“Fatta l’Europa, bisogna fare gli Europei”: Should the EU aim at forging a European identity?

« Fatta l’Europa, bisogna fare gli Europei » (“We have made Europe, we have to build Europeans”) eventually said former President of the Italian Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (2004). Mutating a famous dictum from Italian Risorgimento, he was drawing a parallel between the nineteenth-century forging of nation-states and the European construction. “Fare gli Italiani”, creating an Italian identity had been achieved through the development of linguistic, educational and cultural policies. Hence Ciampi was, in a sense, suggesting we should develop analogous policies at the level of the EU. A phrase wrongly attributed to Jean Monnet expresses the same concern: he is said to have claimed, about the European construction, that « si c’était à refaire, il faudrait commencer par la culture. (“If we were to do it all again, we should start with culture”; Shore, 2013). Both statesmen would thus assert that the European polity, the EU, was built, while a form of common identity was to be instilled in the European people.

The historian Sylvain Kahn draws a line between a German and a French vision of the creation of nation-states. The former postulates the anteriority of the nation on the state. The latter postulates the anteriority of the state on the nation (Kahn 2014). The situation of the EU is, beyond doubt, closer to the second model. In order to foster the emergence of a European identity, the European Commission has launched since 1985 a series of cultural policies emphasizing the cultural commonalities of Europeans. Indeed, as Monica Sassatelli reminds us: “One of [the aims of cultural policies] is the fostering of specific identities and thus the formatting of fully socialized, compliant citizens, sharing common tastes and conducts” (Sassatelli, 2007:29). A shared identity is considered as an essential component of modern citizenship, acting as a link between the citizens and justifying them living together.

EU cultural policies’ resemblance to the strategies used in the formation of nation-states is acknowledged. These policies, extending to the EU what had once worked for nation-states, did not really succeed in creating a European people. They merely gave birth to “an embryonic state without a nation” (Shore 2001:57). The lack of legitimacy of the EU, correlated to its democratic deficit, is often attributed to this lack of substantial identity. Split between peoples and nations, the EU would need a European “imagined community”(Anderson 1983). The strife towards a common identity is generally taken as a means to overcome the centrifugal tendencies within the EU.

In this essay, I shall try and demonstrate that the EU cannot and, beyond that, should not seek legitimacy by promoting a European identity through European heritage, memory, values: several impediments due to the complexities of the EU prevent the success of such a quest (I). A communitarian response to its lack of legitimacy is only one option, and the EU might need to develop its very own conception of citizenship, a postnational one (II).

In its attempts to forge a European identity, the EU is confronted by several challenges. When achieving national unification in the 19th century, the national elites focused their cultural policies on a few issues, among which were achieving linguistic unity and writing a consensual grand narrative. To do so, they used two main tools: schools and media (Anderson 1983, Hobsbawm 1991).

The EU is confronted by a first challenge regarding the tools of Europeanization.

Reforming education was the first task of the newly implemented nation-states, and mass education fulfilled its goal of inculcating a national consciousness. Today, education, a sensitive domain, remains the responsibility of member states. This is made clear by article 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union: « The Union shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, by supporting and supplementing their action, while fully respecting the responsibility of the Member States for the content of teaching and the organisation of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity. » In this domain, the scope of action of the EU is limited.

Nevertheless, there have been some – non-binding – attempts at promoting a European identity through education. In that respect, a network of European Schools was implemented, targeted primarily at the children of EU staff, and offering a multilingual and multicultural education. There are currently thirteen European Schools, in six countries (Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Spain ; Eursc.eu, 2017).

Former president of the European Parliament Egon Klepsch (1993) said they were designed to “foster young Europeans” who would become “the political decision-makers of tomorrow”. European Schools have thus two main goals: contributing to a European identity and forming a European elite. Have they reached these objectives?

