Could the EU Build a Common National Identity?

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The terms nation and state are often used interchangeably, perhaps because in the modern world states often try to build nations within their borders, or perhaps because political leaders as far back as Napoleon has believed that nations help stabilise states. However, the two terms have widely different meanings. A state is a political organisation that must minimally claim a monopoly on the use of force to exist, and should also be able to impose legally binding norms, collect taxes, and be capable of providing services for its citizens. On the other hand, a nation refers to a group of people who share a common political identity. Often, this encompasses ideological factors, whether secular or religious. Sometimes it is also built from a common ethnic identity.

The EU currently has some characteristics of a nation. There is evidence of some sense of common identity forming in the EU, with 2015 Eurobarometer surveys showing that 67% see themselves as European citizens. However, while a sizable majority shares a common identity based on this, it is an identity that is complementary to their national identity, rather than one which supersedes it and which could therefore be used to build a new nation. This can be seen by the fact that only 8% of those claiming to be European citizens saw this as their primary identity, showing that the EU is still far from becoming a nation. In this article, I will analyse whether this might change in the near future. I will do so primarily by considering whether common sources of identity, such as ethnicity, religion, and secular political ideologies, could be used to transform the EU into a nation.

Firstly, we must consider whether shared ethnicity could be the basis of a European national identity. Ethnicity refers to a group of people who “share a cultural background such as language, location, and religion”. As ethnic groups already have a shared sense of identity, it is reasonably easy to use them to shape a nation provided an ethnicity is widely shared. This is not the case in the EU. There could be as many as 87 different ethnic groups in Europe, with 33 of them being influential in their countries. As a result of this, it is probably impossible that a shared European nation could be built from a shared ethnicity. 

Even more concerningly, the ethnic diversity in the EU could lead to divisions that could actively harm the formation of a common identity. Member states such as Belgium have struggled to reconcile even two large ethnolinguistic groups (the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the Francophone Walloons) so it is not unreasonable to assume that the EU as a whole would struggle to reconcile 33 major ethnic groups which speak 24 different languages. Of course, these differences are not irreconcilable. Papua New Guinea has over 800 living languages. As this is significantly more than the EU’s 24 official languages, overcoming ethnolinguistic barriers in Europe is clearly possible. Furthermore, the EU does have three procedural languages; English, German and French. These are spoken widely, with English spoken by 51% of EU inhabitants, followed by German at 32% and French at 26%. More focus on these in the future could potentially reduce the divisiveness of ethnolinguistic differences. While ethnicity will probably never become a source of national identity in the EU, it does not have to prevent the formation of national identity on other grounds.

One possible ground that stands out is religion. Religion can be instrumental to a person’s sense of identity as it can significantly influence customs and values, and hence a shared religion could be used to create a national identity if the same faith is held by most of the inhabitants of a given territory. At first glance, this seems to be the case in the EU. According to World Atlas, 76.2% of the population is Christian. However, there are also other important religions to consider. An example of this is Islam, which is practiced by only 6% of the total population but which is a majority religion in some EU states such as Cyprus. As a result, attempts to form a national identity based on Christianity would probably be strongly opposed by some members, making this course of action less likely. This is without counting the fact that there are several different Christian groups in the EU (Catholics, Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox church). These internal divisions make it even less likely that the EU could form a national identity based on religion.

Finally, it is worth considering the fact that nations can be formed on more secular ideological grounds. For example, national identity in the USA is largely built on a belief in democracy and individual liberty, whereas in the Soviet Union it heavily revolved around the political ideology of communism. As such, it is not implausible that the EU could unite around its own system of ethical and political values. There is even a list of foundational values of the EU, which include human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, and human rights. However, while the values are professed and probably widely shared, they have not so far created a sense of common identity. This can be seen through the fact that 2014 Eurobarometer surveys show that 50% of respondents think EU member states are “distant” in terms of their values. Nonetheless, the professed foundational values of the EU could potentially be used as a basis for national identity in the future. 

It is very unlikely that the EU will become a nation in the foreseeable future. While there is a shared sense of common identity between Europeans, this is nowhere near overriding their pre-existing loyalties to their current nations. Furthermore, it has been shown throughout this article that the EU does not have any pre-existing source of shared identity to tap into that is strong enough to convert into an all-encompassing national identity. While it does have the basis of a secular ideology in the form of its foundational values, there is no evidence that these have helped bring Europeans together so far. If a common European national identity can’t be built, what does this mean for the EU? As mentioned in the introduction, nations are often thought to stabilise states. Obviously, an EU that is unable to form a nation will struggle to establish and maintain a state. However, the lack of a shared identity could pose problems even for an EU without any such ambitions. Attachment to current nation-states suggests that many citizens will deeply value the concept of sovereignty, perhaps more than they value the economic benefits of EU policymaking. As a result, the EU’s inability to form a national identity could make it very difficult not only to integrate further but to do anything at all which might require coordination and hence represent a potential threat to sovereignty.

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