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A European Identity: To the Historical Limits of a Concept

A European Identity: To the Historical Limits of a Concept

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Published by Euro Culture Krakow
The history of a European identity is the history of a concept and a discourse. A European identity is an abstraction and a fiction without essential proportions. Identity as a fiction does not undermine but rather helps to explain the power that the concept exercises. The concept since its introduction on the political agenda in 1973 has been highly deologically loaded and in that capacity has been contested. There has been a high degree of agreement on the concept as such, but deep disagreement on its more precise content and meaning. The concept of a European identity is an idea expressing contrived notions of unity rather than an identity in the proper sense of the word and even takes on the proportion of an ideology. In this sense the concept is inscribed in a long history of philosophical and political reflection on the concept of Europe. On these grounds the analytical use of ‘identity’ in social sciences can be questioned.
The history of a European identity is the history of a concept and a discourse. A European identity is an abstraction and a fiction without essential proportions. Identity as a fiction does not undermine but rather helps to explain the power that the concept exercises. The concept since its introduction on the political agenda in 1973 has been highly deologically loaded and in that capacity has been contested. There has been a high degree of agreement on the concept as such, but deep disagreement on its more precise content and meaning. The concept of a European identity is an idea expressing contrived notions of unity rather than an identity in the proper sense of the word and even takes on the proportion of an ideology. In this sense the concept is inscribed in a long history of philosophical and political reflection on the concept of Europe. On these grounds the analytical use of ‘identity’ in social sciences can be questioned.

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Published by: Euro Culture Krakow on Oct 07, 2011
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A R T I C L E S
A European Identity
To the Historical Limits of a Concept
EUROPEAN UNIVERSITY INSTITUTE, FLORENCE, ITALY
Abstract
The history of a European identity is the history of a concept and a discourse.A European identity is an abstraction and a fiction without essential propor-tions. Identity as a fiction does not undermine but rather helps to explainthe power that the concept exercises. The concept since its introduction onthe political agenda in 1973 has been highly ideologically loaded and in thatcapacity has been contested. There has been a high degree of agreement onthe concept as such, but deep disagreement on its more precise content andmeaning. The concept of a European identity is an idea expressing contrivednotions of unity rather than an identity in the proper sense of the word andeven takes on the proportion of an ideology. In this sense the concept isinscribed in a long history of philosophical and political reflection on theconcept of Europe. On these grounds the analytical use of ‘identity’ in socialsciences can be questioned.
Key words
s
Europe
s
heritage
s
history
s
identity
s
the Other
Identity is a problematic and fluid concept. If taken literally, it means equal, iden-tical. It is a concept used to construct community and feelings of cohesion andholism, a concept to give the impression that all individuals are equal in theimagined community. The invocation of community, cohesion and holism, yes,of identity, emerges exactly in situations where there is a lack of such feeling.Identity becomes a problem when there is no identity, particularly in situationsof crisis and turbulence, when established ties of social cohesion are eroding orbreaking down. Identity was a concept in ancient Greek philosophy and mathe-matics, which did not play any important role in social sciences until the end of the nineteenth century when it was incorporated in the emerging discipline of psychoanalysis. Only in the 1970s and the 1980s did the concept invade the coreof the social and historical sciences (Niethammer, 2000).
European Journal of Social Theory
5(4): 387–401
Copyright © 2002Sage Publications:London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi1368-4310[200211]5:4;387–401;027993
 
