What does it mean to be European? Identity is not a natural element, biologically determined and fixed in time, but the result of social processes and structural dynamics that together create a social construct. The COVID-19 pandemic has re-ignited debates about European identity and solidarity, forcing EU institutions and member states to navigate the old dichotomy of national-versus-European identity and interests – as if these concepts were necessarily in contradiction with one another.
European governments and citizens cannot allow the COVID-19 emergency to (re)determine our identity and interests, erecting national barriers or trade wars. The crisis can bring us together or tear us apart, but the ultimate responsibility will rest on people, the leaders and citizens of Europe, who can determine how we will emerge from this pandemic and redefine what it means to be “European”.
Identities and interests can be defined as exclusive (e.g. Belgian or Swedish) or overlapping (e.g. half German, half Polish and European). “A majority of the population feel that they are citizens of the EU in all EU countries. This opinion is held by close to three-quarters of respondents at EU level (73%, +2 percentage points since autumn 2018), whereas just over a quarter of Europeans do not share this opinion (26%, -2).” Imagine taking a poll on the identity of Europeans across time. For most of their history, people in Europe had local identities. The concept of a state was formalized only in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. Yet, people did not feel a strong attachment to their “state” as they were subjects and often changed King (Queen/Emperor) as a result of wars (bloody and frequent) and royal marriages. People who once were subjects then became citizens. The right to hold those in power accountable is a recent concept in human history and the degree to which people do so is related to their identity as citizens rather than subjects.
National movements helped to cement states, acting as the glue that created bottom-up shared identities, against previous top-down structures. In this light, nationalism can be considered a force that helped the emancipation of people in their journey from subjects to citizens and in their fight against foreign oppression. But nationalism can be used both to unite and divide. To be sure, the nation-building process is based on the belief that people have more in common with someone of their own nationality (even if they have never met), rather than their next-door neighbour who lives across the river but is, technically speaking, a citizen of another (nation) state.
While Europeans were fighting to be citizens, they kept other people in slavery and exploited their territories. This system lasted until empires crumbled and slavery was finally abolished. Then segregation came into place, and although ethnic segregation has been legally abolished almost everywhere, discrimination is still widely exercised. Women went from baby-making machines to individuals with legal rights. New battles erupt because social and political identities (and interests) are not natural and static. Power structures can be questioned and/or dismantled according to changing values. Personal, social and political battles transformed the identity of people who did not conform to what was supposed to be normal (slavery), given (absolutism) or natural (inequality).
Since the invention of nation-states did not diminish the conflictual nature of international relations, international organizations were created, and some European countries went so far as to create a supranational entity (i.e. the European Union). Despite international institutions, globalization, global governance, Erasmus programmes, double citizenships, mixed marriages… nationalism is still alive and well. In the European Union, nationalism has been revitalized and used by different groups to express their discontent for the loss of national identity – which is defined by those people as something objective, primitive and fixed.
The identity of Europeans has been shifting across time from the local community to the nation-state and finally to the European level. In times of crisis, people fall back on their national interests and sentiments – and sometimes nationalist narratives. Structural dynamics help to explain these ups and downs because the political, economic and social consequences of historical transformations (e.g. the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, financial crises, the COVID-19 pandemic) shape the feelings, opinions and actions of people.
In times of fear, people think they must choose between opposites: their national versus European identity. People opt for the identity associated with their passport, as this offers the best guarantee of security and survival. Europeans have European passports, but they are still conceived as a cover for national ones.
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This blog first appeared on the IAI site.
Author: Irene Caratelli, IAI.
Image courtesy of Caitlin Regan via Flickr.
The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ETTG.