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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Framework programme: To be or not to be European
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image image image Date published : 11/04/2001
  image To be or not to be European
  Is it true to speak of a European identity? How did the sense of belonging to Europe evolve during the 20th century? What are the factors which shape it? For the past decade more than a 100 historians have been networking, in small groups, on these complex issues which underlie the contemporary political debate. Their research won them a place among the finalists for the Descartes Prize. (1)

Identity is not the same as consciousness. Consciousness is not sentiment. The first task of the European identities network of researchers was to define these three concepts, and then to study their variations in time and space, and in different socio-economic contexts. 'Identity, that is the sense of belonging to Europe or the consciousness of being European, is linked to a socio-cultural dimension,' they explain in their presentation. Going back a long time, this identity is based on a shared civilisation and a common destiny. On the other hand, European consciousness is more recent - it emerged after the horrors of 1914-18 - and adds a moral and political dimension to identity: 'It is already a consciousness of the need to build Europe.' Finally, under the influence of consciousness and sentiment, European identity develops towards a sense of belonging to the European Union, even if this is still fragmentary. These different 'states' do not, however, develop linearly.

Identification and behaviour

After the first phase involving 120 researchers working from 1989 to1994, a network of 180 historians continued the exploration in two directions (1995-1999). On the one hand, they investigated the processes by which European identities are formed and the resistance they meet and, on the other, the behaviour, alliances and action which help give birth to consciousness and sentiment, the mortar of European integration.

'We first wanted to focus on relationships between European identity and national identity, or European identity and Westen identity,' explains Robert Frank, a professor at the Université de Paris I (Sorbonne) and the network's co-ordinator. 'We wanted to gauge to what extent national diversities are an obstacle to this process or, on the contrary, if they are perhaps a component of it.'

Some groups studied cultural transfers - 'influences' in terms of lifestyle or ways of thinking - between countries and the part they may have played in creating the concept of identity. Others studied the same phenomenon with reference to regions, social classes, religious beliefs, the media, etc.

A sense of belonging

Two components of European society were the subject of more precise research: the economic players and intellectuals (see box01). The sentiments of the former seem to be marked by a constant desire to 'build' Europe. The motivations of the latter are more complex and less constant.

It was in the 1920s that business managers first became aware of the importance of external competition - mainly from the United States - and of the benefits of joining forces. They thought in terms of the 'European area' and the Franco-German axis, the latter becoming one of the cornerstones of European integration and already an important 'sub-area', that was soon to be destroyed by the Second World War.

'Monetary Europe and social Europe are more rooted in history than is generally believed. These two areas are two very important elements in the sense of belonging.' (2) Professor Frank believes that social Europe is of fundamental importance in strengthening a common identity. 'Europe will become a reality when its citizens have the real sense that it helps them progress in their day-to-day lives. For decades the nation state had a monopoly on welfare, and the welfare state has continued to exist in our countries, despite the onslaughts of neo-liberalism. Europe could now shoulder part of the burden and become welfare-Europe.'

The sense of belonging therefore needs to have its roots in the concrete. In this respect the euro is a valuable tool. Pragmatic and symbolic - while also providing a political instrument - the euro could make up for the deficiencies and strengthen the sense of identity. 'The general public is aware of the poor distribution of powers in Europe. Many Europeans no doubt want more from Europe, while remaining dissatisfied with the way Europe is being created. They have the feeling it interferes in questions of no importance because it is incapable of resolving major issues. Institutional changes, both real and symbolic, could boost motivation for Europe and thus act as a catalyst. Recent progress towards European defence and a rapid reaction force for the EU is encouraging in this respect.'

Elusive Europe

But what Europe are we talking about here? Where should we set the limits to this Europe in the making? Is it enough to experience a sense of belonging in relation to a political area to integrate into and become a part of it? 'Although the Russians have a European cultural identity, is it true to speak of their European political identity when most of them believe that Russia is a political entity in itself? Can we deny Turkey's European cultural identity on the grounds that it is a Muslim country? No, because Islam is also part of Europe. In this case, too, it is Turkey's political identity which will be the determining factor.'

The notion of the European area is one of the research network's future projects - a network now enlarged to include Polish, Hungarian and Russian historians, and seeking to include a range of disciplines. In addition to the palpable and concrete notion of area - northern, southern and central Europe, etc. - they will also be looking at the 'abstract' area. 'Is there a European democratic area, symbolic areas, a European-opinion area? These are all complex questions. Take just one example. There is often the feeling that there are national opinions on the one hand, and international opinion on the other, in the form of major global emotions. But the intermediate area - European opinion - is much more difficult to detect.'

(1) Awarded for the first time in November 2000, this prize rewards excellence in European research conducted through networks. see RTD info, special edition, January 2001

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(2) All quotations are from Robert Frank
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Robert Frank
Université de Paris I
Fax: +33 1 40 51 79 34


The first stage of the research is reported in seven publications, summarised in the single volume entitled Identités et conscience européennes au XXe siècle, published by René Girault, Paris, Hachette, 1994. Ten publications present the second stage of the research, for which a summarising volume is about to be published.


Tortuous intellectuals

Intellectuals, especially German and French, played an important role in the formation of a European consciousness in the period between the wars. Based on pacifism and linked to Europeanism, this movement was partially interrupted by the Second World War. The Cold War and decolonisation brought a long period of indifference on the part of intellectuals, most of whom took up positions in favour of either the East or the West, against colonialism, for the Third World, or supported Marxist theories and structuralism.

'Paradoxically, the intellectuals were interested in European unity as long as it was not becoming a reality. When Europe actually began to integrate, they turned away from it, finding it too economic and technological,' points out Robert Frank. Since the decline of the major ideologies and the fall of the Berlin Wall with its symbolic value, there has been a new confidence among intellectuals in the democracy embodied by Europe, as opposed to that of the United States. 'Europe is becoming an area which can provide shared values and propose a certain kind of globalisation which is not the US model.'


RTD info 29


Tortuous intellectuals

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