The argument in this article is that the history of a European identity is thehistory of a concept and a discourse. A European identity is an abstraction anda fiction without essential proportions. Identity as a fiction does not underminebut rather helps to explain the power that the concept exercises. The concept,since its introduction on the political agenda in 1973, has been highly ideologi-cally loaded and in that capacity has been contested. There has been a high degreeof agreement on the concept as such, but deep disagreement on its more precisecontent and meaning. The concept of a European identity is an idea expressingcontrived notions of unity rather than an identity in the proper sense of the wordand even takes on the proportion of an ideology (Delanty, 1995). In this sensethe concept is inscribed in a long history of philosophical and political reflectionon the concept of Europe. On these grounds the analytical use of ‘identity’ insocial sciences can be questioned (cf. Brubaker and Cooper, 2000).With this point of departure, an important question becomes when and howmore precisely the idea of a European identity emerged. What is the history of the concept of a ‘European identity’? And how is the concept connected to thehistorically developed images of Europe and to the institution building in theEuropean integration process that has been going on since the 1950s?Intensified European integration has gone hand in hand with a growingacademic and political search for the roots of Europeanness in history, religion,science and culture (Goddard et al., 1994). The meanings of Europe are adiscourse of power on how to define and classify Europe, on the frontiers of Europe, and on similarities and differences. The idea of Europe became, histori-cally and sociologically, a political idea and mobilizing metaphor at the end of the twentieth century, particularly in the wake of ‘1989’. In many versions theemphasis is on Europe as a distinctive cultural entity united by shared values,culture and identity. References are made to Europe’s heritage of classical Graeco-Roman civilization, Christianity, and the ideas of the Enlightenment, Science,Reason, Progress and Democracy as the core elements of this claimed Europeanlegacy. There are subtexts of racial and cultural chauvinism, particularly whenconfronted with Islam. Europe acquires distinction and salience when pittedagainst the Other. When the differences within Europe are emphasized, it is oftenin the form of unity in diversity. Religious differences (Catholic, Protestant,Orthodox Christianity) and linguistic differences (Romance, Germanic andSlavic languages) are seen as correlated, (Catholic–Romance, Protestant–Germanic, Orthodox–Slavic), and essentially are underlying the major ethniccleavages and conflicts, historically and contemporary, in Europe.The European identity was designed and decided at the Copenhagen ECsummit in December 1973 (European Commission, 1973). The framework of themeeting was a global order in unexpected crisis. The Bretton Woods Agreementafter the Second World War, based on the dollar, had collapsed in 1971 after yearsof growing tension between the West European states and their American ally. TheVietnam War underpinned the tension and overstrained the dollar. Moreover,frictions had grown considerably in the machinery of economic growth and fullemployment, mass consumption and mass production mutually reinforcing one
European Journal of Social Theory 5(4)
388
 
another, based on the long post-war reconstruction boom, and the investments,which fed the boom. Finally, in the autumn of 1973, the dramatic oil priceincrease took the Western world by surprise producing a mood of crisis.The idea of European identity was based on the principle of the unity of theNine, on their responsibility towards the rest of the world, and on the dynamicnature of the European construction. The meaning of ‘responsibility towards therest of the world’ was expressed in a hierarchical way. First, it meant responsi-bility towards the other nations of Europe with whom friendly relations and co-operation already existed. Second, it meant responsibility towards the countriesof the Mediterranean, Africa and the Middle East. Third, it referred to relationswith the USA, based on the restricted foundations of equality and the spirit of friendship. Next in the hierarchy was the narrow co-operation and constructivedialogue with Japan and Canada. Then came
détente
towards the Soviet Unionand the countries of Eastern Europe. At the bottom of the list came China, LatinAmerica and, finally, a reference was made to the importance of the struggleagainst underdevelopment in general (Passerini, 1998).The fact that the MiddleEast was ranked before the USA in this hierarchical otherization demonstratesthe impact of the dollar collapse and the oil price shock.The concept of ‘European identity’, in the 1970s, expanded from its dollarand oil price context as an instrument to consolidate Europe’s place in the inter-national order. It spread in the framework of attempts to establish a Europeantripartite order of corporatist bargaining to replace the collapsing nationalarrangements in this respect. In 1977 the MacDougall Report to the EuropeanCommission suggested a European Keynesian strategy to bridge the economiccrisis and the collapse of key industries, a kind of Euro-corporatist order. A seriousattempt was made in 1977–8 to translate the national tripartite bargaining struc-tures, which had functioned so well during the era of economic growth in the1950s and 1960s, to a European level in a politics of de-industrialization inindustries like shipbuilding and steel. The idea of a European identity under-pinned these efforts. However, in the bargaining about capacity reduction andlayoffs of labour the solidarity ties among employers, trade unions and govern-ments followed national lines rather than transnational labour and capital soli-darity (Stråth, 1987). The proposals in the MacDougall Report were neverrealized.In the emerging neo-liberal conceptual framework, which in the 1980s evermore replaced national or European corporatist conceptualization, ‘the region’was seen as a remedy for weak economic performance in a semantic field where‘network’, ‘market’, ‘nearness’ and ‘flexibility’ were other key terms. Compensa-tion for the eroding political legitimacy at the national level and the collapse of the political economy was simultaneously sought at the regional and Europeanlevels. Identity became the concept in this search for compensation. Successstories about high-performing regions based on nearness and trust in networkswere contrasted with negative stories of the old and large-scale industrial districts(Piore and Sabel, 1984; Medick and Schlumbohm, 1978; Hirst and Zeitlin,1989; Stråth, 2000b).
 Bo Stråth
A European Identity
389

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