Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law

Previous |Next |Title

4. Three conceptions of a European political identity

Yet into what kind of polity are the new Union citizens integrating? Citizenship is not only a formal status and the legal rights and duties attached to it but also a symbolic expression of membership in a self-governing political community. The project of adding a list of fundamental rights to the present content of Union citizenship and of opening its structure for third country nationals requires a corresponding conception of the future Euro polity. I will not discuss here whether, given the present waves of Euroskepticism in many member states, any such project has a realistic chance of succeeding in the near future. Instead, I will address this issue as a normative one by asking which conception of collective European identity would best support the dual dynamic of enriching and expanding citizenship.

As if forecasting the problems of creating a credible image of a common European polity Ernest Renan remarked in his famous lecture of 1882: "[U]n Zollverein n'est pas une patrie" (Renan, 1882:303). The Union as a political community is today certainly more than a Zollverein but less than a fatherland. Is it something transitional or rather something different? The line-up of ideological positions seems to be roughly as follows. At the one end of the spectrum there are those who would like Europe to become a greater fatherland, at the other end those who insist on a "Europe of fatherlands", i.e. a union of nations which is not a polity in its own right. In between there are those who support a European constitutional patriotism which would be different in kind from national loyalties based on shared culture or history. I want to argue that, although the latter vision is definitely more attractive than the other two, it is still deficient and should be supplemented by a pluralistic conception of a European polity.

(1) Building a common `European fatherland'

Understood as a political virtue or an emotional attachment to a political community patriotism is an ancient phenomenon. What is relatively new in human history is the idea that the only units who deserve and can claim such loyalty are nations. As Ernest Gellner has pointed out, nations can only be defined in terms of the specifically modern imperative of nationalism which states that cultural and political boundaries ought to coincide (Gellner, 1983:1, 55). In the context of modernity the idea of patriotism is inextricably linked to nationalism and a European patriotism overriding national loyalties would involve the project of building a European quasi-nation.

Nation-building can be conceived in two different ways corresponding to the ideal types of ethno-cultural and republican nationalism. For the former, cultural community is prior to the political one, for the latter, the political community is prior to the cultural one. An ethno-cultural Euro-nationalism would portray Europe as a single cultural unit (the Occident) which faces the task of overcoming its political division into different states. A republican Euro-nationalism would emphasize that the Union is about to transform itself into a state which still has to achieve national unity by assimilating the old national cultures into a single public culture of the Union. These projects provide a justification for the idea of replacing rather than supplementing the national citizenships by Union citizenship mentioned above. The rejection of that idea applies a forteriori to its nationalist underpinning. Both projects are fantasies which should be dismissed on factual as well as normative grounds. The main objection is not that a common European culture is too thin to build a common nation identity. Nation-building in the 19th century also involved quite thin versions of standardized high cultures distilled from richer and heterogeneous literary traditions and popular cultures. The major objection to the feasibility of building a common European nation is the absence of vital threats and the democratic constitution of the existing national regimes. Heterogeneous cultures were melted into homogeneous nations in revolutions against anciens rÈgimes or colonial powers and in war efforts against external powers threatening to invade the territory. In the absence of such threats or challenges, well-established and prosperous democracies, which form a political union to pursue common interests, have no reason to initiate a process of cultural transformation in order to build a common nation.

This `realistic' objection is reinforced by normative ones. Attempts to postulate a common European or occidental culture as the basis for a quasi-national European identity are not only directed against legitimate claims of the diverse national, ethnic or regional cultures to self-determination of their own evolution (including the option of a voluntary rapprochement). They also reinforce an external opposition to the image of a fundamental Other, the Orient, which goes along with asserting the unity of European culture. The scenario of a clash of civilizations (Huntington, 1996) turns thereby into a self-fulfilling prophecy: It acquires an apparent fatal necessity, but really serves to legitimate actions that bring about the outcome it predicts. Today the political threat by Islamic fundamentalism and the economic challenge raised by South and East Asian societies conjures up such images of the Orient as the Other. The effect is not only a new block and siege mentality that opposes the West or Europe to the rest of the world, but also the identification of immigrants coming from outside as a threat to Europe identity. Xenophobia directed against immigrants characteristically combines the two fears generated from the external opposition. On the one side, immigrants are seen as bearers of alien and anti-European cultures, on the other side, they are the new homines oeconomici who are willing to accept risky and exploitative forms of employment or housing shunned by European labour. Euro-chauvinism and xenophobia appear as very real side-effects of the imaginary project of European nation-building.

(2) A `Europe of fatherlands'

Does rejecting the idea of a common European fatherland imply that a European political identity can only be conceived as a composite one based on the various national identities? In this view, a European polity is fundamentally different from national political communities in that the basic units of the former are nations or peoples, whereas the latter are formed by citizens. The slogan of a Europe of fatherlands aims at freezing the development of the Union at the stage of a union of nations. However, if the "ever-closer union of peoples" does not evolve into a union of citizens, it will fail to respect the principles of liberal democracy to which all its member states are committed. In spite of all its weaknesses the formal establishment of Union citizenship in the Maastricht Treaty indicates a growing awareness that this transition has already been put on the European agenda.

