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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special Issue - April 2005   
 In Brief

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Title  Intertwining roots

Is there a European identity and, if so, how is it shaped by history, the geopolitical context, the media and education? And can it exist alongside other feelings of belonging? These were the questions analysed in nine countries by the Euronat project partners. Their findings shed light on this type of unconscious and shared sense of adherence that can be generated, evolve or even get lost in the wake of events.

Collective memory - Intertwining roots
Semi-detached relations
"We are with but not of Europe,” said Churchill. The context has changed, but has the sentiment? The British today are among those Europeans who are the least informed about what is going on across the Channel and their relationship with the continent is described as ‘semi-detached’, one of indifference rather than hostility. While 60% of the British wanted to remain within the EU in 1991 (according to a UK Mori poll), only 48% felt that way in 2001.

As an island nation, the United Kingdom’s individual identity is strengthened by memories of its past as an imperial power and the riches of its Commonwealth, its privileged relations with the United States and a desire to play a leading role on the world stage. It can sometimes be a fine line between ‘British first’ and ‘British only’.  

The movida  and Europe
Spain, despite a similar history of foreign conquests and wealth, stands in marked contrast to the UK – but then Spain experienced many years under Franco. “In the Hispanic context of the collective memory, the notion of becoming European essentially represented the opportunity to abandon what was popularly known by the Spanish as el atraso (backwardness),” writes Pablo Jáuregui of the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia de Madrid.(1)

EU membership was seen as a victory over obscurantism, a recognition of national values and culture, a mark of confidence in the young democracy and a commitment to the path of modernity and freedom. In the 2000 Eurobarometer survey, 65% of Spanish citizens said they felt ‘Spanish and European’, a proportion unequalled anywhere else in Europe. Is this one of the reasons why Spain is among the countries most in favour of the 2004 enlargement?  

Europe’s German-speaking heart
The Spaniards are nevertheless a long way from central Europe. It is easier to understand that Austria, for example, may feel more vulnerable in regard to its neighbours. Finding itself on the borders of the ‘eastern bloc’ after World War Two, it expressed a firm desire for closer ties with the United States and Western Europe. This rapprochement was expressed in its separation from Germany, the desire to strengthen a sense of independence and a need for neutrality. “The doctrine of neutrality was not just a constitutional principle laid down on paper but a dominant part of the Austrian identity that experienced a national renaissance,” believes Willfried Spohn, Professor at the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt.

As for Germany, fragmented by the Treaty of Yalta and traumatized by the dark years of Nazism, it was clearly going to be a place with very complex feelings of identity. “Despite a common pan-Germanic identity, the split into the East German and West German national identities continues to exist,” writes Willfried Spohn. These are not regional identities but two expressions of what it means to be German, based on different historical heritages and socio-political contexts. It is the Germany of Adenauer and his successors that has constantly highlighted its moral renewal so as to be reconciled with its neighbours on the basis of a common culture – and to build Europe. 

Europe’s Greek and Italian heritage
It is, however, not at its centre but on the shores of the Mediterranean that Europe has its roots. “Greece is entitled to feel its own European quintessence,” declare Nikos Kokosalakis and Iordannis Psimmenos of Athens University. “Hellenism gave it an open and ecumenical spirit, which was enriched by the Byzantine and Christian influences. Greece’s fundamental problem is the failure to translate this long and vast heritage into a political identity." Many observers believed that joining the EU placed Greece on the road to modernity. As to whether the Greek identity is compatible with this European modernity, that is a question that remains the subject of many debates and interpretations. 

Italy is similarly difficult to define. It remains tormented by the ‘southern question’, unable to overcome the socio-economic divide that separates north and south. This dualistic country has taken a resolutely European direction, and has a modern character and strong industry. It also has an imperfect system of government, continuing corruption and is facing the challenge of immigration. “The Italian national identity is a fluid process, one constantly in the making, in which there is a constant interaction between the elements that forged its tradition and the others. Europe lends the peninsula a civic dimension, while being a centrifugal force offering the regions, if not independence, at least power. At the same time, Europe’s potential role makes the Italians feel insecure. At 69% in 1997, support for the EU had fallen to 59% in 2000.

A look at Central Europe
The Euronat researchers also looked at three new Member States: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland. Poland is the most northern, the largest and the most densely populated of the three and, no doubt, the one where the identity problem is posed in the most complex terms. Dismantled three times (the ‘triple partition’ of the 18th century), pulled in opposite directions by Great Britain, France and Austria, before suffering the ravages of the Second World War (99% of Warsaw destroyed and 6 million Poles, half of them Jews, exterminated) and then ending up as a Soviet satellite, Poland is a land of perpetual suffering. Over the centuries, religion has offered an alternative to despair and a refuge for a sense of unity, but without constituting a Polish identity.

“The structure and intensity of the national identity not only varies from one period to another, but also from one social group to another and from one region to another,” point out Krystyna Romaniszyn and Jacek Nowak of Cracow’s Jagiellonian University. As for the European identity, that still seems a distant prospect. For most Poles, EU membership is purely and simply a matter of economics. 

The position of the Hungarians is much less clear-cut. In recent years, a number of polls have shed light on how the Hungarians view enlargement, as well as their own identity as Hungarians. Between 80% and 97% of citizens, depending on the poll or survey, approve of Union membership. Almost half of them believe that Hungary has more to offer Europe than vice versa, but that membership will ultimately be positive for Hungary. The Hungarians have esteem for the Europeans who they see as cultivated, intelligent, intellectually open and with good powers of reasoning, etc. They also have quite a good image of themselves and the notion of the talented, dynamic, assertive and creative Magyar is widely shared.

