Why the quest to establish a European “national” identity will fail – guest article by Gregory Slysz

Why the quest to establish a Euro-wide “national” identity

will fail

Guest article by GREGORY SLYSZ

On 12 September 2012, in a speech to the European Parliament, the current President of the EU Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, a former Maoist and member of Portugal’s Communist Party, called for a “European federation of nation states”. Many believe that this phrase is really a euphemism for a centralised European super-state. If so, he was not the first to suggest such a formula for Europe.[i][1] Far from it; it comes from a deep ideological conviction that was first mooted by the early fathers of European integration and which has been proclaimed ever since. The current leaders of the EU hope that their ideological pipe-dream may finally be fully implemented, using the cover of threatening global competition and the self-induced economic turmoil.

In the same way as Soviet internationalists approached their ideology, advocates of a European super-state view their idea as an inevitable historical process, a panacea for Europe’s ills. But as in the Soviet Union, the integrationist project is destined to fail – and for similar reasons. EU integrationists may have used stealth rather than revolution to further their project, but integrationist ideology simply cannot override national identity, nor can it deliver an enduring economic system across a diverse geographical and cultural area.

The task ahead

The overriding aim of the EU, which is declared in the preamble of all its treaties, is “to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, that seeks to transcend national boundaries and primordial theories of ‘belonging’. This new sense of belonging among Europe’s peoples was to elevate common values such as civic, social and human rights over and above national affiliations based on ethnic homogeneity, common language, race, blood ties and history. To achieve this, an intricate programme of political and cultural socialisation is supported by a comprehensive supranational European institutional framework designed to cover every aspect of cultural activity.

The Commission is certainly well aware that if the project of European integration is to have any chance of long-term success it needs to accommodate a decisive plan for the creation of a Europe-wide feeling of belonging among the peoples of the members states.[ii][2] At present, despite all the EU’s efforts, a ‘European consciousness’ is largely confined to Europe’s political and economic elites. Neo-functionalist attempts to foster a European identity from above through incremental integration of political, economic and social institutions have clearly failed. The task of generating a European identity has grown even more problematic by the EU’s enlargement towards eastern Europe, with its disparate and strong national identities.

The creation of a ‘European identity’ encounters several problems, similar to those encountered by antecedent attempts to manufacture supranational identities. Identity formation in the Soviet Union provides a good, if not exact, parallel with that of the EU. To begin with, the EU shares with the Soviet Union a multinational, multilingual character as well as an ambition to assume a supranational identity. There is, of course, much that is different in the EU: there is no formal ideology with which to justify the state, no dominant nationality with which to associate it and no (at least yet) fully developed coercive policy with which to pacify its opponents into submission. The differences, however, fail to disguise the similarities.

A European identity through ‘unity in diversity’

One way of pursuing “ever closer union” has been through the idea of “unity in diversity” based on the concept of “subsidiarity” that has been sold as bringing decision-making closer to the people. But with so few policy areas to which subsidiarity can be applied, the concept is little more than a ruse. Rather than democratising decision-making, the idea of ‘unity in diversity’ is underpinned by a hidden political agenda that desires not to further local and regional identities per se but to use them to undermine the national unity of nation-states, with the ultimate aim of transcending all identities by an supranational ‘European’ identity.

The EU’s work in implementing subsidiarity is aided by the existence, in all EU member states, of numerous regional and trans-border identities, whose assertiveness is actively encouraged by such EU agencies such as the Committee of Regions (COR) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). These are used as vehicles to weaken national identities by by-passing national governments with direct regional funding. As COR’s president, Professor Manfred Dammeyer, outlined in 1998

“At the close of the twentieth century the concepts of the nation and the state are fading away…We need to pursue the process of European integration (which means) strengthening the regions…[iii][3]there is no responsible alternative to this process if European integration is to press ahead”[iv][4]

The destructive impact of the EU’s regional policy can be seen throughout Europe, from Britain to Germany, from Poland to Spain, as regions seek to acquire varying degrees of autonomy or independence.

