The return of national identity


A recurring theme in discussions of the euro zone is the return of national identity to European politics - if, that is, it ever went away.

A few years ago, at least among what is usually refered to as 'the European elites', the idea was that we would all be subsumed into a large multicultural melting pot of Europeanness, where people moved even further away from those narrow, destructive and often illogical identities that owe more to the Treaty of Westphalia than modern Europe. There would, of course, be difference, but reason would triumph over prejudice on the big issues. Europe's rebirth after plumbing the depths of nationalist horror would be complete.

Except that it didn't turn out like that (at least it hasn't at this present moment) - much to the chagrin of many of ECFR's Council Members at our recent conference in Warsaw. Now the Greeks resent the Germans who distrust the French who hate the British who are flabbergasted by the Greeks. And that's to say nothing of the Maltese. Pirro, my Greek/Albanian colleague from the Paris office, passed these unsubtle examples of growing Greek resentment to me earlier today, imagining what a new Greek drachma might look like*:








Why does this matter?

Firstly - and this is a rather broad brush approach to a complex topic - the obvious: If you have a currency area then you need some sense of common identity to legitimise the inevitable transfers and incongruities. In the US, the good citizen of New York may not be happy about her subsidising of the good citizen of Alabama, but they both feel definitively American and treat the other as such. In the EU, well, see above.

In addition you also have the political dimension: EU level politics has a distinct legitimacy problem - it is considered remote and unaccountable. When, as now, things are not going particularly well, it is something to fear and blame.

And then you also have the massive differences in the social and political contract within societies, which, like it or not, seem to lean heavily upon national (or at least national historical) identities. This is something that David Rennie has touched on here.

Secondly, you cannot ignore identity if you want to fix the euro and the cracks that have opened up in the whole European project. Making parties develop pan-European platforms for EU elections, or having directly elected commissioners simply will not work if they are not underpinned by a genuine European identity. Anybody who thinks that fostering such an identity will be easy is selling moonshine and hogwash. However, going back to ECFR's recent Council Meeting, two thoughts stand out:

As you can hear in this podcast, Peter Kellner squarely puts the question of European legitimacy onto the shoulders of polity rather than politicians. The latter come and go, make popular and unpopular decisions, and usually end up facing a sticky end. The former is the broader political system, which may be understood as fair and generally supported beyond the fortunes of particular politicians and policies. No matter what the politicians do, they need a polity that people can identify with and that people believe in. Such a polity on the European level would be a bridge to the European identity that we speak of. It's fair to say that as a legitimate polity, the Brussels institutions aren't quite there yet (despite the protestations of some MEPs).

The second thought comes from a closed session at the Council Meeting, from one of the cleverest people associated with ECFR. This Council Member spoke in terms more familiar to marketing men than the politicians, diplomats and officials in the room, as he painted a picture of three different world views that cut through national barriers across Europe. Without going into details, the European narrative was one that the more international/cosmopolitan ones could support alongside the ones striving for a decent living and those who prefered the comforts of what they knew, when times were good. Quite simply, with times not quite so good, it's now clear that the European narrative only attracts the more international and cosmopolitan of us. The others, understandably, simply do not buy it (and, importantly, not for nationalistic reasons).

These are just thoughts, and sketched ones at that. But if we concentrate on narrow politics and economics, and ignore identity and narrative, Europe will not survive this crisis. That is why European leaders from Merkel to Sarkozy need to watch their mouths a little bit more carefully as they move slowly towards some kind of solution to this dreadful mess.

* the bank notes were designed by an artist called Quentin ( and a design agency called Beetroot (

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