European Identity as a subject for teaching and learning

Spanish translation, German translation, Italian translation, Polish translation

By Edmund Ohlendorf of IWB Radolfzell e.V., GERMANY, 1998

(English translation of the German original by Gillian Johson, ENGLAND, 1998 )

Contribution to the EDUVINET "European Identity" subject

l. Definition of concept

Identity means complete equality between two things, an essential equality. European identity would in this sense be an essential equality of all the inhabitants of Europe. But what do we mean by Europe ? A geographical definition of Europe is not simple and there is (so far) no clearly defined political territory of Europe. How then can people have an essential equality with something that cannot be defined exactly ?

Now it might be supposed that at least all the inhabitants of the European Union have felt an essential equality within their Union since 1992. That, however, is not the case, for there is no Charter of Citizens' Rights to provide the foundation at least for a legislative identity. On the other hand Poles, for example, or Hungarians think of themselves as Europeans just as much as the French or the Germans. Here the essential equality derives from a very vague concept of a common historical past that on closer examination, however, has frequently been an antagonistic rather than a common experience.

The Czech President Vaclav HAVEL suggested a courageous way out of the contradiction described above, when in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 1994 he said: "That is why ..................charisma." [1]

European identity is therefore not an established concept, but the task of creating such an identity.

2. Previous ways of establishing identity

This task its not new. It was faced before, when all the nations of Europe strove to develop their particular individuality - and at the same time to invent the nation. The British historian Eric HOBSBAWM rightly spoke of a process of "invention of tradition" to describe the passionate, collective enthusiasm for the nation's past, while for his part the American historian Benedict ANDERSON showed how nations themselves were inventing in the very invention of a common past as "imagined communities". [2]

All European nations and the USA, too, invented their nations in the nineteenth century. Ernest RENAN the great French theologian, made the following perspicacious remark in a speech at the Sorbonne in 1882: "A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things that are in reality only one make this soul, this spiritual principle. One is possessing in common a rich heritage of memories, the other the present perception, the wish to live together, the will to uphold the heritage that has come down to us undivided." [3]

In the nineteenth century the European nations did not tire of each testifying to their common memories in order to create for the present the community of destiny and solidarity called nation. Thus they revived legends of a misty past, Germanic, Celtic and Slav heroic deeds, battles lost and won at Hastings, Lützen, Trafalgar, Leipzig and Waterloo [4]. Wars against Islam in the Balkans, near Vienna and the Reconquista contributed as much to the discovery of identity as shaking off foreign rule did, e.g. in the Netherlands, in Switzerland or in Italy or Greece.

This great zeal in reviving past deeds, sufferings and common rejoicings on which to build a nation and legitimise its continued existence in the future has found lively expression in more or less all the arts. Thus painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and music, besides the writing of history served as a means of creating in broad layers of society an identification with a nation, which - on looking closer was a mythical fiction, and nevertheless developed a huge historically real power. [5]

When especially in the second half of the nineteenth century attempts were made to explain differences between nations by differences between races and ethnic groups, dangerous ideologies and emotions were set in the hearts and minds of men. And although as early as 1882 RENAN expressly warned against demanding identity between the national state chase on the one hand and certain racial, ethnic and religious groups on the other, we know that such fallacies led to the bloodiest wars and mass-murders in the history of mankind.

A revival of the conception of a national state as the best form of organization for large human groups cannot be a desirable goal in Europe today. Even in recent times attempts in this direction have led to political murders and civil strife in Northern Ireland, in the Basque country, Cyprus and in the Balkans, but have brought neither peace nor prosperity.

Even so, in some EU member countries increasingly voices are raised demanding openly a revival of nationalist thinking and seeing in a "Europe without frontiers" a threat to their national characteristics.