First, these schools function clearly as settings for social reproduction, since the “political decision-makers of tomorrow” are mainly the children of EU officials. Shore and Baratieri (2006) conclude their extensive study on the European Schools by qualifying them of “exclusive and elitist”. Second, these schools seem to fail at generating a sense of European citizenship. In a 1995-96 questionnaire at the Varese School, 70-80% of the respondents agreed that “This is a European School above all because the teachers and the students come from the countries of Europe”, while “the school prepares you to become a citizen of Europe” was chosen by less than 20-30% of the respondents. These figures show that, for the students of European Schools, Europe seems to remain mainly a ‘geographical expression’. While European Schools could have been the most instrumental institution in forging a European identity, they turn out both to be too elitist and to fail to convey the idea of European citizenship.

In the nineteenth-century creation of national identities, national media mattered as much as school systems. Attempts at creating European media have not been conclusive (Neveu 2002; Llobera 2003). If we focus on the audio-visual sphere, two main channels were intended to convey a European multicultural and multilingual approach: EuroNews and Arte. EuroNews, launched in 1993, is available in most European countries and broadcasts in thirteen languages. However, most of the programs are not pan-European, but rather extracted from national spaces. To give the channel a ‘European perspective’, “the word ‘Europe’ and its derivatives (European, Euro+noun, etc.) are repeated as quasi-mantras, presumably with the goal of reminding the viewers of the existence of an entity which is disputed and hence needs constant reiteration. ». Besides that, EuroChannel only gathers a small audience and has thus limited impact. As for Arte, the French-German cultural channel created in 1991, it remains «unashamedly highbrow and elitist in its conception » (Llobera 2003), and only attracts a niche audience.

These two channels embody the difficulties facing any multicultural and multilingual media: they tend to fail at taking up the challenge of reaching a large audience.

Hence, the EU lacks the institutions which nation-states used to generate a common identity, as neither European Schools nor European media seem to be effective in this matter. In addition to these hurdles, the EU faces two unquestionable challenges: European languages and memories have strong centrifugal effects.

Language is undoubtedly the strongest obstacle to the spreading of a European identity. Germany’s linguistic unity was the cornerstone of its political unification, while in France and Italy educative policies were launched to homogenize linguistically the national territory. Amann Gainotti, Pallini and Geat’s enquiry (2008) on Italian children’s representation of Europe illustrates how the lack of a European language complicates European identification. They interviewed young children, who claimed not to be European. When asked why, the children justified their assertion making reference to language: «perché non parlo quella lingua lì» (because I do not speak this language), «perché non ho parlato mai europeo» (because I have never spoken European), «perché non lo parlo l’europeo» (because I do not speak European), «perché non parlo la lingua loro. Quale lingua? – europea» (because I don’t speak their language. Which language? – European). It goes without saying that European linguistic unity is unthinkable. The EU has 24 official languages, and gathers 60 regional or minority languages. If the European Commission promotes multilingualuism as the crucible of a European identity (European Commission, 2012), de facto English is the lingua franca of Europe. However, since it is also the language of globalization, it does not live up to the meaning of a strong cultural bond.

By the same token, the EU has to address the issue of European history. Indeed, history is fundamental for any imagined community. Nonetheless, if Europeans share a factual history, they do not share the same narrative. As of now, there is still considerable diversity in narratives regarding European memories (Rosoux 2001; Nanz 2003; Stråth 2007), which prevents the EU from writing a grand narrative as nation-states did. Some historical events remain sources of tensions between member states. For instance, the signature of the Trianon Treaty, which was dictated to the Hungarian delegation and amputated Hungary of two-thirds of its territory and 60% of its inhabitants, is still commemorated in Hungary, while the other signatory States have not formally acknowledged their warmonger errors. We can notice this European narrative diversity and its issues in the way national officials refer to some events or characters: Pompidou praising Napoléon in front of a French audience, but insisting on his mistakes with Germans (Rosoux 2001). These challenges regarding European memories can lead to the sanitization of their promotion. The historian Alan Forrest acknowledges the progressive blurring of Napoleonic memories in Western Europe, and attributes it to the controversial identity of this figure. Renouncing to celebrate the great Napoleonic victories (Ulm, Austerlitz, Iena, Wagram), France undoubtedly shows its reluctance to generate international malaise (Alan Forrest 2017). The history of Europe is made of conflicts between the states, conflicts which have left marks and whose remembrance can still generate frustration.

