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3. September 2009

Paper for: 105th Annual Meeting & Exhibition of American Political Science Association

“Politics in Motion: Change and Complexitiy in the Contemporary Era”, Toronto, Canada, September 3rd, 2009

Where is Europe and what does it mean to be European?

Once in the eighties Margaret Thatcher visited Poland, a country which was then, against the will of most Poles, a satellite of Soviet Union and a kind of its ally. On that occasion she met a child whom she asked “Do you know where Poland lies?” And then gave an answer herself by laying the child’s hand on its heart and saying “Poland is here”. Poles all over the world understood this gesture well. They understood well that regardless circumstances – be their fatherland free or under occupation, connected or disconnected with the free world, a geographically big or small country – Poland would remain in heads and hearts of the Poles an independent force able to political acting. In other words: the Polish nation is willing and able to legitimize its own state. There is a Polish community which wants to be ruled by the genuinely Polish state. Of course, the same is true for other nations all over the world. All of them are nationalistic insofar as they are bound to the idea of the political sovereignty for the nations.

If we examine the matter of Europe the same way, the results will be quite different. One could hardly find Europe in the hearts of European Union’s citizens. Nonetheless, there is some rational support for a United Europe. But paradoxically, its cause is national, because the EU-Europeans see their national interest in the existence of the EU. This interest may be defined in terms of economy (big European market or subvention fond) or politics (questions of collective security or fight against organized crime). So, the EU-Europeans are apparently not able and not willing to legitimize the European state - that is - to accept a political European Union which would exercise the sovereign power, similarly to the national states.

The question arises, whether under these circumstances being European could mean something more than being the inhabitant of Europe. And usually questions concerning European identity are asked this way: one wants to know, where the European borders are, in order to know, who lives within them, meaning somebody who has a European identity. This way we are used to asking for example about Turkey and Russia as European or non European countries in order to know about the Turks and the Russians as being Europeans or non-Europeans. Hardly anyone sees the European identity as a matter of heart and ratio of men and women wherever they may live. Thus, questions of geography, culture, and religion usually wrongly appear for us to be much more important than emotional and rational basics of political identity.

There is no doubt about the great political significance of the European Union for all its members and about the hope it gives many peoples outside it. There is no exaggeration to say that the freedom in Europe depends to a great extent on the European Union. The same is true for prosperity. Because freedom and prosperity are perceived as important national goals, it could be taken for granted for a period of one generation that many post-communist European nations would suffer patiently from their system transformation in order to join the exclusive club of the free and the rich. Respective elites accepted the fact that in Brussels decisions had been taken about their countries development directions. Thus sole existence of the European

Union, the very example of it, contributed mainly to its eastern enlargement.

This enlargement has meanwhile proved to be a great success mainly in economic terms. At the same time there are signs that especially young generations in the new EU member states identify themselves with Europe in a naturally unaware way, which appears astounding among people having been compelled to get visa for every visit in Western Europe until their EU accession. No one knows the numbers but approximately millions of “new Europeans” live currently in “old Europe”. Hence, Europe has become a natural “lebensraum” for them.

Similarly quickly, representatives of old generations have understood that European Union has provided significant development help which actually has increased the level of prosperity. Last but not least, the political elites have discovered the European Union as a platform to perform their domestic and foreign policies.

However, no one knows exactly if these processes would lead to the equally successful construction of European identity. The immigrants from the new countries apparently have not exerted European impact on societies within which they live, at least so far. The future will show, whether they gain any new identity as Irish, Spaniard or English etc. or remain emigrants with their national identity. The chances for them to effectively create European identity seem less probable because of their low social status in the countries of their current residence. The fact that they now live in states which function much better than their own. also prevents them from playing a role of messianic Europeans. Finally, the experience with the preceding enlargements of the European Union shows that related economic progress does not make people feel more European. Thus, there is no connection between the high level of prosperity and European consciousness. The opposite seems to be the case, as the examples of the French, the Dutchmen and the Irish rejecting the so called European Constitution or the Lisbon Treaty on the one hand, and the Germans practising Re-Nationalisation of their foreign policy on the other hand have showed. There is no reason to assume that the case of “new Europe” will turn out to be different.

Additionally there is no sign whatsoever that the political elites in the post-communist countries would be able to think and act in a more European way than the elites of the “old Europe”. There are many signs, however, that they have not learnt much from their West European counterparts. They similarly use the European Union for national purposes but fail to hide it behind pro-European political rhetoric. Therefore, in a world of European institutions they are easy to be condemned as “nationalists”.

