European Identity: A Crisis of Construction in the 21st Century?

05/29/2015 05:43 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2016
Shutterstock / Jorg Hackemann

By Chloe Colliver, Yale

In 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called for a remedy to the European tragedy of World War II: the creation of a "European Family". Citizens could share a sense of "patriotism and common citizenship" across a peaceful continent. It was in this particular context, a wreck manufactured by destructive nationalisms, that the narrative of a shared European identity came into vocalized realization. The new narrative of European identity granted a visionary, emotive quality to the prosaic necessity of finding remedies for the collective economic disarray of the postwar era. 'European identity' was the construct of a Europe torn apart by World War - a Europe hard-pressed by the requirement to rebuild its economic and moral strength.

European identity is a social construction. It has meant different things to different people across the past seventy years. Out of the rescue-remedy of the postwar decade, European identity emerged in the 1960s as a channel through which to forge a secure space in a world polarizing between two Cold War global superpowers. The 1990's witnessed the pinnacle of the utopian vision of European identity: it seemed that European politicians had succeeded in integrating nations into a strong Europe, with a coherent identity of peace and prosperity. At the helm stood Jacques Delors, propagating a myth by which pragmatic initiatives were interpreted in retrospect as part of a determined march towards a united Europe. A narrative was conceived that constructed a shared past and a shared future for Europe's citizens.

In the twenty-first century, however, we have reached a crisis point in the construction of European identity. The 'peace and prosperity' that apparently underlie what it means to be European are mutually deteriorating before our eyes. The European Union is under enormous strain. The financial crisis exacerbated underlying tensions among member states, and saw Europe slow in the global race against emerging markets in China and South Asia. The rejection of the 2005 Constitution and the protracted, embattled road to ratification of the Lisbon Treaty four years later represented minor constitutional crises at the heart of the European social and political project. Europe's peace and security is under external threat: the rise of an aggressive Russia on its eastern borders, and of a terrorizing ISIS in the Middle East constitute newly urgent dangers for European defense. To top it off, the risk of a 'Brexit' looms large with the future referendum set to take place in the UK by 2017. The uncertainty and fragmentation of the twenty-first century is threatening the narrative of continental solidarity that held European identity strong through the 1990's.

Is the successful construction of European identity only viable in periods of success and prosperity? Certainly, the idea of belonging appeals most in times of health and happiness, much less so in times of struggle. Yet it is at these tense times that a sense of community is needed more than ever. If Europe's citizens are to sustain that precious 'peace and prosperity' long into the future, then renewing and reviewing a notion of what it means to be European amid the predicaments of the present is imperative. Only by creating a sense of belonging that is relevant and significant in the contemporary context, moving away from the idealistic rhetoric of 1990's, can we confront the troubling trends of social disintegration emerging across Europe's nations under the influence of resurgent right-wing nationalisms.

Europe is a stronger place when its citizens work together both within their states and between them. The two levels of identity - the national and the European - can give Europe's citizens the best of both worlds: patriotic belonging alongside European cooperation and communality. T. S. Eliot once stated that, "the unity of culture, in contrast to the unity of political organization, does not require us to have one loyalty". It is through this understanding, by focusing on social and cultural values, that a viable future for shared European identity can be found. In searching for a narrative that can tie the divergent strands of European identities together in the present dilemma, there is no longer space for an idealistic, utopian account that can match the emotional resonance of the 'American dream' across the Atlantic. In a time of strain, we must return to the rational and realistic tenets on which Europe was first constructed. It retains a precious common framework of justice and human rights, where democratic standards are protected and cultural links are fostered. These values can provide a compelling basis for communal identity, even in a time of vulnerability and struggling economies. Focusing on the shared cultural engagement, the common historical inheritance, and the fraternization of peoples that have been steadfast qualities of the European ideal since 1945 - qualities that impact the everyday lives of the European man or woman, far from the bureaucracy of Brussels - will allow European identity and a concept of European belonging to endure among the young generation.

While politicians fight over 'Anglo-Saxon', 'French' or 'German' visions of Europe, the publics of the EU's member states are being left behind. European identity is about people. It is about connecting the millions who live within a continent that houses shared values of democracy in politics, humanitarian justice in the law, a vibrant and open exchange of goods and technology, and energized transnational cultural production. Only with a continued and concerted efforts to engage populations from London to Lisbon, from Sofia to Stockholm, can these positive and precious traits of European identity be renewed and strengthened at this critical juncture.