In Search for a European Identity*

Alessandro Cavalli
Professor of Sociology at the University of Pavia, Italy

The sense of belonging to the European Union and, more generally, the feelings of European identity are phenomena in the making that can evolve, strengthen or weaken, according to the developments of the integration/unification process.

It is not a question of building the myth of Europe, as the nation states have built the myth of the nation. Europe could never become a nation, but only a union of peoples, a post-national construction, a unity in diversity. But even so it will still need to develop a kind of European identity. This identity will, hopefully, not be as strong and exclusive as national identities have been in the past. A fundamental task in the formation of a European identity will certainly have to be carried out by schools, taking care however not to slip into an excess of Eurocentrism and/or European chauvinism.

The European identity cannot be based on a common language. English will be the common language since it is the language of international exchanges, the language of everyone and of no one and, after Brexit, it is not the official language of any of the 27 countries of the Union, not even of Ireland, where Gaelic is the official spoken language. In order to have access to the culture of other peoples, English will not be enough; every European, in addition to his or her mother tongue and English, will have to be able to speak, read and write in at least one other of the 24 official languages of the EU. Trilingualism will have to be the mark of the European citizen.

If not the language, maybe religion can be the focus of a common European identity. A few years ago, at the time of the Convention charged with the drafting of a European Constitutional treaty, a lively debate arose about the proposal to include a reference to the “Christian roots” of European identity: the secular and the religious tradition confronted each other. No doubt that European culture is unconceivable without the tradition of Christian religion, as well as without the tradition of classical Greece or Roman law. However, to this tradition belong also centuries of religious wars against peoples of different faiths, outside and inside Christianity, fighting bitterly each other and spreading desolation and death all over Europe. Not to mention the facts that also antisemitism has a long tradition in Europe, and that the spread of the Christian faith all over the world was accompanied, anticipated or followed, by wars of colonial expansion.

There is no doubt that secularization has spread all over the continent. However, secularization can hardly be understood as an identity trait, but a secular view based on religious tolerance can indeed become a positive message that Europe offers to the rest of the world, based on its tragic experience of religious wars.

The common history will be the history of the "civil wars" that the European states fought among themselves in Europe, in the world and with the rest of the world, a history in which all the particular histories of its thousand cities and its hundred regions can be framed. It will be the history of the great cultural currents and their local and national variations: every country has had its Renaissance, its Enlightenment, its Baroque, its Romanticism and its science, which never had any nationality. The same is true for music and all the figurative arts, but also for all those forms that require linguistic mediation, and therefore express a particular variant of a single cultural heritage. Voltaire, Hume or Kant, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy or Pirandello, Galilei or Newton (to name just the names that come to my mind first) would be impoverished if their works were circumscribed to the cultural heritage of the country in which they were born or found themselves living. It is certainly a good thing that Dante and Manzoni are read in Italian schools, but neither can we ignore Goethe’s Faust, Cervantes’ Don Quixote or Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Of course, the common European historical memory will also include the tragedies and iniquities of which the European states have been guilty in the course of history, from the Crusades to colonial dominations, anti-Semitism and the Shoah. Regarding the Shoah, of which last January the 27th was the day of remembrance, and many schools visited the Auschwitz camp museum, it will be important not to forget that Nazism represented the last extreme act of a long history of persecution of the Jews, that involved the whole of Europe from Spain in the West to Russia in the East. In addition to Auschwitz, however, it would be useful to organize school visits to the many military cemeteries that sadly dot the landscape of many European regions, so that we do not forget that the experience of war has marked the lives of entire generations of Europeans.

It may be that in time the symbols of belonging (the blue flag with the 12 golden stars and the hymn to joy from the finale of Beethoven's 9th symphony) will gain in importance, adding to and not replacing the national symbols. On the other hand, it is unlikely that an official EU team could be set up to participate in the Soccer World Cup, while it is possible that the national championships would lose some importance compared to the European Cup competitions. It is possible, although not probable, that May 9th will become a popular holiday like July 14th is in France; I don’t know if today 10% of the population of the EU knows that May 9th is Europe’s Day, in memory of the speech in which Robert Schumann in 1950 proposed the pooling of coal and steel resources in order to avoid the possibility of future inter-European wars. It could perhaps become the day celebrating the memory of all the fallen of all the wars that Europeans fought against other Europeans. There will not be, instead, we hope for a long time to come, a military parade in front of the EU headquarters in Brussels, unless the EU is forced to defend itself from some external enemy.