It has been too short a time to ultimately assess the final impact of East European enlargement on European identity. On the one hand, the new EU-members with their natural positive attitudes towards European Union may “refresh” the West European world of nationalists loudly pretending to be Europeans. On the other hand, some important factors hinder the positive impact of these attitudes: overall economic weakness of the “new Europe”, its economic dependency on EU subventions and the lack of professionalism evidenced frequently by eastern elites. It is impossible to say, whether the European development or a nationalist regress prevails. Hence, for the time being, the situation is in flux. Paradoxically, this can be regarded as a chance for new, more European political consciousness of the EU Europeans. This chance, however, must first be realized. Consequently political action is necessary, as the successes achieved by indented development of modern national identity suggests.

But who should assume the role of constructors? What should be European identity comprised of? And should European identity replace national identities?

The constructors of European identity are to be found among elites in today’s Europe. They must be convinced that European nations without a sovereign European Union are not able to cope with the big problems of the present: freedom, security and prosperity in Europe and the world, energy policies and climate change. Furthermore, they must be willing to seriously prompting the EU to take global political responsibility, which means to create a new global player as strong as the USA. There are people in Europe who share these ideas and the ideas themselves are quite popular on the Old Continent. But there is no political power behind both of them. Firstly, because they are dispersed. Secondly, because public opinion in Europe as well as the channels of the EU politics are deeply rooted in national politics. Under these circumstances it comes as no surprise that the construction of European identity may appear as a vicious circle: it cannot be created by means of national or nationally influenced institutions, while these institutions, deprived of European identity, cannot be transformed into more European ones.

The solution is the democratization of the EU. The more democratic the European Union is, the easier the European state emerges. For democracy means the sovereignty of the people, a democratic political system on the European level must be as sovereign as a state. Again, the chances for the EU democratisation could be taken seriously by the elites from “new Europe”, not only because of their fresh pro-European attitude, but also because for them strengthening Europe means also self-strengthening by weakening the big EU-players.

But democratization of the EU would not automatically generate a new European identity with contents actually shared by EU-citizens. These contents, on which there must be a kind of elite’s consensus, has to be spread among inhabitants of the EU. European identity should bear ideas of European democracy, of cultural plurality and of common European history traced back to ancient Greece, Rome, Christianity, Judaism and Moslem traditions. Especially common European history cannot be effectively propagated without work of historians able to overthrow the limits set by nationalist historiography still prevailing in European schools. At the same time, the political support from nation states is necessary. Their leaders may finally recognise their interest in banning narrow minded historical narratives from their schools. Again, the new EU members could appear as most interested in such a change, because they have meanwhile recognized that West Europeans are not willing to give up their partially naïve and incorrect “official” history interpretations in which there is almost no place for Eastern Europe, Western collaboration with communist totalitarianism and an honest occupation with crimes and betrayals all over the world committed by their ancestress at least since the time of colonisation.

Fostering European identity would only modify national identities but by no means replace them. Even more: Interpretation of national histories should support the interpretation of the common European history taught in national states’ schools. In the history of every European country there are enough traditions of positive cultural, political and religious plurality, which should be used to construct both open minded national and European identity. Stressing the remarkable federal and universal traditions of the Old Continent would also be helpful. The European identity could pose a real danger for national identity, only if the abolishment of national states on behalf of a unitary EU-state was possible, which obviously is not the case. The way the sovereign European Union could complement national states within a well structured federal system, so could the European identity complement both the national and regional identities.

As mentioned above, fostering European identity through democratization and spreading ideas among the EU-citizens can be facilitated by favourable circumstances created by the European Union’s enlargement policy. Unfortunately, there are no signs of new member elites’ readiness to use these circumstances to the benefit of their own countries which means moving politically from the periphery to the centre of Europe. Hence, the chances for the “new Europe” to play a more important role in the EU and to shift the Union to a political community are small. It seems that among the new members only the bigger ones would gain more political importance, if their economic development remained strong. This scenario may appear attractive to the countries concerned, but it kills Europe, which especially these countries need so much, so that they should take it to heart.

  1. Fakultät für Philosophie, Kunst-, Geschichts- und Gesellschaftswissenschaften
  2. Institut für Politikwissenschaft

Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft (Mittel- und Osteuropa)



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