The Hungarians – whose identity was initially forged in the isolation of their very particular language without Indo-European roots – love their own country with its magnificent monuments and memories of a brilliant and painful past. Eight out of ten Hungarians are proud of being Hungarian, three-quarters of them are pleased to be living in Hungary, and two-thirds would remain there even if they had the opportunity to live abroad.

The Czechs inhabit a young nation. Throughout history, they have tended to express their own identity in opposition to Germany, demanding the freedom to use their own language in the administration and in schools. More recently, it is global East-West relations that have determined the feelings of the Czech Republic to EU countries. After the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall, the Czechs separated from the Slovaks, sometimes without knowing very well why but with the effect of reviving the identity debate. They take a pragmatic view of relations with Europe. Unlike the Hungarians, the Czechs very much like the idea of being able to go to work abroad to enjoy better conditions. A survey carried out in July 2001 on the need for a referendum on Union membership showed that just 40% of respondents wanted such consultation. 

Memory and the European ideal
Europe is many things. It is a continent and a civilisation whose memory began long before the birth of nations. It is a shared culture, sometimes coupled with a sense of belonging. It is also a consciousness of an entity and of an identity. Last but not least, Europe is an idea.

Europe map
"The idea of Europe, that is the political project for a united continent, has drawn sustenance from a European identity,” writes Robert Frank(2), a professor of the history of International Relations at the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne in Paris (FR). He is also the director of the Identities, International Relations and Civilisations of Europe (IRICE) mixed research unit. This identity first "had to change fundamentally for a European consciousness to emerge as a necessary condition for the process of integration.” 

Identity – the sense of belonging by virtue of which Europeans are distinguishable from the rest of the world – long drew strength from a sense of ethnocentric superiority. It was also, at least for an elite, based on culture. The Roman churches and Gothic cathedrals, the Enlightenment and Baroque music are all undeniably elements that make Europe what it is today.  

European consciousness has other roots and seems to be more widely shared by society as a whole. Robert Frank sees it as developing in relation to four successive refusals. First of all, the disgust engendered by the 1914-18 war which, while exacerbating nationalism, also produced profound pacifist sentiments. Next, came the ‘no’ to fascism, the cement of resistance to totalitarianism throughout the continent. After the Second World War came opposition to decline, which took concrete shape in 1948 with the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) that had its origins in the Marshall Plan and the Hague Congress, the major meeting of Europeanists chaired by Winston Churchill. Finally, during the Cold War, European consciousness refused domination by the Soviet empire.     

However, identity and consciousness do not necessarily go together. They do not cross time and space in a straight line. They can coexist and they can disappear. Their relationships and interactions are subtle.

Over the past 50 years, these two foundations have changed the old idea of Europe. It has been transformed into a ‘Europe’ based on the values of liberty and democracy and expressed in political progress, such as the Council of Europe, founded in 1949. But the Franco-British Europe founded on this basis failed due to the scale of the cross-Channel divide on the institutional question. From 1950, the ‘Franco-German duo’  – a rapprochement initiated by Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer and sealed by the latter’s friendship with General de Gaulle – served as the catalyst for drawing a new politico-economic map that featured the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the Europe of Six, Euratom and the European Economic Community (EEC). The ‘common market’ now had the wind in its sails while the East-West divide deepened. 

With successive enlargements and the addition of new European concerns, the idea polarised into two approaches that are still debated: that of the unionists who advocate co-operation between sovereign states, a view that prevails in the north and whose standard- bearer is the United Kingdom; and that of the federalists who support a more supranational Europe, its members recruited from the founding Member States and located geographically to the south.

The rest belongs to our recent collective memory: the Treaty of Maastricht (1992) and the replacement of the Community by the Union, the launch of the euro and the creation of the Central Bank, increased powers for the European Parliament, the beginnings of a social Europe, and the prospect of a Common Foreign and Security Policy. Following the historic fall of the Berlin Wall 15 years ago, we have most recently seen enlargement to Eastern Europe.

Political Europe is, thus, advancing. To revamp its institutions, the 25 states of which it is composed will soon have to approve a common constitution. How will this be understood and accepted? The difficulties of a resolutely global economy are unleashing Euro-pessimism. Many citizens see Europe – or Brussels, as people often say – as a distant authority, cold and technocratic, reserving any sentiment for their country or region. “The political identity will not emerge ready-made from the cultural identity,” believes Frank. “If Europe is to be loved, it is no longer enough to highlight all that has gone before culturally; we must attack politically what is seen as a lack of a future.”

(1) Representations of Europe and the nation in current and prospective Member States: media, elites and civil society – The collective state of the art and historical reports, European Commission publication, ISBN 92-894-5767-8. All quotes from researchers are taken from this report.

Printable version

Features 1 2 3 4
  Tangled origins
  To be twenty in Europe
  Intertwining roots
  The prism of national memories

  • Euronat project

    Bo Stråth and Anna Triandafyllidou

    Research DG
    Aris Apollonatos


    Features 1 2 3 4



    Bo Stråth and Anna Triandafyllidou

    Research DG
    Aris Apollonatos