The European Identity and Artificial Processes

Will we ever live to see the formation of a European identity? Is there a way of speeding up this moment? While this might seem a rather abstract, or ivory tower, pseudo-intellectual subject that is of lesser importance and urgency than, for example, pointing out who in Europe is sponging on whom, sooner or later its vital importance will become apparent.

It’s easy to be lulled into a feeling that the eurozone crisis has receded and the common currency is no longer under immediate threat of collapse. This is certainly not due to any sudden decisiveness or show of courage on the part of European leaders but solely to the fact that the President of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, has finally managed to reassure the markets by saying that he would do “anything” to prevent the eurozone from falling apart.

The markets will certainly put his “anything” to a number of tests. The banking union—in its preliminary or agreed form—might prove to be effective in preventing future crises but it is unlikely to end the current eurozone crisis. Nor will the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) alone sufficiently strengthen and stabilize the European banking sector. And if the banking sector is not sufficiently strengthened, it won’t pump enough blood into the veins of business and the European economies will continue to wallow in stagnation for many years to come.

Moreover, we might be underestimating the social and political dimension of the developments in Greece and Spain. Political violence in the streets may well escalate. Fifty per cent of young people are unemployed and things will get worse still, since before they can make the situation better, labour market reforms will make it temporarily worse.

Although the foundations for the principles of a banking union were laid at the December summit, any plans for the fiscal or political union proposed by the European Commission and European Council President Herman van Rompuy have been put on the back burner. However, they can only stay there until the general election in Germany this coming autumn. And if the markets start betting against the euro again, the plans might be back on the table much earlier. Every sensible economist and political scientist agrees that a currency union is inconceivable without the more profound fiscal and political integration of Europe. And they are not the only ones: Many europhobes also accept that a fiscal and political union is inevitable. The only difference is that they are concerned that it might really happen because, in their view, it can’t end well.

Eurosceptics believe there are three reasons why it will all end badly. First, the instigators of deeper political and fiscal integration are, they claim, way ahead of citizens and voters, who don’t really want this to happen. They believe that this headlong rush is stretching the bowstring and that it is bound to snap. Second, they allege that the push for further integration is artificial, unnatural and elitist. They believe that politics should only push for (or rather, respect and reflect) processes that are spontaneous, authentic and natural. And third, they insist that Europe will never produce a single political demos or political nation because it lacks a common polity. And a political nation, in turn, is impossible since we lack a European identity, let alone a European political identity. They are convinced that people do not identify with Europe, to say nothing of the dramatic cultural difference between individual European nations.

A tell-tale sign, they contend, is that when talking of ourselves we tend to describe ourselves as Czechs or Spaniards first and only later—if at all—do we say that we are Europeans, or just that we come “from Europe.” An American, on the other hand, introduces himself as an American first, adding only later that he comes from, say, Oklahoma.

Let us deal first with the allegation that voters are ahead of the curve. Surely taking a leading role is natural in politics since, after all, politics can hardly just reflect the wishes of so-called ordinary people? Any politics worth its salt has to lead, to persuade, to aim for something, be headed somewhere, and must explain itself to the people.

The same applies to so-called artificial or authentic processes in politics. In any case, how can we distinguish between what is artificial and what is spontaneous and natural? After all, all processes are to some extent artificial, things are always driven or pushed by someone. In industry they are pushed by inventors, in politics by visionary politicians or political leaders (although in Czech translation the term “leader” still evokes an unfortunate association with the term “Führer”). If good politicians were only to reflect the mood of the people they might as well be replaced by machines, computers that took precise measurements of public opinion. This kind of politics tends to be circular, stagnant and ultimately empty and pointless. However, computer-led politics might result in extreme swings because in tense situations people may demand extreme solutions.

And that takes us to the issue of identity. The Americans are a political nation comprised of many nationalities. A political nation shares a whole range of ideals: religious tolerance, faith in free speech and freedom of political expression, as well as a naturally sceptical attitude to government or to what might happen to people entrusted with power. That is why the American constitution defines rights and freedoms primarily in negative terms, by stating what the government will never do and where it cannot or may not go instead of trying to prescribe all the wonderful things government must do. If the idea of a European constitution is ever resurrected, it would do well to seek inspiration from this approach (incidentally, this might also mean vast savings in terms of words and paper).

