In Pursuit of a European Identity

Grazia Borgna
Former Director of CESI (Einstein Center for International Studies), Torino, Italy

In the debate on the “rediscovery of identity”, the question of European identity also comes up: what unites us? what makes us feel like a community of destiny? Who are the friends and who are the enemies? Many authors have grappled with this delicate issue.

In 2008, Tzvetan Todorov, in his essay “European identity”[i], asked himself the question of what European identity is. Although a long time has passed, his arguments remain highly topical. Resuming his reflections today is important, because he did not limit himself to denouncing the shortcomings, especially of Europe, but identified, with concrete proposals, the way to overcome them and bring citizens closer to politics.

He wonders whether Europeans do feel a sense of belonging, of identity not only at the national level but also at the European level. And he notes that the current economic and institutional European Union has failed to warm up the hearts, to unite them in a community founded on the perception of having a common identity. He affirms that the lacking element in the European construction is not having been able to hold culture, the European dimension of culture, in high regard. And he states: “Culture must become the third pillar of the European construction alongside the economy and the legal and political institutions”. “Europe has lost sight of the European project as such …, [and] in order to regain strength ... it needs an additional impulse, ... a shared passion”. To this end, it must strengthen its own identity. He believes that the perception of a common identity will strengthen democracy and participation.

He poses a question which he believes we must start from in order to understand European identity. If the main characteristic of Europe is that of having guaranteed the coexistence of a great plurality of cultures, what is the element that holds them together? Is it the fact that coexistence is regulated? Or that citizens do feel part of a whole? And what is the path that allows us to identify the common identity of Europeans?

To perceive the sense of belonging and a common identity, the European citizens have to retrace the history of Europe. He reminds that European civilization has its roots in the world of Greek and / or Christian culture. But he observes that these cultures have gradually enriched themselves with the contribution of other civilizations with which Europeans have come into contact. And to these were added the contributions brought by the Enlightenment and Humanism. Consequently, he says, we cannot refer, as some argue, especially the right, to an immutable collective identity, established once and for all. Identity evolves, changes continuously.

If we want to understand what the common identity of Europeans is, without disregarding past history, we must follow, according to Todorov, another path. What, according to the author, distinguishes Europe from other multinational states is its relationship with the Second World War. A relatively recent fact. Europe was born from the “desire to eliminate war between member countries; ... it proclaims ... the renunciation of the use of force in case of conflict; sets ... an insurmountable limit to the effects of diversity”. Principles aimed at preventing conflicts and which have been written down in legal norms. Todorov gives some examples: - no member state must have a hegemonic position; - the principle of secularism must be respected; - the “general will” (one which takes into account the “point of view of the others”, not a sort of “the will of all”, but the overcoming of “us” as opposed to “the others”) must be respected.

The distinctive element of Europe consists in the fact that “it is not a nation, but a form of coexistence of nations”. The specificity of Europe lies in this balance between unity and plurality. This is its identity, its culture.

Todorov seeks an answer to the question: “what does Europe lack to warm up the hearts of its citizens?”, and affirms that although it is true that Europe, in order to achieve Peace, has learned to convert “plurality into unity”, the mere enunciation of these principles is not enough. It is necessary to “launch the political engine of the Union and ensure its action in the various areas of common life in which unity is preferable to plurality”. And he indicates those that, according to him, “are the main ones: ecology, scientific research, immigration, the economy, security, energy. Areas in which power, if it remains in the hands of national governments, is inadequate to tackle such problems and actually undermines the solidarity between the peoples of Europe. This solidarity can only arise if the peoples feel a sense of responsibility towards each other, and this feeling in turn derives from the democratic participation in the common choice of one destiny”. Today, “each people looks after itself, ... the threats of World War II are far away now”. Young Europeans “find it hard to imagine that the countries among which they circulate so freely could have waged war to each other in the recent past”. Todorov reiterates that the unifying value of Europe is Peace, but he notes that the call for peace is no longer capable of mobilizing the Europeans, who “consider the absence of wars to be an established fact”. But Europeans, Todorov says, should know that “they do not live in a world from which all motives for violence and aggression have miraculously disappeared”. Europe is called, precisely because it has achieved it internally, “to make a contribution to the consolidation ... of the plurality of human societies, ... in a state of coexistence and balance ... for peace on earth”.

Giving value to the peaceful coexistence of consolidated pluralities, and to openness to the world brings us back, says Todorov, to the characteristics of Greek civilization: an open, cosmopolitan society. Very different, for example, from a centralized, closed empire like the Chinese one. Recalling Ulrich Beck’s thought, he emphasizes that a profound cosmopolitanism has always inspired Europe.

Todorov, however, points out that unity and Peace are not a natural fact, but derive from precise choices. Europe is founded on a “Statute”, establishing rules that safeguard, but at the same time limit, diversity. The aim was not just to safeguard the principle of “tolerance,” of “acceptance of diversity.” But to assert much more, and something deeply different. Mere tolerance cannot generate social cohesion, because it entails a hierarchy between those who tolerate and those who are tolerated, thus generating tensions. The European Statute puts all Member States on an equal footing. And this was possible because, Todorov recalls, Europe has got a situation that favored coexistence: it is made up of “a set of smaller entities that obey a common norm”, but above all they “enjoy equal rights”, and the individual entities “have a legal status”. Coexistence is regulated at all levels. If one of these three characteristics is absent or dominant, “we are witnessing other forms of coexistence.” It is these characteristics that make Europe a unique supranational democracy in the world.