Hence the EU, if confronted by two main challenges similar to those met by nation-states, cannot satisfy itself with the solutions implemented by the states in the nineteenth century. One might wonder whether such efforts are necessary: why should the EU have a stato-national approach to the European Citizenship? If the EU is really an “original political object” (Abélès 1996:13), why copy the nation state’s old recipes?

The very notion of identity is intrinsically tied up with the exclusion of the non-identical. The great steps in building nation-states in the nineteenth century happened in a context of war, and national identities were forged in opposition to foreign enemies: Germans against French (1870-71), Italians against Austrians (1848-49, 1859, 1866) etc. Centuries before, the Greco-Persian wars at the beginning of the Vth century BC fostered the consciousness of a common Hellenity within the Greeks despite their territorial dispersion and their linguistic and political plurality. Such identities were crafted building on the ‘outsider’. Forging the identity of a group implies the exclusion of other individuals, with whom the differences are emphasized. Regarding European identity, what we consider today key-moments of its forging happened in a context of war. The first known occurrence of the substantive “European” (europenses) can be found in the Mozarabic Chronicle: its anonymous author coined this noun to label the soldiers led by Charles Martel who defeated in 732 the Arab-Berber troops near Poitiers (François and Serrier, 2017). By the same token, the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832) generated a consciousness of “Europeanity” among Europeans: Greece, the cradle of European civilization, was trying to free itself from the ‘Barbarian’ domination of the Ottoman Empire. The Greek issue was turned into a confrontation between two civilisations, Europeans versus Barbarians. Identitarian projects inherently seem to imply a potential warmonger construction of the “other”. Hence, forging a European identity could reinforce the contrast between Europeans and non-Europeans. This identitarian construction could prove to be harmful, especially in a context of migration crisis.

Moreover, why, in the first place, should the strengthening of the EU be based on a European identity? Do Europeans really need to be bound together by a common identity defined by cultural features?

The necessity for a citizen to belong to a nation is only one among several options, namely a communitarian option.

Citizenship is not an immutable concept, as the variety of its definitions and scopes of application indicates. The specificities and requirements of each polity determine the content of the concept of citizenship, as much its conditions of access (who is or can become a citizen?) as the links between civic and cultural features (are the citizens’ particularities acknowledged or smoothed in the public sphere?). I shall briefly study examples of different answers to both interrogations. I consider that showing how variable citizenships are may help us think of a conception of citizenship tailored to European particularities.

The former question is exemplified by the differences between Athenian and Roman conceptions of citizenship. Athenian citizenship relied exclusively on autochthonia: to become a politês, one had to be born from a citizen, and after Pericles’ law in 451, born from a father citizen and a mother daughter of citizen. Former slaves, metics and other foreigners could not become citizen. There has been very little derogation to this rule. This conception of citizenship was built on different myths strongly asserting the bond between Athenians and the Attica soil, such as the myth of the birth of Erichtonius [1]. On the contrary, one could acquire Roman citizenship by other means than birth, and civitatis donatio could concern the peregrini (free foreigners) and the sons of liberti (freedmen). Moreover, several decrees considerably increased the body of citizens: in 89 BC all free Italians became citizens, and in 212 the Edict of Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to all the free inhabitants of the Roman Empire. Thus, Athens and Rome had very different conceptions of citizenship: Athenian citizenship concerned a small number of persons, it was inherited and could not be granted, while Roman citizenship did not restrict as much its access and allowed the naturalization. Nowadays, we can find an echo of such distinctions in the numerous debates about the validity of ius soli and ius sanguinis. Each model of citizenship fits given situations: Athenians feared the expansion of citizenship, because it was a tool used by tyrants to increase their clientele, while Romans needed to expand citizenship to appease Italians after the Social War between Rome and other Italian cities.