Of course, American political identity was not formed overnight: The maturing of the American political nation was a slow and gradual process. To begin with, landowners were the only people allowed to vote and be involved in politics; later on, all taxpayers were included. Women were included only a hundred years ago, while the extension of voting rights to national minorities is quite a recent phenomenon.

A European identity might conceivably take just as long to evolve, albeit following a rather different trajectory from the emergence of American political identity and its final form. The historical and geographical contexts are simply very different. The main similarity, however, is in the gradual nature of the process. Nobody believes that a European identity can be prescribed or imposed overnight.

Nevertheless, there may be times even nowadays when people feel that their European identity is central to them. In 2001 Václav Havel said in an interview with the Portuguese newspaper Diário Económico that “…spending a few days in Saudi Arabia is enough to make you realize that you’re a European regardless of whether you are Portuguese or Czech.”

The process of forming a European political identity can obviously be promoted externally, by means of the “accursed” artificial instruments, for example, taxation. No common European taxes exist as yet. Of course, I’m not saying this to demand higher taxes, because European expenditure should not be financed from national revenues. But if people were forced to pay an annual Union or European tax—however small—they would be immediately much more interested in finding out what was going on in Europe, whether it affected them, whether it was something they identified with, and whether it represented any of their interests.

Introducing a further idea, such as European citizenship, might be relatively painless. The first step might be to allow everyone to have dual nationality—a European one as well as that of their own country—and thus, for example, to own a European passport. The significance of European citizenship could be increased gradually .

Another interesting option is the direct election of the European President and European Commission Chair by all EU citizens. Being able to participate in such an election might further foster interest in “European matters”. One might also consider establishing a second chamber of the European parliament, in which every country would be represented by two senators. Smaller countries such as the Czech Republic ought to be particularly supportive of this federative principle that maintains internal competition while providing asymmetrical and “undemocratic” protection to smaller and “weaker” nations.

Furthermore, reflection on common interests might give rise to pan-European parties. (The Irish have already tried this with the Libertas party: paradoxically, this pan-European party was eurosceptic, but that is beside the point.)

For some mysterious reason there is a prevailing view—especially in Czech political discourse—that a second, i.e. European, identity can be strengthened only (if at all) at the expense of national identity. In this context it is worth quoting Václav Havel again, for whom identity was a crucial and very personal issue. Havel understood identity as a set of concentric circles and it never occurred to him that one identity might eliminate another. “Someone who is certain of his or her own identity is not afraid of openness. Only those not sure of their own identity speak of a loss of identity.”(Berliner Zeitung, July 1998). Another thing President Havel often stressed was that we are the ones depriving ourselves of our cultural identity by, for example, succumbing to superficial trends and treating our environment irresponsibly (e.g. by building hideous warehouses and repulsive hotels in city centres).

In his reflections on a European identity— as, in fact, in many other respects—Havel was ahead of his time because the discussion of identity is the starting point for the future process of integration. This issue is more important than the discussion of demographic deficits or of the political legitimacy of further integrative processes. Because, in fact, the issue of identity and identification comes before the issue of legitimacy.

It was also the then Czech President who had emphasized, back in the early 1990s, that Europe had to build on its moral and spiritual traditions. As early as 1993, at a Council of Europe summit meeting in Vienna, he said that “present-day Europe lacks the ethos, imagination, magnanimity, the ability to see beyond the horizon of immediate particular interests… it lacks profound identification with the real goal and meaning of the integration endeavour. It is as if she lacked a sense of real responsibility for herself as a whole.”

Today this is more true than ever before and if Europe wishes to proceed with integration, it will have to produce leaders who will tell their people something to this effect (perhaps in a slightly different form) and who will be able to win them over to this idea. Otherwise the process of further integration is bound to fail. For the issues of identity, identification, common values and responsibility cannot be avoided by clever technical or accounting tricks.

Jan Macháček

Jan Macháček is a columnist and analyst for Respekt.cz, weekly Respekt and Hospodářské noviny. He is the chairman of the board of Vaclav Havel Library.

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