by Frank Schnittger
Fri Dec 14th, 2007 at 01:08:40 PM EST
Many thanks to all who have contributed to making the Is there such a thing as a European Identity? diary such a lively debate.
As the debate there has now exceeded 100 comments and is getting sidetracked on other issues perhaps I should attempt a summary of my take on the conversation.(My bravery always did exceed my wisdom!)
I think the very passionate nature of the debate highlights that the European project is something we all care deeply about. It has made a major contribution to peace and prosperity in Europe over the past 60 years and is becoming increasingly influential throughout the World in the post Cold War era.
It has expanded both geographically and in depth and scope and now covers many aspects of Government competencies that were formerly carried out by national Governments. Through a series of reform treaties it has attempted to both deepen integration and improve the transparency, efficiency and accountability of the decision making process.
My argument has been (in part) that this reform did not go far enough and that it may now (post the expansion to 27 members) be too late to achieve any further radical reform because it is simply too difficult to achieve unanimity on any significant new measures including further institutional reforms. (See also the difficulty of changing the US constitution where there are less stringent change ratification processes to overcome in what is arguably a much more united and well established federal political culture).
The consequences of this are (in my view):
1) a growing difficulty in taking decisive action at EU level when challenges or crises arise - e.g. the reform process itself/rejection of constitution, Iraq, Human rights (rendition, Guantanamo, Darfur, Balkans), Peace making, Middle East Palestine/Israel/Lebanon etc. In other words, the EU is not punching anywhere near its economic weight in world political and diplomatic affairs. This means that a very positive potential influence on world affairs is missing or at least relatively ineffective.
2) A growing popular disillusionment with the European Project even amongst previously enthusiastic members
3) An increasing disconnect or alienation between the EU elite and its activities and a popular unease at the way things are going e.g. Iraq, human rights, economic liberalisation policies, the effects of globalisation, the accession negotiations for Turkey and poplar sentiment
In seeking to address these issues I asked the question as to whether there is a definable European identity which defines what Europe is about for most people and which, if articulated better, or embodied in a simplified EU Constitution would help EU citizens to re-engage and become more enthusiastic about the project again.
I suggested that a directly elected EU President, or a Commission structure more like a federal European Government more directly accountable to the EU Parliament might make it easier for people to identify with the European leadership and feel more engaged with decisions as to its future direction.
I also suggested that what most of "Europe" had in common was a christian background even if that background had been subject to a huge history of wars, disputes, and antagonisms that rage to this day. My argument was that these were internal disputes arising between people from a common christian background even if the resolution of the dispute resulted in a largely secular, anti-clerical, an avowedly non-religious political culture.
Many commentators raged at that idea and suggested that enlightenment philosophy or some such other value set lay at the heart of the European Ideal and pointed to the largely negative and reactionary role of organised churches in the reform process. I think this is unarguable, and I wasn't for a moment suggesting some kind of more formalised role for Christian Churches in the European Polity.
However, what I was suggesting is this: Every project has to have definable boundaries that people can relate to. Of course, these can, and have changed over the years, but it is important that people are consulted and can take ownership of any changes that are to the boundaries of the project.
Up until now the changes to the boundaries of the European project have been largely within what has been historically part of Christendom, and influenced by and centrally engaged in such seminal and more recent historical events such as the Reformation, the enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars , The industrial revolution, the Russian revolution, two World Wars and the Cold War.
All of these often hugely brutal and destructive events have taken place between at least nominally christian antagonists - at least in the cultural sense Indeed when you look at that list, it is hard not to conclude that Christianity must be the biggest scourge of all time to have fallen on mankind. It is not difficult to see why Europe should want to move beyond it.
But does that movement beyond any form of institutionalised Christianity also allow us to embrace predominantly Islamic societies which have not had the same history and now perhaps don't share our determination to remove religion as a factor in our Government and in the organisation of our civil societies?
An interesting test case in all of this is the proposed accession of Turkey. Of all the major Islamic societies, it is probably closest to us in our "European" experience. The Ottoman Empire extended to the gates of Vienna. It has seen many wars and ethnic cleansings of Armenians, Kurds, Greeks (and Christians). It is avowedly secular and democratic. Sounds pretty similar to our history then!! Many bloody wars followed by a history of relative stability, democracy, secular norms and economic progress.
So what's the problem?
Turkey is still seen my many in Europe as "other", or "not like us". Following so soon on the heels of a huge (and as yet ill-digested) expansion eastward, the inclusion of an even more geographically remote, huge and populous country pushes the boundaries of the European project beyond what many people are ready for. The EU is already seen as big and unwieldy, with a remote and technocratic elite without any identifiable single leader or clear policy direction.
Even the watered down Reform Treaty signed in Lisbon this week may well not be ratified if put to the popular vote because of a sense that the EU is getting too big, too diverse, too unwieldy, too globalised, and too remote from the sense of identity that most Europeans have with their own locality or nation state. (In those countries where the Treaty is not put to the popular vote it will exacerbate the sense that the EU is an elite project being foisted roughshod over the heads of its citizens).
The fact that Turkey is Islamic may simply become the excuse or pretext for an opposition to the further development/reform/expansion of the EU that is based not on an informed experience of what Turkey is actually like, but from a sense that the EU is already too remote from our concerns and sense of identity within our own locality or nation state.
This may not be a problem for the EU elite - used to thinking on a global scale, travelling widely, managing global corporations, looking for access to further labour and merchandise markets, further resources and sources of profits. But it may very well be a problem for ordinary European citizens who take the past successes of the EU for granted, but who have difficulties with the pace of change, the scope of integration and the scale of the EU even as it is now.
So my question "Is there such a thing as a European Identity" wasn't really aimed at the European elite - who probably couldn't care less - but at the general populations who (in some countries) will be asked to vote on and ratify the new Reform Treaty. People will vote for it if they feel comfortable with where the EU project is going, they will vote against it if they feel the EU has gone far enough, for the time being, even if the actual content of the Treaty will ameliorate some of the EU's worst defects as identified earlier.
People won't read a 300 page document, much less understand it. They will vote on sentiment, on whether they trust the EU leadership, on which side articulates its case best in the media. They will vote positively if they feel they can IDENTIFY with what the project is trying to achieve; if they feel comfortable with its scope, its depth, its boundaries both geographical and in the degree to which previously national powers are subsumed into "Europe".
But that vote will help shape the scope, depth, efficiency, and prospects of success for the European project in the next few years. If we can't answer the question "Is there such a thing as a European Identity", how do we expect ordinary voters to identify with the European Project?
So my conclusion is: if we want the European project to continue to develop and expand we have got to do a better job of articulating to the European electorates why it should do so, what's in it for them, why they should feel it is part of their heritage, and what further positive contributions can it make to the world as a whole. In short, why they should want to identify with and feel part of it.
So what does our commitment to the European project say about us: It says we want to put an end to the wars between us, to transcend the national rivalries that have in part caused those wars, we want to work more closely together for our mutual benefit and prosperity, we want to help those regions and sectors of society which have lagged behind, we want to put behind us those parts of our history - religious intolerance, racism, class division and discrimination of all kinds which have been used to dehumanise others, and we want to project those values more effectively onto the world stage.
Is that not what our European Identity is about?