The ‘unity in diversity’ principle of generating an identity has a familiar ring to it. In fact it was a key feature of the Soviet Union’s method of overcoming its national divisions. Governed by a mixture of beguiling ideology and brute force, the modus operandi of the so-called Soviet nationality policy was three mutually inclusive ideological concepts which, it was claimed by their architects, bore witness to the development of the ‘Soviet people’ Sovetski narod into fully conscious communists. Nations were first to “flower” (rastvet), then “grow closer together” as national animosities grew less (sblizhenie), until finally “merge” (sliyanie) into one people. The similarity between the Soviet Communist Party’s formula to create a communist society and the formula codified in the Maastricht Treaty to create cultural homogeneity is striking.

Where the Communist Party Programme of 1961, a watershed in Soviet identity politics, declared the need to construct national relations “…in which the nations will draw still closer together until complete unity is achieved”, the Maastricht Treaty, declares, as its overriding aim, “an ever closer union among the Peoples of Europe” (Article A). Although Maastricht and subsequent treaties refrained from referring to the explicitly classical Marxist concept of sliyanie it did imply that cultural fusion among the peoples of the EU is desired and ultimately achievable. Paragraph one of Article 128 (Article 151, paragraph one of the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, paragraph one Article 167of the Lisbon Treaty) on Culture notes the following: “The Community (‘Union’ in the Lisbon Treaty) shall contribute to the flowering of the Member States, while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore” (emphasis added)

Further complicating suprantaional identity formation is the existence of a plethora of regional identities as well as the existence of a number of cultural axes – North-South, East-West and potentially an East-West-Central. Each axis in turn harbours divisions between clusters of nations and/or regions, as well as divisions based on language, territory, geopolitical factors, religion and general cultural outlook. [v][5] Such cultural diversity has been formed over centuries by historical, political and economic processes notably industrialisation, modernisation and democratisation, feudalism, the Reformation and various “negative and destructive” forces that affected different parts of Europe differently at different periods of history.[vi][6] As such, Europe’s cultural evolution has created complex overlapping interests and identities such as ‘old’ and ‘new’ EU member states, those in the Euro zone and the rest, the Mediterranean countries, big and small countries, rich and poor, countries, Catholic and Protestant countries and those with a mixture of both, and so on.[vii][7] Attempting to manufacture a single identity out of such cultural complexity illustrates that the process is driven by little more than ideological determination.

Towards a ‘Eurohistory’: new approaches to past practices

The term Europe, or Europa, as a cultural and political concept has deep historical roots.[viii][8] During this time pan-European empires – Rome, the Carolingen, the Holy Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Empire – have come and gone, all having sought to dominate Europe’s political affairs. Accordingly, Walter Hallstein, the first president of the EEC Commission, remarked,

“Europe is no creation. It is a rediscovery. (For) more than a thousand years the idea of a united Europe was never quite forgotten…”[ix][9]

In between the formal statecraft of monarchs and despots, thinkers contrived a number of blueprints for European integration that championed peace, stability or one interest against another.[x][10] During the Enlightenment, the idea received renewed impetus. In 1751, for instance, Voltaire characterised Europe as “a kind of great republic divided into several states”, all sharing a common cultural heritage.[xi][11] Some 20 years later Rousseau concurred, declaring that “there are no longer Frenchmen, Germans and Spaniards, or even English, but only Europeans”.[xii][12]Notwithstanding the fall of the 19th century imperial ‘concert’ in the wake of the First World War, as hitherto subjugated nations emerged as independent entities, European system builders sought to buck the prevailing trend by devising ever more elaborate blueprints for European integration. The many-times Prime Minister of France, Aristide Briand, for instance, drew up a blueprint for a European Federal Union while Briand’s younger contemporary, the Austrian diplomat, Count Richard Caudenhove-Kalergi, contrived a scheme for a United States of Europe.[xiii][13] Though these and other proposals met with little enthusiasm in a Europe gripped with national fervour, they did preserve the idea of European integration.

