Citizens of the EU How to Forge a Common European Identity

Many feel that if the EU is to survive, residents of its 27 member countries need to develop a stronger sense of a common European identity. But is it even possible to forge a European nation? The continent's leading thinkers have plenty of ideas, but national governments are reluctant to give up power.


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Europeans are searching for an idea: What should the Europe of the future look like? Could a federation of European nations function? How could a working government in Brussels be structured? And could a continent-wide democracy foster unity and solidarity among European nations? In a three-part series, SPIEGEL reports on new plans to restructure the European Union. This is Part 3. Be sure to also read Part 1 and Part 2.

Europe has a face. It can grin, and it has freckles. Almost everyone in Germany knows it. It's the face of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, 66, the Green member of the European Parliament and former revolutionary.

No one else can explain Europe the way "Red Dany" can. No one but this polyglot global citizen can convince people in almost every country on the continent to listen and to pick up at least some of the enthusiasm he exudes for Europe. "There will be a United States of Europe," he says. "I'm sure of that."

Cohn-Bendit does not plan to run in the next European election. He wants to enjoy his retirement. People like him are no longer dependent on the sensitivities of member states, or on political calculations. Instead, Dany can barge straight across the traditional territory of political interests. Seen from his perspective, Europe looks simple.

The Green politician envisions a united Europe organized roughly along the lines of the Federal Republic of Germany: with a government in Brussels, the European Commission, whose members are elected by the European Parliament (EP). The European Council in Brussels would serve as a second governing body next to the parliament, and it would also be involved in writing legislation for Europe. A united Europe's foreign and defense policy, as well as its financial policy and large parts of its economic policy, would be managed in Brussels.

United States of Europe?

That's what a United States of Europe could look like. Politicians of widely differing stripes, in Brussels and in many member states, including Germany, hold similar views. But who other than the brightly optimistic Cohn-Bendit has the confidence to express them? Anyone who toys with such models is quickly suspected of being a traitor to his or her country. What would fellow party members and voters at home think about the idea of concentrating all the power in Brussels?

Political scientists and intellectuals in many European think tanks have already taken the notion of a European federal state a few steps further. Some say that it would make sense to emulate the United States of America and replace the European Council with a senate. As in Washington, the emissaries from the individual states would not simply be members of the government, but would in fact be elected representatives of their respective states -- senators with direct democratic legitimacy.

In the United States, where many currently fear for the future of Europe, some people are also thinking about possible solutions. For example, Joseph Weiler, a New York expert on international and European law, proposes the establishment of a European constitutional court at the head of a united continent. Using Germany's Federal Constitutional Court as a model, it would contain and, if necessary, correct the power held in Brussels, as well as giving citizens the peace of mind that someone is keeping an eye on their government. To minimize objections from national constitutional courts, the higher Brussels court would consist of judges appointed by the member states.

There are plenty of plans for how Europe, as a major power, would adopt a united position vis-à-vis the financial markets and other global powers. Academics in many disciplines are developing models for a functioning European democracy, a body politic whose citizens would feel and act as "Europeans" rather than members of an individual nation-state.

Traditional Identities Losing Influence

One of their leaders is Jürgen Habermas. "Territorial growth and numerical expansion of the population already changes the complexity of the process of formation of public opinion and the political will," says Habermas, a hugely influential thinker on democracy. Of course, he adds, the "cooperation of the citizens of all the countries involved" requires certain preconditions: a functioning "deliberation" process, a Europe-wide public sphere and "inclusion," the equal and coercion-free opportunity for everyone to take part in a society of Europeans.

Those who are optimistic about Europe believe that the necessary conditions are constantly improving. "The claim that there is no European nation contradicts the systemic convergence of multicultural global society," says Habermas. Many others agree, and point out that the world's societies of the 21st century will be completely mixed up, and while traditional identities will remain in place, they will lose their influence. The nation of the Germans will not perish, and yet its society has already lost national exclusivity, now that one in five Germans comes from an immigrant family.

It is inevitable that a shared European identity will develop in tandem with national identity, says Frankfurt constitutional law expert Erhard Denninger. Even today, he notes, there is a "consensus on basic ethical issues." Respect for human dignity, the individual and democratic law unites Europeans, as does the absolute belief in the invisible hand of the market and the absolute need to control this market through the efforts of the social welfare state.

"The ethical exclusivity that characterizes a nation state is no longer appropriate in an era of no borders," says British political consultant Robert Cooper, who feels that national patriotism is obsolete. Cooper, who worked for the European Council in Brussels for many years and is currently a consultant to the foreign service of the European Union, now feels that eurocrats are "more patriotic" than his fellow Britons.

A New Sense of Patriotism

It is the patriotism of global citizens who are concerned about human rights, not unlike the German idea of "constitutional patriotism," associated with Habermas, where citizens feel a sense of patriotism based on their shared political values rather than a shared ethnic identity or language. Such a pan-national patriotism is also based on an international consensus that has produced new institutions like the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which stands guard over the ethical values of a postnational society.