A second set of distinctions which shows how variable citizenship is concerns the relationship between cultural and civic features, and more precisely the citizens’ specificities in the public sphere. The French conception of citizenship requires the smoothing of cultural distinctions in the public sphere, namely for the sake of secularism: for instance, laws such as the ban on face-covering (effectively prohibiting niqab and burqa in public space) are said to aim at preventing the fragmentation of the unity of the political body. Opposite to this deeply Republican vision of citizenship stands the British conception of citizenship. Based on multiculturalism, it acknowledges the different ethnic and cultural groups and their right to assert their specificities. Both these models of citizenships aim at answering a central interrogation of political philosophy: how can the modern state reconcile the citizen and the individual?

All these different applications of citizenship show that citizenship is not a concept set in stone. Each model of citizenship is a different answer to different imperatives. By the same token, the EU needs to develop its own conception of citizenship, and this European citizenship must not necessarily be based on pre-existing models of citizenship. European citizenship does not need to follow the path of nineteenth-century nation-building.

Indeed, the link between nation (the belonging to a cultural community) and citizenship (the membership in a political community) is historical but in no way logical (Balibar 2001). We may need to dissociate the cultural order of national identities – non-applicable to the European project – from the juridical order of the political community. Indeed, the EU is a post-national polity. There is no reason why EU’s struggle for legitimacy should be dealt with through the quest for substantial European identity. What I have in mind is along the lines of Dolf Sternberger’s and Jurgen Habermas’ proposals of a constitutional patriotism (Sterberger 1979; Habermas 1998). By constitutional patriotism I mean a project to foster the development of a peculiar form of loyalty that goes beyond cultural identifications: an attachment to universal ethical-juridical principles. Habermas sees in the adhesion to the principles of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental freedoms a possible alternative to nationalism and its particularistic conception of belonging. This concept emphasizes the need for a civic identity rather than a cultural identity. I propose we take seriously this approach, and consider that there is actually no reason why different cultural identities should be an obstacle to the forging of a strong European identity: not an identity based on common cultural trait but on the loyalty to common ethical-juridical values.


The European Union is a unique and recent polity. Trying to apply to the EU the nation state-building process seems to be doomed to fail. While the nation state could rely on some form of cultural and linguistic unity, Europe is too fragmented to follow the same path. Moreover, the frontiers of Europe and of the EU do not even match, which makes it incoherent and difficult to justify the existence of the latter by the existence of the former. European citizenship cannot be conceived the way we think of that of a nation state: we need to dissociate cultural identity from citizenship.

Hopefully, as we have seen, citizenship is not an immutable concept, but adapts to the specificities and requirements of each polity. This leads us to believe that the EU needs to find a way to develop its very own type of citizenship, a postnational citizenship. Relying of the works by Habermas and his concept of “constitutional patriotism” could be a way to do so. In the absence of a European ethnos, the EU should focus its policies on the fostering of a European dêmos and try to unite Europeans and to spread a European feeling not through cultural commonalities but through the attachment to the principles of the rule of law and political participation. Obviously, constitutional patriotism remains a controversial hypothesis, because of its high degree of abstraction. The lowering turnout in European and national elections seems to indicate that the very essence of democracy does not mobilize people anymore. Constitutional patriotism seems difficult to reconcile with the rise of individualism and the withdrawal towards the private sphere noted by Benjamin Constant as early as the 19th century (2009). While Ancients considered liberty as autonomy, that is participation in political sovereignty, Moderns view liberty essentially as independence, that is the lack of constraint from laws. Can a postnational citizenship built on the model of constitutional patriotism be effective at mobilizing people not drawn anymore by a will for autonomy but by a will for independence?


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1 Erichtonius was born from Hephaistos’ semen fallen on Gaïa, the earth. He became one of the first mythical kings of Athens.

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