European Identity : Should we be European?

On Thursday 18th November 2021, the Policy Centre for European Affairs hosted a webinar on the topic of European identity, focusing on the question “Should we be European?“.

The issue of identity is a topic that is of great concern to European people today. The event addressed the question of what it means to Europeans in 2021. Do we consider our national identity to take precedence over our European one or vice versa? European identity has been traditionally perceived as product of European integration and exclusion. Since the 1970s, the idea of building up a strong European identity as a way to foster unity among Europe’s citizens during turbulent times has formed a cornerstone of EU policy. The concept itself was officially introduced in the Declaration of European Identity drafted during the European Summit in December 1973. It gave meaning to the pan-European collaboration during the Cold War to face the global threats at the time. Even to this day, the call for European identity to face geopolitical threats has been a common trend. In today’s Europe, there is an ongoing division between national identity and European identity, with numerous extreme-right and populist parties advocating for nationalism as opposed to European cohesion. This crisis of internal division is a primary concern for Europe.

King’s Think Tank invited four honourable speakers to provide answers to these thorny questions. 

The event was designed to make the audience an integral part of the discussion so that our attendants could personally identify with the issue at stake. Therefore, we invited speakers with expertise in the theoretical dimensions of the discussion as well as two other speakers who experienced these theories in practice. 

The first group of speakers included Benoit Challand, co-author of the book Imagining Europe: Myth, Memory and Identity¸ who currently is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the New School for Social Research. The other speaker was Stefanie Buzmaniuk, who is the Head of Publications at the Foundation Robert Schuman.

The second group of speakers, each have a career within the European environment and drew upon their experience to make sense of the issue of European Identity and contribute to the practical elements of the discussion. This included Corinna Schempp, the Head of EU policy and regulation at FIA, and Valerie Sternberg-Irvani, former Co-President of Volt Europa, member of Volt Germany.

After a brief presentation by the speakers, the audience was invited to answer a poll about their degree of agreement or disagreement with the statement “The EU identity should become bigger than it is”. A majority of people agreed with the statement.

Following this, the speakers answered a series of questions about their feelings towards European identity, how their identity changed after Brexit but also issues about how to define identity. Dr Challand brought this up by mentioning the issue of post-colonial and decolonial identities in Europe and how this should be taken into account when thinking about Europe. This ultimately led to the issue of migrants. 

When asked “Should the EU push for European Identity” and “If yes, how should it encourage it?”, the response was that the EU should push EU identity but not as how it is understood today, informs Dr Challand. To avoid nationalist populist backlash, Europe must promote a different identity via the means of transnational education with programs such as ERASMUS; it must enhance education on issues of discrimination to raise awareness about them. Thus, by dealing with the discriminatory and racist history of some states, Europe will be able to transform national discourses on identity.

“European identity is not a given, we must help shape up those elements of identity.” – Benoit Challand

Valerie mentioned that “The idea of a Federal Europe is not an end but a means. It’s a European society that gives identity.” To this end, the EU should encourage more exchange programs, shared history books and provide common minimum standards for a socially sustainable European society. Therefore, there needs to be more European Parties lobbying for such processes to be pushed forward within the European Union and its member states.

Finally, Stafanie Buzmaniuk added that “Now we need Europeans that stand behind the European project. The problem now is that we teach national histories at school rather than European history.” Creating a EU identity is a matter of intercultural communication, education and language learning, with EU being proactively engaged in the project of fostering a common identity among its citizens.

On behalf of the whole team of the Policy Centre for European Affairs, we would like to thank all the speakers for having taken the time to attend the event and for sharing their knowledge with us. Thank you to the audience for attending King’s Think Tank’s first online webinar of this academic year.

Many thanks to the Policy Centre for European Affairs, and especially Misha for having spent countless hours with the Director of the Policy Center to plan and structure the event. Special thanks to Megan who helped us with the poll during the event. 

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