Paradoxically, the end of the Second World War, which had been fought to liberate Hitler’s conquered nations, was used by integrationists to justify the construction of a new supranational European system as a means to prevent further conflict. Nationalism, and by implication nationhood, was identified as the main cause of the war, and as such all national aspirations were to be tarnished with the same indiscriminate brush as Hitler’s extreme aspirations. In the same way as those at Versailles had believed that German nationalism could be humiliated into submission, so Europe’s new peace-makers believed that the new European order could be crafted not by accommodating nationalism but by dismantling it. Thus, instead of conceding to a pragmatic balance of national interests, Europe’s integrationists synthesised the quixotic ideas of pre-war leftist-liberal thinkers and to some extent, those of many wartime National Socialist/Fascist thinkers.[xiv][14].

Although there were influential people, notably Charles de Gaulle, who voiced opposition to the overtly supranational character of the emergent European institutions, favouring instead a Europe des patries (a Europe of nation-states), they were outmanoeuvred by a consensus that favoured a centralised Europe that was hostile to nation-statehood. Upon this ideological framework would be formed in 1951 the European Coal and Steal Community (ECSC), the first step in the process of post-war European integration. The next six decades would largely purge Europe’s political system of scope for independent national initiative.

The current manifestation of the integrationist project harbours most of the trappings of statehood: a territorial base, a permanent population, a juridical infrastructure, a monopoly of power, both over internal and external affairs, established military formations as well as embryonic coercive structures such as the European Arrest Warrant. However, one aspect that the EU cannot lay claim to is a single people, without which state-building, certainly in its democratic form, cannot exist. However, with necessity being the mother of invention European integrationists proceeded to invent one, together with a bespoke history to legitimise it.

In fact efforts to engineer a ‘Eurohistory’ have very much become part of European identity politics, the insistence by the EU Commission on the development of a European dimension in school curricula being a case in point. This aspect of the EU’s politics again invites comparison with the practices of antecedent supranational entities in the attempt to manufacture a state history. At the first Soviet Conference of Marxist historians, before the Stalinisation (Russification) of the education system, Mikhail Pokrovsky, the architect of post-revolutionary Soviet historiography, declared

“…the term Russian history is a counterrevolutionary term”, replete with nationalist and imperialist connotations.[xv][15]

As the Soviet educator, VN Shulgin proclaimed in 1927:

“Our goal is not to turn out a Russian child, a child of the Russian state, but a citizen of the world, an internationalist … We educate our children, not for the defence of the motherland but for worldwide ideology.”[xvi][16]

In 1994 Ernest Wistrich, a former director of the European Movement, noted that in

“…virtually every country the history taught in its schools has a hoary accumulation of subjective national bias, often hostile to its neighbours”[xvii][17]

Accordingly, he declared that this trend should be “weeded out” and

“… national history curricula redesigned to ensure that national history is taught within the context of its wider European and world framework’[xviii][18]

Beyond the ideological wish list lies the fact that Europe is not, and never shall be, a single historical community, harbouring, as noted above, at least as many, if not more, cultural traits that divide Europeans as unite them. AJP Taylor explained:

“European History is whatever the historian wants it to be. It is a summary of the events and ideas, political, religious, military, pacific, serious, romantic, near at hand, far way, tragic, comic, significant, meaningless, anything else you would like it to be. There is only one limiting factor. It must take place in, or derive from, the area we call Europe. But as I am not sure what exactly that area is meant to be, I am pretty well in a haze about the rest.”[xix][19]

“In the end, therefore”, as Norman Davies concluded,

“intellectual definitions raise more questions than they answer. It is the same with European history as with a camel. The practical approach is not to try and define it, but to describe it.”[xx][20]

Europe’s integrationists, however, have remained undaunted by such reality. As the leading integrationist historian Jean Baptiste le Duroselle declared,

“There are solid historic reasons for regarding Europe not only as a mosaic of cultures but as an organic whole.”[xxi][21]

Successive attempts have been made to find a definition of European history that would be acceptable to all of Europe’s nations, and to establish a method by which to teach the new ‘Eurohistory’. The one common thread of all these efforts has been to downplay national bias on the one hand and to emphasis common heritage on the other.

