hundreds of years of cohesion, collaboration, and cooperation. The European Union speaks of cultural identity as if it is a reachable goal. Twenty-seven member states existing peacefully as one united Europe may sound good in speeches and political theory, but to seriously consider that an attainable goal is foolish. The EU is not fully integrated politically or financially. The EU does not have hundreds of years of history and shared culture. The EU has taken only half-measures and small steps towards the goal of identity transformation, and if the United Kingdom itself is not unified culturally, how then can Europe seriously consider itself on the road to such unification? As with the concept of federalism, the desire to bring about one cultural identity in Europe is shown to be regrettably obtuse. Ignoring hundreds of years of history, countless and varied cultural experiences, and attempting to bring about massive cultural identification changes through limited economic and political actions, the European project has proven woefully inadequate as a mechanism for transformation.

Louis Amoriello

LOUIS AMORIELLO is a recent Master’s graduate of the London School of Economics where he studied “Politics and Government in the European Union.” His dissertation, “The Quixotic Struggle Towards a Federation of Europe: Inherent Flaws in the European Union” examined weaknesses in the construction and implementation of the Union that led to failures in the goals of federation, normative power, and identity construction. With a background in Global Politics and European history, Louis’s interests focus on International Relations and Europe as a cultural unifier.



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[1] Churchill, W. (1946, September). Speech presented at University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Schuman, R. (1950, May). Declaration presented in Paris, France.

[4] Banchoff, T. (1999). Legitimacy and the European Union: The Contested Polity. London: Routledge, 155.

[5] Ibid,

[6] Ibid, 156.

[7] Bruter, M. (2005). Citizens of Europe? The Emergence of a Mass European Identity. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 43.

[8] Ibid, 44.

[9] Ibid, 45.

One Comment »

  1. Tim Decker 06/02/2013 at 00:11 - Reply

    Great article, Lou.

    While I agree with the vast amount of your article, I would point to the United States as a clear example of how a large multi-state political and economic union can turn into a commonly held identity.

    Certainly, as you pointed out, this identity cannot be achieved by simply political and economic union, for us Americans it starts at a young age and primarily through the educational system.

    What American child, oversees or in the States, does not begin each day with the Pledge of Allegiance? Yes, there is a common historical bond, but if Europe is to forge that common ideal, it is likely to start at the youngest levels, as successive generations advance with less ties to their parents and grandparents living memories of the Cold War, and World Wars that have divided Europe for so long.

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