Defenders of a `Europe of fatherlands' may argue that their vision is the more democratic one. If citizen loyalty and democracy can only be developed within the dense cultural and historical communities of nations, then strengthening citizen rights at the level of the Union will weaken national democracies and provide a fake legitimacy for the essentially autocratic mode of governance of the Union. In this view, democratic accountability is essentially located in the Council of Ministers and it is achieved by making the government of the Union responsible to the national parliaments.[18] Enriching Union citizenship with further rights and liberalizing access to it would go along with a further shift of power towards the democratically unaccountable institutions of the European Court of Justice and the Commission.

This objection against Union citizenship as a form of individual membership in a larger democratic community is seriously flawed. If the Union is undemocratic because a concentration of unaccountable political power is already able to constrain or override democratic decision-making at the national level in important areas, then the task is surely to strengthen democratic control over this power. Short of dismantling the Union and reducing it to a Zollverein there are obvious structural barriers for how much national parliaments can achieve in this regard. Increasing the powers of the European Parliament as a locus of accountability and also of legislative activity appears to be a major avenue for reducing the democratic deficit. If, however, proponents of the `Europe of fatherlands' project were to claim that the present Union roughly conforms to their ideas because the basic decisions are taken in the Council and thus by the member state governments who are democratically empowered by their citizens, then it remains unclear why an anticipatory democratization, which strengthens the liberties and powers of these same citizens at the Union level should not be welcomed.

(3) European constitutional patriotism

The concept of constitutional patriotism introduced by Dolf Sternberger and applied to European integration by J¸rgen Habermas (1992:643-51) seems an attractive alternative foundation for political loyalty towards a European Union of citizens. In this view, what can be expected from all citizens in a liberal democracy is loyalty towards the principles of its constitution, not a shared cultural identity. At the level of existing nation-states some traditions of patriotism, such as the US-American one, seem to fare much better by this criterion than others, like the German one. Nevertheless, the German Basic Law and its post-war Constitutional Court show a commitment towards universalistic principles which is at least as strong as the remaining emphasis on an ethnic definition of the German Volk. Maybe it is therefore fairer to say that constitutional patriotism is biased against ethnic nationalism, but has a strong appeal for the republican and liberal traditions which exist in all member states of the Union. Yet, at this national level the argument for constitutional patriotism is primarily a normative one rather than a descriptive or prognostic one.

For the European Union its normative appeal seems to be reinforced by a sheer lack of feasible alternatives. First, there is no historical tradition of a strong European cultural nationalism[19] to be overcome. Secondly, the Union has been built on the assumption of a permanent diversity of national identities in Europe. Only a non-national conception of political loyalty has therefore a chance of being attractive, or at least acceptable, for all. Those who support constitutional patriotism on grounds of principle (which means also at the national level) will see European integration as a unique historic chance to create within the framework of modernity a post-national political community unburdened by the obsession with cultural homogenization. Those who would prefer a project of building a common European nationhood may accept constitutional patriotism as a second-best solution which offers better chances to circumvent the resistance of stubborn nationalists in the member states. The proponents of a Europe of fatherlands will be most unwilling to accept this idea but may nevertheless trust that national loyalties will anyway remain much stronger than a thin-blooded patriotism grounded in abstract cosmopolitan principles.

Finally, constitutional patriotism also supports the dual dynamic of enriching the content of Union citizenship and including those European residents who are presently kept outside. A more substantial bundle of fundamental rights would provide citizens with the best reasons why they ought to feel loyal towards the Union and support its further integration. As Habermas has explained, immigrants can be expected to respect liberal constitutional principles and to acculturate to democratic political traditions of a host society, but they should not be required to assimilate into a national culture (Habermas, 1992:659). There is nothing in this idea which would exclude the toleration of dual citizenship or require more than a simple residence criterion for naturalization.[20]

Nonetheless, there are a number of objections that can be raised against the project of constitutional patriotism as a viable expression of collective identity that links Union citizenship to an emerging Euro-polity. The most obvious one is that there is not yet a constitution of the Union which deserves this name. We can hardly expect the citizens of the Union to ground their loyalty in support for a constitution the outlines of which are still not known. Yet this is not necessarily a birth defect beyond remedy. Some think that sooner or later the Union will have to adopt a proper constitution which clears the proliferation of its institutional mazes. Others believe that the projects of simultaneous integration and enlargement require so much flexibility in constitutional matters that it would be better to promote an ongoing process of constitutionalization rather than freezing this process at any single point in time. No matter which of the two opinions is correct, the decisive focus of constitutional patriotism would be a catalogue of citizens' rights and duties and, apart from the political resistance some governments are likely to put up against this idea, there is hardly any good reason why the Union could not, or should not, adopt such a constitutional document.

[18]. For a critique of this view see Weiler (1995).

[19]. There is certainly a tradition of assumed European cultural superiority, but not a nationalism that associates this with Europe as a single political entity.

[20]. The expected constitutional loyalty might be tested in various ways in the naturalization procedure: as the absence of a criminal record, as some basic knowledge in civics or by a ceremonial oath of allegiance as the final confirmation. While most of these requirements are quite acceptable compared to full cultural assimilation or stable income and employment, they are also not indispensable. The prior question is whether a reasonable expectation of loyalty to the constitution can or has to be tested at all during the naturalization procedure.

Previous |Next |Title



Questions or comments about this site?

Top of the page