Countries at heart of citizens' identity
Surveys show that EU citizens continue to identify first of all with their own countries. According to a Eurobarometer survey published in May 2008, 91% of the interviewees felt attachment to their nations and only 49% to the European Union.
While two-thirds of Belgians (65%) and Poles (63%) declared their identification with the Union, only a quarter feel the same way in Cyprus (25%), Finland and the United Kingdom (both 27%). Low levels of attachment can be found both among founding countries, such as the Netherlands (32%), and in new member states, like Estonia (34%).
Low voter turnout in European Parliament elections (a record low was reached in 2004, when only 45.6% of the EU electorate voted) seems to indicate a general lack of interest and attachment to the European political project.
Relatively low political participation and weak attachment in turn present the EU with a legitimacy problem. But there is little agreement on how identification can be strengthened. Various models are outlined in the paragraphs below.
Common European identity based on shared political values?
So far, the identity of the European Union has predominantly been defined politically. According to the Treaties, the EU is founded "on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law" (Article 6 TEU). If there is a risk of a serious breach of these principles by a member state, some of its membership rights can be suspended, as was the case in Austria in 2006 (EurActiv 13/02/06).
In accordance with the principle "unity in diversity", the Union shall promote the diversity of its cultures, while "bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore" (Article 151 TEC).
Furthermore, the EU must respect fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The bloc's Charter of Fundamental Rights would further strengthen such protection: the full text of the document, originally incorporated into the Constitutional Treaty, was replaced in the Lisbon Treaty by a short cross-reference with the same legal value.
However, the Lisbon Treaty ratification process came to a stalemate after the Irish 'no' in June 2008 (EurActiv 13/06/08). Moreover, due to strong British opposition, the Charter will not be legally binding in the UK. Poland has joined the UK in asking for an opt-out from the Charter, while Ireland has backed away from this option.
Meanwhile, the Berlin Declaration, adopted on 25 March 2007 to mark the EU's 50th anniversary, underlined "common ideals" including the individual, human dignity and equality of men and women. Other values stressed by the declaration are peace and freedom, democracy and the rule of law, as well as tolerance and solidarity. But the celebratory text did not include any reference to God or the EU's Christian roots.
Defining European borders
As regards the accession of new members, any "European state" can apply for membership of the European Union, while "Europe" and its borders are left undefined in the Treaties (Article 49, TEU). Candidate countries must have stable and democratic institutions, a functioning market economy and adequate administrative structures (the so-called 'Copenhagen criteria').
However, some politicians and observers argue that the EU needs a stronger identity to be viable. Fundamental disagreements were brought to light during work on the EU Constitutional Treaty, which sparked heated debates about references to 'God' and 'Christianity' in its preamble. A compromise was reached by referring to the "cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe," a phrase which was included in the Lisbon Treaty.
The prospect of possible EU membership for Turkey, as well as issues related to globalisation and immigration, have further fuelled the identity debate.
A Europe of culture, or a 'family of nations'
Communitarians believe that a polity can only be stable if it possesses a 'thick identity', anchored in a common history and culture. They emphasise that European identity has emerged from common movements in religion and philosophy, politics, science and the arts. Therefore, they tend to exclude Turkey from the ranks of possible future member states, and argue for stronger awareness of the Christian (or Judeo-Christian) European tradition. For them, 'United in diversity' is taken to refer to Europe as a "family of nations". On this basis, they believe it is high time to define the EU's borders.
Main problems: Opponents argue that this view is a form of 'Euro-nationalism' that leads to exclusionary policies within European societies (as regards non-European immigrants) and the polarisation of global politics, citing the "clash of civilisations" prophesied by the scholar Samuel P. Huntington as its worst possible outcome.
A Europe of citizens, or 'constitutional patriotism'
Liberals and republicans, on the other hand, argue for a common political culture, or civic identity, based on universal principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law expressed in the framework of a common public sphere and political participation (or "constitutional patriotism", a term associated with German scholar Jürgen Habermas). They believe that cultural identities, religious beliefs etc. should be confined to the private sphere.
For them, a European identity will emerge from common political and civic practices, civil society organisations and strong EU institutions. 'United in diversity', according to this view, means that citizens share the same political and civic values, while at the same time adhering to different cultural practices. The limits of the community should be chiefly a question of politics, not culture.
Main problems: The liberal-republican stance is often criticised for what is seen as the artificial distinction between the private and the public or the subjective and the universal. Democracy and human rights, according to critics, are not universal values, but themselves spring from specific cultural traditions. Problems related to cultural differences are ignored, rather than dealt with. Furthermore, solidarity and emotional bonds in societies can only result from cultural feelings of belonging together, never from purely abstract principles.
Europe as a space of encounters
Constructivists believe that a 'European identity' could emerge as a consequence of intensified civic, political and cultural exchanges and cooperation. As identities undergo constant change, European identity would encompass multiple meanings and identifications, and would be constantly redefined through relationships with others. 'United in Diversity' would mean participation in collective political and cultural practices. It would be wrong and impossible to fix EU borders, in constructivists' eyes.
Main problems: This view, according to critics, over-emphasises the ability of people to adapt to a world in flux und underestimates their need for stability. Too much diversity can eventually lead to a loss of identity, orientation and coherence, and thus undermine democracy and established communities.
Despite the fundamental differences outlined above, there are a number of factors that are seen by most as preconditions for the emergence of a European identity:
Politics: Strengthening democratic participation at all levels, and more democracy at EU level;
Education and culture: Strengthening the European dimension in certain subjects (especially history), more focus on language learning, more exchanges, etc.;
Social and economic cohesion: Counteracting social and economic differences.