3. Regions, nations, transnationality - alternatives to the national state as conceived hitherto ?

3.1 Regions

Two opposing tendencies appear at present to question the national state. Lessening constraint on living - together in national states have called into existence smaller, more easily recognizable territories with greater inner social homogeneity, which can variously be determined by language, customs, a common history or economic interest. This was seen in developments in Spain after the Franco régime, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, of Yugoslavia and the GDR. It is in the opposite direction, towards greater state unity, that the European Union is striving, and just beginning to include central east European nations in its transnationality. This tendency towards expansion seems to many people in Europe to be taking on an "inhuman" dimension, which has led to a "Regions' Committee" acting as an advisory body alongside the European institutions already in existence. After reunification Article 23 of the constitution of the German Federal Republic was completely rephrased to guarantee particularly the rights of the Länder in an expanding Europe.

Do we need regions below the level of the national state ?

It seems to be in man's make-up to connect part of his self-esteem in his identity with clear-cut areas where he generally from childhood has gathered common experiences with other people and is moulded by this in a particular way. In German this is expressed by the word "Heimat" ("home, native country"), "Heimat" having not only a spatial, but also a spiritual connotation, even if the two are not identical. In the course of their lives many people also discover an adoptive country which pushes the importance of a former homeland into the background.

"Heimat" can best be conceived and described as a very personal process of development, which has to do with places and even more with people one knows well and is at ease and feels at home with, and especially with the abode of one's own mind, one's own spiritual world. This most personal process of development explains why "Heimat" can both exist and no longer exist at one and the same time." [6]

These very personal attachments of people to particular regions are certainly very important emotionally, and to belittle them would mean depriving people of their roots. That is to say, the need of regions for protection through larger units is greater than their ability to afford their inhabitants adequate protection. Thus it follows that the regions should be left with the care of culture and nature in manageable areas; this would certainly help in establishing an identity.

3.2 Nations

In view of the negative experiences that the whole population of Europe was subjected to in the twentieth century by the national state of the nineteenth century, the following question is legitimate:

Do we still need the national state in the Europe of the future ?

After what has been said before, it must be made clear what is meant by national state: the nineteenth-century national state as a reservoir for anti-French, anti-British or anti-German feelings, or a national state as developed in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century.

A revival of the former would be disastrous; in its new form purged by two world wars it is hardly likely to be rejected. There are presumably two qualities in particular that the national states of Europe possess at the end of the twentieth century and whose application to transnational institutions and procedures many citizens of Europe cannot yet imagine.

Firstly the protection of elementary individual and social rights through national constitutions, and secondly the high degree of each people's identification with its national parliament's decisions.

Ralf DAHRENDORF is of the following opinion: "Constitutions constitute rights. Rights are suable guarantees. They are not just promises, fine words. ..... Rights therefore require courts of justice for ratification, a means of enforcement. All three classic forces have their place here. These forces exist first of all in a reliable form only in a national state. Whoever gives up the national state loses the only effective guarantee so far of his basic rights. Whoever considers - the national state to be superfluous is declaring albeit unintentionally civil rights to be superfluous". [7]

Of course the national state can only be made into a subsidiary institution if the transnational European Union produces an at least equal quality of justice. Enlightenment in that direction must clearly play an important part in education. As we are here concerned with the transfer and legitimate use of power, citizens must identify themselves with, and not be afraid of the new institutions on a transnational level.

This brings us to the second advantage of the national states as they exist at present: the high degree of acceptance of majority decisions in the national parliaments by the people. This is also the reason why so many people in Great Britain find it difficult to come to terms with the idea of a transnational European state. The former British Foreign Secretary Malcolm RIFKIND expressed his government's misgivings in a speech on 19.2.1997:

"Legitimacy cannot be created through treaties and conferences but takes years to be developed. Democracy has to come from the bottom and not from the top. What made central and east European régimes collapse eight years ago was the lack of true legitimacy. Whoever suggests transferring power from established institutions to new ones runs a great risk and must have good reasons for it. The problem does not only lie in the fact that the institutions are new they are legitimized to a lesser degree. Each majority decision in an EU institution overrules somewhere a democratically elected government, with the result that there are laws in Germany that do not have the approval of the German government, but have been passed because the Italian, Belgian and other governments have voted for them .........