A highly ambitious project, supported by the Commission, commenced in the early 1990s, which sought to revise European history along the terms outlined above. Promoted as an “Adventure in Understanding”, it was designed to consist of three elements: a 500 page history book, a ten part television series and a school text book.[xxii][22] Its designers were in no doubt about its purpose, declaring that the teaching of history from a national perspective should be abandoned. Duroselle noted, in the style reminiscent of a Soviet ideologue, that

“Nationalism and the fragmentation of Europe into nation-states are relatively recent phenomena: they may be temporary, and are certainly not irreversible. The end of Empires and the destruction wrought by nationalism… have been accompanied by the defeat of totalitarianism and the triumph of liberal democracy in Western Europe…This has enabled people to begin to rise above their nationalistic instincts.”[xxiii][23]

Rather similar in tone is the Programme of the Soviet Communist Party of 1961:

“The Party [aims] to conduct a relentless struggle against manifestations and survivals of nationalism and chauvinism of all types, against trends of national narrow-mindedness and exclusiveness, idealisation of the past and the veiling of social contradictions in history of peoples, and against obsolete customs and habits which hinder communist construction.”[xxiv][24]

The EU’s project, however, for all its ambitions, was conceived in the worst traditions of European political planning. In 1992 a school text book was drafted, entitled The History of Europe. Yet despite being determined to overcome the problems of several stalled projects, this attempt continued to demonstrate the problems of engineering a ‘Eurohistory’ by committee. Written by 12 European historians, the book set itself the dual task of acquainting its readers with their neighbours’ cultures and histories, thereby hoping to reduce national prejudices and increase awareness of the putative common European identity. The historians were each given a period of history on which to focus. Their work was subsequently subjected to vigorous scrutiny, which, in itself, as one reviewer commented, “brought home some of the differences of interpretation of a common heritage”.[xxv][25] A French reference to “barbarian invasions” of France, for instance, was changed to the less ominous sounding “Germanic invasions”. A  Spanish reference to the “piracy” of Sir Francis Drake was dropped altogether. De Gaulle received merely a fleeting reference, doubtless rebuffed for his championing of a “Europe of nations”. Slavic, Magyar, ancient Greek, Byzantine and Turkish influences on European development received virtually no coverage at all, while even some key western European nations, notably the Scandinavians and the Spanish, were marginalised from the mainstream themes. The picture which the book painted was of a Europe that was profoundly west European, and that dominated by French and German issues.[xxvi][26] Replete with omissions and half-truths and confined to the broadest of frameworks, it was rendered of no practical use, so much so that even the Commission withdrew its sponsorship.

Similar problems befell a more ambitious project launched in 2006 to fanfares and self-congratulation that was hailed as an educational milestone for high school students. [xxvii][27] A two-volume Franco-German joint venture, it sought to trace the History of Europe from 1815 to the present.[xxviii][28] Two years in the making and written by ten historians, five from each country, it made scant contribution to historical understanding. It contained little European history, let alone world history, and generally found it difficult to overcome the political and cultural prejudices of the two countries. For instance, disputes arose over the portrayal of the United States, with Germany tending to assert a more pro-American stance than France or over how to analyse Communism, a major influence in France during the 1950s and 1960s while a source of Cold War division in Germany.[xxix][29] This issue, in particular, was not lost in eastern Europe, for which Communism differed little in ferocity to Nazism.

The quest for prescriptive teaching with specific curricula promoting a ‘European dimension’ continues to dominate the EU’s agenda for the teaching of history. The European Association of History Educators (Euroclio), established in 1992, is a large supranational body of teachers funded by the EU Commission, which trains professionals to encourage the teaching of what it refers to as “responsible history” that fights “the instrumentalisation of history education for petty political objectives” and   “fosters mutual understanding among Europe’s citizens, and boosts cultural and linguistic diversity”.[xxx][30] Behind the rigmarole and double-speak of its promotional literature lies Euroclio’s main aim, which is clearly to convey the values of the EU’s identity politics to students and to undermine national stories and whitewash difficult historical episodes.