The commemoration of the victims of infra-European wars will also concern the frequent case of border territories between two nations that historically have been the object of encounters, clashes, occupations, deportations, partitions, genocides and forced or voluntary migrations.  Starting from the extreme West and going towards the East, apart from the events of the partition of the Iberian Peninsula between the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain, we have the case of the Basques, a population settled in ancient times between the northern part of the Pyrenees and the Atlantic Ocean, speaking a language not belonging to the Indo-European family and divided to this day between Spain and France. Then we find all the areas and the populations on the eastern border of France, the French-speaking part of Belgium and Luxembourg, the populations of the Rhine area, of Alsace and Lorraine historically disputed between France and Germany and often bilingual. Going down further south, we have the border areas between France and Italy, Nice, Brig and Tende, Valle d'Aosta and, going up further north, apart from Switzerland with its four linguistic communities, a true multicultural nation, Friesland, historically disputed and now divided between Holland and Germany, the Danish minority in the North of Germany and the German minority in the South of Denmark, not to mention the German (and Russian) minorities in the Baltic countries, and the Swedish minority in Finland.  Then there is the whole vast area of contact, often of clash, sometimes of exchange, between Germanic and Slavic populations (from East Prussia, now Russian, to the territories of Silesia, disputed between Germans, Poles, Slovaks), the areas of Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, and then again the Alto-Adige/South-Tyrol, the Slovenian minorities in Italy and Italian minorities in Slovenia and Croatia, the Greek and Albanian minorities in Italy, the chaos of the Balkan area, the division of Cyprus between Greece and Turkey, and who knows how many others.

Almost all these areas, that have been historically disputed, sometimes peacefully and often with unprecedented violence and suffering, are now within the borders of the European Union and there is no member country that has not had problems with its neighbors in the past. Memories are often divided, but history cannot be erased, and removals risk being more cumbersome than memories.  One of the tasks of civic/civil education in the EU and its member countries is to be willing and able to address the wounds left by history based on the idea that every memory is legitimate and that historical truth cannot be reconciled or removed, but only approached through the understanding of the narrative of the other. Therefore, it is not a matter of adopting a surface irenicism, but of recognizing and overcoming historically determined fractures.

Beyond the symbols of identity, it is possible that silent, inconspicuous, and in a certain sense banal forms of acquiring a European identity may emerge, which have to do with the slow and almost unconscious accumulation of relational experiences in daily life that go beyond national borders. There are several factors that contribute to the formation of this “banal” form of identity. On the one hand, there is the thickening of commercial exchanges, in the course of which partners get to know each other and establish relationships of mutual trust over time. Trade needs credit, and credit needs trust. On the other hand, there is international mass tourism, which has undergone an extraordinary expansion in recent decades and which, even at a superficial level, makes it possible to grasp similarities and differences and to become more familiar with different cultures, especially if language barriers are lowered.

Another factor concerns internal migration movements within EU countries. For example, the Registry of Italian citizens residing abroad tells us that they are about 5 millions, of whom slightly less than a half reside in a European country, and the figure is certainly larger since many migrants are thought to be temporary and do not officially transfer their residence. On the whole, almost 22 million EU citizens live in a EU country other than the one in which they were born, and it is very likely that this minority has a more precise awareness of its European identity than people that never left their homeland. However, migration is not only, nor even primarily, an intra-European phenomenon. Europe, from which tens of millions of people migrated to other continents over the centuries, has increasingly become an area of immigration since the end of colonialism, and European countries are becoming, not without problems and difficulties, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies. Migrants to Europe are often willing to become as soon as possible European citizens, in order to improve their geographic and social mobility.

In addition, a further factor, perhaps the most important in view of the formation of a ruling class with a European spirit, is student exchanges between schools, universities and other institutions of higher learning. Since 1987, the Erasmus program has been active, involving over time at least 5 million young people and in recent years a share of 8.5% of all students in tertiary education. Personal relationships of friendship and possible future professional collaboration are also bound up with these experiences, and the increase in the formation of mixed couples of partners of different nationalities is not surprising either. Finally, a further factor refers to the consumption of mass cultural products (from cinema to pop music to video games). In this area, the share of production and consumption that can be labeled as "national" is now very small, and the phenomenon has global dimensions that are clearly not limited to the area of Europe.

Identity, however, does not only concern the images of the past and the present. There is no identity without images of the future.  Europeans have another task to accomplish not only for their own benefit but also for that of the rest of the world: they have to show that it is possible to overcome the national dimension of statehood and build supranational institutions endowed with limited but effective powers. It is in this perspective that the idea of “constitutional patriotism” assumes political significance in the debate over a European identity, opened toward a cosmopolitan dimension. Should French and Dutch citizens in 2005 have approved the Constitutional Treaty proposed by the Convention chaired by Giscard d’Estaing, the European peoples would probably by now have acquired a stronger identity based on “constitutional patriotism”. What was not accomplished then remains a task for the future.


* This paper is part of a larger project on aids and means designed for civil education: “Scuola Democratica”, Special issue, n. 4, 2020, forthcoming.

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