Whoever maintains that the national state is outdated its mistaken; the national state is alive and kicking, and this for the very reason that it has changed and adapted. The national state of Western Europe are now no longer the inadequate, nationalist, potentially inimical countries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; they - like everything else - have gone through a process of modernization and are more open, less secretive, more flexible and probably less powerful than before. Even in foreign policy the state has changed and become much more receptive to international co-operation". [8]

Three objections to the British position may be raised.

Firstly: As long as the Council of Ministers of the European Union has the last word, then of course the question of its legitimacy and the checking of its power is justified. But this could be improved by a Parliament with proportional representation of the European population with the right to comprehensive joint decision-making.

Secondly: The British model of voluntary co-operation unfortunately incurs the danger of complacent inaction. This situation was recently pointed out sharply by Peter SLOTERDIJK: "This first European Community has been taught a lesson about its hollowness in the experiences of the Yugoslav crisis. It could be said straight out that the siege of Sarajevo put an end to Europe's period of political illusions. While western Europeans watched the carving up of Bosnia for two years and did almost nothing wavering between indifference and helpless indignation, the ghastly consequences of their own political absence were thrust upon them. Europe's Bosnian ignominy is the price of a whole era of illusion and complacency. Now we see what it costs to live in a watertight world of vacuum illusions. Even so there are signs of the reprehensible refutation of the first European Community preparing the stage for a new orientation. Maybe, after 1989, a different Europe is cutting its first teeth; perhaps the relatively successful Sarajevo ultimatum in February, 1994 was the first effective gesture of a new all-European Union capable of doing more than despatching observers and stretchers." [9]

Thirdly Rifkind's misgivings about European majority decisions mask the fact that people would like to continue to guarantee their national interests with the right of veto in the Council of Ministers. On the other hand they do not want to lose the possibility of blaming unpopular decisions at national level on the ElJ, as happened for example in connection with the mad cow disease restrictions. This is a dangerous game that could give rise to new national fears and emotions, and is hardly likely to promote the trust in a European parliament that people have in a national one.

3.3 Transnationality

Perhaps we shall have to get used in future to seeing our identity on three politico-spatial levels. We are no doubt products of our region, our nation, but are we Europeans too ? We are proud of our hometown, our mother-country, but are we of Europe?

Do we need a European identity, a "we Europeans" feeling ?

As illustrated at the beginning of this article the myth of a nation as a "person" to be defended in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had an enormous effect :in history. There is no comparable "Europe myth", but rather widespread scepticism, at times discontent at the rule of Brussels bureaucrats. Nor is there any sign of a Europe as a personified form of grandeur that could arouse the emotions of its citizens. A certain pressure from outside, at least in western Europe, to search for a common identity has disappeared since the collapse of the eastern bloc.

On the other hand most states in the EU will soon have a common currency, whose stability will depend on financial discipline and solidarity among the member-states. Let us consider Germany, which. will one day be surrounded by neighbouring countries to whom it must leave the border-checks on immigration. In 1996 Germany already had 7.3 million foreigners, twice as many people as for example the inhabitants of the Irish Republic and about 9% of the entire population of Germany. Will the southern European states agree to an extension of the EU towards the east if they are to fear as a result a reduction in payments from the European adjustment funds ?

What will happen when the Americans withdraw from the Balkans and the cost of men and materials falls to a few EU member-countries ?

At the latest when active solidarity is required in the name of Europe - whether internal or external - then each individual, or at least his representatives must answer the question; Do I identify myself with the values on which concrete European actions are based or not ? Without a minimum consensus on common values no state, community or union can survive.

Particularly when identification or solidarity with values require personal sacrifices does the question of precedence become inescapable, i.e. which values such as

come first in what situation. One cannot have the best of everything all at the same time.