When Todorov speaks of a “Statute”, he is referring to the Treaties that Europe has gradually given itself as a result of intergovernmental agreements. We must observe that if it is true that this method has advanced the unification process, it has not given Europe the necessary strength to intervene adequately when the globalization process was taking hold. Because, as Alessandro Cavalli recently wrote in his essay “The difficult construction of a European identity”, “without a sufficiently strong European identity, capable of supporting the Europeanization process, the European Union is destined to suffer the effects of globalization without being able to govern them”. Maintaining strong governmental powers not only weakens Europe’s decision-making power, but also weakens the states themselves, unable to tackle problems no longer within their reach, and to answer adequately to the needs of citizens. The weakness of states brings serious consequences for the stability of democratic systems. Todorov warns us against the illusion that the horrors of totalitarianism are behind us.

Indeed, if we look today at Europe and the rest of the planet, we must acknowledge the existence of undemocratic temptations. A political confrontation is taking place, especially in the Western world, on the outcome of which the future of the Earth and the men who inhabit it will depend. This is not  a return to the class struggle of the past, but the rise of different “visions” on the type of socio-economic development capable of guaranteeing democracy, freedom, and social justice, and on the kind of state that is adequate to achieve it. A clash between federalism and nationalism. In Europe, we have witnessed the rebirth of Nazi-nationalist-sovereign groups. We must note that although Europe is the most advanced democracy with regard to the recognition of human rights, only a part of its citizens share and support them. The other part is fighting them. This is a phenomenon that has global dimensions. The sovereignist parties, which have been defeated in the European and American elections, nonetheless enjoy a consensus.

At the root of the polarization of society, there is above all the increase in inequalities. Since the 1970s, the Member States of the European Union have weakened the social model that ensured citizens a safety net from the great risks of life (illness, unemployment, accidents, old age, etc.) and gave the certainty that no one would be left without a minimum of safeguards. The recent economic and health crises show that if the state is unable to ensure security, work and a dignified life for citizens, the loss of consent and social conflict are inevitable.

The evolving world scenario poses serious problems to Europe with regard to its internal and external adaptation of its institutional set-up. To Todorov’s arguments it should be added that the Europe of the Treaties lacks a Constitutional Charter that together with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union outlines a state project in which citizens count and are sovereign, and democracy is assured not only at the national level but also at the supranational level. Looking at the need for security, Todorov tackles the delicate issue of borders and the defense of Europe. While aiming to be a “soft power”, without an imperial project, he states that “Europe must have a military force”, because “its interests do not coincide with those of any other part of the world”. And considering that Europe’s unity is not irreversible, its identity must be safeguarded. This must become a driving force for unity.

If Europe wants to safeguard its identity, it must protect it. Todorov stresses that some protective policies are already in place: those who want to join the Union must commit themselves to respecting its constitutive principles, recognizing and respecting the diversity of others. But he observes that, if Europe wants to expand its borders to the countries to the east and the south, and to propose its own example of Peace, it must adopt other solutions. The limits and principles that regulate the Member States of the Union cannot be applied, for example, to the numerous neighboring states with which Europe has many interests in common, but whose regimes are so different. It could make use, however, of treaties of association.

Since 2008, when this essay was written, the world has changed dramatically. The current economic, environmental and social crises demonstrate that decisive steps forward are needed not only at the European level, but at the global level too, to safeguard Peace and promote development. It is clear that without a democratic government, the global economy, left to itself, produces very serious damages. There is a lot of resistance in the world summits to change course. On the other hand, Europe has recently taken important decisions. Faced with the need to tackle the environmental and social challenges of today’s world, it has decided to steer the development model toward an eco-sustainable economy and full employment, especially for young people. This might let the Union’s democratic and social soul re-emerge and awaken citizens in their sense of belonging. Other steps are being taken at the institutional level as well. With the European elections in 2014 and 2019, more power was given to the Commission, understood as the emerging European government. This enabled the Commission to launch the Next Generation EU investment plan, with a majority vote overcoming the paralyzing national veto. Indeed, the power of European governments has been reduced.

A broad consultation of European civil society is being planned, a Conference on the Future of Europe which, by giving citizens a voice, can make the exercise of European citizenship a reality.


[i] Tzvetan Todorov (& Nathan Bracher, transl.), European identity, in South Central Review, Vol. 25, No. 3, Intellectuals, Nationalisms, and European Identity (Fall, 2008) pp. 3-15 (13 pages) Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press,

Centro Studi sul Federalismo

© 2001 - 2021 - Centro Studi sul Federalismo - Codice Fiscale 94067130016

Credits  |  About  |  Privacy Policy  |  Cookies
Fondazione Compagnia San Paolo
The activities of the Centre for Studies on Federalism are  accomplished thanks to the support of Fondazione Compagnia di San Paolo
Fondazione Collegio Carlo Alberto
Our thanks to Fondazione Collegio Carlo Alberto

This website uses cookies to manage authentication, navigation, and other functions. By using our website, you agree that we can place these types of cookies on your device.