With this much commonality, cultural differences are not an impediment to a shared society. Germany's pluralistic, federally organized society has experienced this first hand. To shape common policies, one doesn't have to like the same music, or even have the same ideas about punctuality, cleanliness or order. Besides, the global communication network of the Internet already shapes the hearts and minds of younger generations of European citizens more decisively than the traditions they experience around the family hearth or at the local pub.

In 2009, researchers conducted an experiment as part of a European Union project dubbed Europolis. They brought together 348 men and women from the continent's various linguistic regions for three days. Accompanied by moderators and interpreters, the participants were to debate two challenging subjects: climate change and immigration.

The polyglot group of Europeans did not come up with any answers after three days of discussion. Nevertheless, interviews conducted at the beginning and after the end of the debate led the scientists to recognize an effect across all language barriers, namely that opinions had changed. "There are no fundamental obstacles to the introduction of deliberative democracy in Europe," they concluded. In the hothouse of the conference room, a miniature version of a European nation had begun to emerge.

This isn't terribly surprising. A look at quadrilingual Switzerland shows that democratic discourse functions across language barriers. Of course, such discourse is only attractive when it is conducted by fascinating leaders. Only then will the national media do the job that Habermas would like them to do, calling it their "responsibility for the success of Europe." According to Habermas, the media "must open the eyes of readers to the points of view of others."

Boring and Complicated

This only works, say journalists, if there is something to talk about. "It's about time that interesting people were sent to Brussels," says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the chairman of Germany's liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) group in the European Parliament. The "stories we tell," says Lambsdorff, are "too complicated," and the people telling them are usually too boring.

Politics in Brussels is boring and complicated because the participants, unlike politicians in the member states, are not forced to undergo the trials and tribulations of democratic elections. Neither the commissioners nor the president of the European Commission are governing in Brussels because their ideas and speeches have ever convinced a single voter. Commissioners are sent to Brussels by the national governments, not by the national parliaments.

The members of the European Parliament, who at least are now required to approve the Commission as a whole, also have little to say to their voters. They are usually unknown at home. In nationally organized European elections, the faces of the top candidates on the lists appear briefly on uninspiring campaign posters. But the text on the posters usually deals with issues that have little to do with Europe and much to do with the national positions of the respective party.

So where should these exciting new European politicians come from? "Until now, Europe has played no role at all at the national party conventions," says Lambsdorff. And why should it? After all, the leadership that Europe needs is increasingly not being done in Brussels but through agreements among the leaders of the member states. The process of delegitimization keeps going. Elections to the European Parliament have become little more than a tedious but necessary task for the parties. Ordinary people, too, are equally unenthusiastic, as shown by the most recent voter turnout of 43 percent in the 2009 election.

Only an election featuring individual personalities can inspire the European public and yield respectable results. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, long a firm believer in Europe, says: "I would like to see the direct election of a European president. Then we will already have a much stronger European consciousness by the time of the first reelection." Schäuble envisions a president for Europe who would head the European Council and Commission, and would be armed with political power and new competencies. A European public sphere could emerge as a result of the contest for such a position.


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pmoseley 12/03/2011
1. USE not USA
The EU is unlikely to develop into a federal United States of Europe (USE) and the reasons why have been hinted at in this issue. Europe, unlike the founding US states, is too diverse, historically, ethnically and culturally to become molded into a federal superstate. This article also uses several German institutions as models for reformed EU ones. This implies that the federal USE would be a superstate in the same mold as federal Germany, which many EU states would probably oppose. Directly elected representatives to a USE parliament would certainly involve proportional representation, leaving smaller nations marginalised. Coalition governments without overall majorities would lead to inefficiencies and periods without effective leadership. It is theoretical dreams like that of the USE that has led to the current crisis in the Eurozone.
deeegeee 12/04/2011
2. forge a european identy
I think that until the baby boomers move through society a true european identy is not possible.There are too many memories at the backs of their minds.They may truly believe that the memories of the dirty thirties,inflation,unemployment,2 world wars and the cold war,are things of the past but,the natural instincts of suspicion are still here.Many of the EU countries cannot even come to terms within their own societies.Immigration,racism,unemployment and financial stability are all major concerns,not only within the EU but world wide.Europe has been in conflict for 1500 years or so.It may be a new era and a new world but you are still dealing with old traditions.
symewinston 12/05/2011
3. the empire strikes back ?
Well, once upon a time there was another European Union; it was called the Roman Empire. It wasn't run from drab Brussels but from cosmopolitan Rome and run quite well for hundreds of years.It even included the region we now call Turkey.
lazloman 12/08/2011
4. Is a closer union really possible?
Thats really my question. Are Europeans willing to give up their sovereignty to ensure the survival of the Euro?
ziggy-surveyor 12/28/2011
Europe doesn't need to search for it's own identity, it has one for over 2000 years. Ringing bells on Sunday, literature and philosophy, history and tradition. What Europe needs is to reach to its roots, christian roots, and all European nations from Portugal to Poland from Italy and Greece to Scandinavian countries would see each other as one. I can not imagine united Europe and European constitution without reference to Christ and His Teaching. Zbigniew from Chicago
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