The history agenda is consistent with the EU’s overall education strategy, which aims, as first codified in Maastricht, to promote supranational cooperation in education.[xxxi][31] Along with seemingly benign cultural and language programmes there are openly tendentious ventures whose sole purpose is to indoctrinate. For instance, The Raspberry Ice Cream War, subtitled “a comic for young people on a peaceful Europe without frontiers”, tells the story of a group of heroic boys in a virtual world successfully convincing a cruel though enlightened king to establish a happy borderless world where peace, harmony and democracy reign. “To Europe! And the Parliament!” hail the king’s adjutants. [xxxii][32] Although with every age group the propaganda gets more sophisticated, its message is no less tendentious and is dominated by one theme: the inevitable collapse of the nation-state and the equally inevitable creation of a European super-state.

The persistence of national identity

In the early 1920s Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi declared:

“All civilised men must work towards ensuring that tomorrow, the nation becomes a private matter for each person, as religion is today”

In the 1990s, Jean Baptiste le Duroselle claimed that people are beginning to “rise above their nationalistic instincts”. This, however, was wishful thinking. Although there are discrepancies among the member states as to levels of attachment to a ‘European identity’, attachment to national identity has continued to be overwhelmingly the strongest among all declared identities. While ‘Europe’ may harbour some common denominators delineating identity among its numerous peoples, which can provoke in some people a sentimental attachment to a geographical place called Europe, it does not harbour the emotional bonding and collective memories that only a nation seemingly can provide. Residing on the continent of Europe is not sufficient to feel a sense of belonging to a European collective identity.  Territory is an important purveyor of identity but only if it is national, and there does not appear to be an important link between supranational territory and identity, especially as European territory is ill-defined. Is Europe synonymous with the EU or does it stretch from the Atlantic to the Urals? And in rejecting the Christian value system in favour of a post-modern social model that panders to a plethora of minorities, the EU has discarded the only organic force with the potential of offering Europe a degree of cultural unity as well as moral guidance.[xxxiii][33]

The manufacture of common symbolism is a poor substitute for the cultural, emotional ties, ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic factors and collective memories that bind a people together within the embrace of a nation. The problem for manufactured ‘unifying factors’ is that they are not habitual for most of Europe’s people as their national equivalents are but have to be taught through promotion, something which all too easily can be received as mere propaganda particularly at times when the integrationist project is unpopular, as it manifestly is at present. As Cris Shore has noted,” there is no such thing as a ‘European people”, on which to base a strong identity, nor is Europe a “community” in any meaningful sense of the word.[xxxiv][34] A lack of common cause among Europe’s peoples and emotional attachment to a country called Europe has meant that integrationists have few ‘natural’ common denominators. Individual Europeans may have an awareness of European heritage but they tend not to regard it as their own.

Dr. GREGORY SLYSZ lectures and writes on history and current affairs


[i][1] Joshua Chaffin in Strasbourg and Peter Spiegel – Barroso calls for EU ‘federation’ – Financial Times http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/83f2e49c-fcbe-11e1-9dd2-00144feabdc0.html#axzz29UvpF0EL, accessed on 15 October 2012

[ii][2] For a discussion of this theme see Cris Shore, Building Europe: The cultural politics of European integration, London, 2000

[iii][3] Christopher Booker, ‘Today, Europe’s’, Daily Mail, 1 April 1999

[iv][4] ‘The new President of the Committee of Regions sets out his priorities,’ Press release Committee of Regions, Brussels, February 19, 1998

[v][5] For analyses of Europe’s cultural axes see for instance ‘Perceptions of the European Union – a qualitative study of the public’s attitudes to and experiences of the European Union in the 15 Member States and in the 9 candidate countries, European Commission 2001, pp.7-8; Jeno Szucs, ‘Three Historical Regions of Europe’, in John Keane, ed – Civil Society and the state, London , 1988, pp.291-333; Ellen Comissa and Bard Gutierran, ‘Eastern Europe or Central Europe? Exploring a Distinct Regional identity’, UCIAS ed, The Politics of Knowledge: area studies and the disciplines, vol.3 University of California, San Diego, 2002; Presentation by Professor Elemer Hankiss to the East European Study Centre, at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, on the Question ‘The East-West Divide in Europe: does it exist’ (hereafter,  The East-West divide), October 22 2003. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?topic_id=1422&fuseaction=topics.publications&doc_id=54103&group_id=7427, accessed 15 October, 2012

[vi][6] Hankiss, ‘The East-West divide’

[vii][7] Ibid.

