European values and identity

Debates about European identity have intensified in the context of EU enlargement and the Union's Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties. Although the motto "unity in diversity" is generally seen as best describing the aims of the EU, opinions differ widely as to how it should be understood. 

The point of departure of most discussions on European identity is the idea that a political community needs a common set of values and references to ensure its coherence, to guide its actions and to endow these with legitimacy and meaning. 

With the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, and the founding of the 'European Union' with 1992's Maastricht Treaty - which gave the European Communities new and stronger competences in a wide range of areas (such as foreign affairs, security and defence), two issues gained renewed urgency: defining the EU's borders and boosting the political legitimacy of the Union in the eyes of its citizens: the 'glue' that unites all Europeans and keeps the bloc together. 

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. 

Representatives of the Catholic Church have been among the most prominent actors in debates on European identity. In an address to members of the European People's Party on 30 March 2006, Pope Benedict XVI said Europe needed to value its Christian roots and strengthen its awareness of belonging to a common civilisation to better meet the challenges it faces. 

According to the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community (COMECE), explicit references to God or Christianity "would have been a strong signal supporting the identity of Europe". Universal rights and values, such as democracy and the rule of law, developed from the Christian inheritance of Europe, COMECE stress. 

In the same vein, the European People's Party  (EPP)  believes Europe has managed to preserve a shared cultural heritage. This sense of belonging together can only be based on common cultural values and convictions. On this basis, it is high time to define EU borders.

By contrast, the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament promotes the idea of the EU as political community "based not on religion or faith, but on mutual respect for common democratic and fundamental values". Turkey's EU membership prospects and the fact that there are millions of Muslims already living in the EU should push forward this process, not least to avoid a "clash of civilisations", in ALDE's view. 

Among the two EU countries that have been most vocal in debates on referring to 'God' and 'Christianity' in the EU Constitution are Poland and France. 

Poland's former ruling Law and Justice Party in 2005 expressed its satisfaction about the failure of the Constitutional Treaty, because "it negated the role of Christianity in shaping the moral and cultural face of our continent [….], it introduced a specific anti-Christian censure to the European constitutional practice". 

France, on the other hand, has been one of the staunchest defenders of a secular conception of the European project. Michel Barnier, French foreign minister from 2004-2005, echoed the view of most French politicians when he said the EU had to remain a secular construction in respect of its different traditions and religions.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan underlined that by accepting Turkey as a member, the EU would prove that "it is not really a Christian club, but a place where civilisations meet".

On 16 January 2008, the Grand Mufti of Syria, the first religious leader to address the European Parliament during the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue 2008, told MEPs that although religion gave culture its moral values, "it is we who build civilisation," arguing that "we must create states on a civil basis" rather than a religious one.

  • 7 Dec. 2000: Charter of Fundamental Rights 'solemnly proclaimed'.
  • 25 March 2007: Berlin Declaration marking the EU's 50th anniversary highlights 'common ideals'.
  • 2008: European Year of Intercultural Dialogue highlights European identity and citizenship.
  • Nov. 2010: European Parliament's culture committee adopts own-initiative report calling for the strengthening of the role of culture in the EU's external policy.

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