[viii][8] It was first conceived in the legends of the classical world, as a mythical figure, the Mother of Minos, Lord of Crete

[ix][9] Cited in Neill Nugent – The Government and Politics of the European Community – London 1992, p.12.

[x][10] For instance Antonio Marini’s confederation against the Turks of 1463, the Duke of Sully’s “Grand Design” of 1658, William Penn’s “General Diet” of 1692, Charles Castel de St. Pierre’s “Confederated European Congress” of 1712 and Saint Simon’s “European Parliament” of 1814

[xi][11].. Davies 1997, p.7

[xii][12] Ibid. p.8

[xiii][13] In 1922 Coudenhove-Kalergi established a “Pan-European Union”. He disseminated his ideas through a series of lectures and a succession of “European congresses”, and other organisations, His ideas attracted the support of several sympathetic statesmen of the time, notably Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. In 1943 he drafted a constitution for a United States of Europe, following it up in 1947 with a European Parliamentary Union with himself as chairman. Coming on the eve of the founding in 1951 of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), Coudenhove-Kalergi’s activities proved influential among politicians and intellectuals alike

[xiv][14] For an incisive survey of the Nazi-Fascist Europhile ideology and plans for a post-war united European state and the influence these bore on post-war European integrationists see John Laughland – The Tainted Source: the undemocratic origins of the European idea – London, 1998, pp. 11-80

[xv][15] Quoted in Michel Heller and Alexander Nekrich,  Utopia in Power: a history of the USSR from 1917 to the present, London, Melbourne, Auckland and Johannesburg, 1982, p.172

[xvi][16] Quoted, ibid.

[xvii][17] Ernest  Wistrich, The United States of Europe , London, New York, 1994,  p.88

[xix][19] Quoted, Norman Davies,  Europe: A History, Oxford, 1997, p.45

[xx][20]. Ibid, p.46

[xxi][21] Quoted, ibid. p.43

[xxii][22] Ibid, 1997 p.43

[xxiii][23] Quoted in, ibid. p.43

[xxiv][24] Quoted, Robert Conquest, Soviet Nationality Policy in Practice, New York, 1967, p150

[xxv][25] Julian Nundy – History leaves Britain behind – Independent on Sunday, 19 January 1992

[xxvi][26] Ibid

[xxvii][27] Bruno Waterfield, ‘Germans want EU history lessons’, Daily Telegraph, 22 February 2007, Ian Traynor, ‘Germany plans new EU-wide history book’,  The Guardian, 23 February 2007

[xxviii][28] ‘Germany, France write history together’, Deutsche Welt, 7 May 2006, http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,1993865,00.html , accessed, 15 October , 2012

[xxix][29] Ibid

[xxxi][31] The Treaty on European Union, (The Maastrich t Treaty), 1992, Article 126 para 2 Title II

[xxxii][32] The raspberry ice cream war A comic for young people on a peaceful Europe without frontiers, – European Commission, Secretariat-General, Directorate-General for Communication, 1998;  Daniel Hannan – Using children to sell the EU message – Daily Telegraph, 5 Aug 2006 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3626882/Using-children-to-sell-the-EU-message.html, accessed 15 October, 2012

[xxxiii][33] For a discussion of this topic see Gregory Slysz – The New Age of Intolerance: The Value Conflict Between the EU and Christianity, London, 2006

[xxxiv][34] Cris Shore, European Union and the politics of culture, Bruges Group, 2001, p.3


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