In the creation of a transnational European identity we will have to live without the winged powers of a great new empire myth. Nor will the construction of a "European mansion" - envisaged by Gorbachev - be a cosy nest, but a strenuous effort requiring comprehensive knowledge of detail in many disciplines and perhaps even more future-oriented political ethics. This was also the subject of a so-called carrefour of the European Commission on 7th. - 8th. May 1997 in Santiago de Compostela, where noted representatives of politics, science and religion arrived at the following conclusion:

"We need a moral code of unifying politics above all with regard to the Europe that still has to be created. Those responsible in the institutions, especially in the Parliament and in the Commission, are required in the name of this moral code to make clear always the priorities and motives for the work of unification: peace, conciliation, tolerance, solidarity, justice, freedom." [10]

4. Consequence for education in Europe

Not without pride are we Germans able to say that after the bitter experiences of the first half of the twentieth century we have in the second half built a state whose moral foundations are the above mentioned qualities. And that these foundations remain firm is also thanks to the work of many colleagues teaching history and civics.

In 1945 Germany - as said the French historian Alfred GROSSER in a television programme of the Südwestfunk on 10th. April, 1998, broke with the concept of nation and put in its place political education, thus being the only country in the European Union at present to be able to relinquish the concept of nation.

Instead of nurturing a national feeling we are working to find a new political identity, the substance of which is char constitution. For this there has existed since 1979 in the German language the term "Verfassungspatriotismus" (constitutional patriotism). This is not the old nationalism we used to know in a new disguise, but

"Verfassungspatriotismus" leads us to an understanding of patriotism closer to the original sense, which is older than nationalism or the creation of rational states in Europe. It keeps its central meaning of "patriotism linked to civil freedom and the constitution." [11]

Can "Verfassungspatriotismus" be a model for Europe ?

We have of course had a Treaty of Union in the European Union since 1992 (Maastricht), but this is not a constitution we could be proud of (yet).
Is, it now the task of political studies in education at universities and schools to prepare the way towards a European constitution ?
This question will probably cause fear and horror in Great Britain. This is understandable if by a European identity one cannot imagine something that is at least equal to the British identity.

After the above-mentioned speech by Vaclav HAVEL in the European Parliament in March, 1994, in which he demanded deeper reflection on European identity, the "Europaunion Deutschland" took on this task in November l994 and after numerous discussions in meetings and working committees presented a Charter of European Identity. In the following six chapters it contains all the important aims and qualities of a European Union which every European citizen can identify with and be proud of.

  1. Europe as a Community of Values
  2. Europe as a Community of Values
  3. Europe as a Community of Life
  4. Europe as an Economic and Social Community
  5. Europe as a Community of Responsibility
  6. Towards a European Identity

One of the points under the last heading reads:

Asked by a committee of the German Bundestag in l988 what political studies meant for the existence and shape of our democracy, Sir Ralf DAHRENDORF gave this lapidary answer:

"Information and Persuasion". He said that information provided knowledge of institutions, organisations, processes. Without this knowledge an effective participation would not be possible. Persuasion was necessary for an inner participation consent to the "spirit of the law". This had something to do with what Germans liked to call legitimacy. He continued: "nevertheless the existence of democracy depends not on political studies but on the institutions working. The shape of democracy, that is, type and degree of participation, does have something to do with political studies." [12]

Of course DAHRENDORF's opinion was based of a democracy already in existence. But is education forbidden to use persuasion towards creating one ?

"One of the former presidents of the EEC Commission, Jean Rey, who like many Belgian politicians (Speak, Dehousse, Harmel) at that time, was a true maestro of mediation used to say of the EEC that it was like a cathedral whose architect would one day be forgotten, because each generation would continue building, knowing full well that it would not see the finished product. What is often overlooked, so art historians tell us, is that such edifices "in being" have impressed people at every stage of construction not because of the mass of masonry raised but because of the ideas that were put into the building and the ingrained certainty that it is right to do this work". [13]

With this same certainty the partners in the EDUVINET project, other contributors and many colleagues in schools have started to add their share to the "cathedral" of Europe.


• • Copyright © IWB e.V. 1996-2000 Webmaster: • •
• • 800 x 600 recommended
• •

|Introduction & Sitemap| |EDUVINET Didactically & Methodically|  
|Full Text Teaching Materials| |EDUTALK Discussion Forum| |Link Collection|
|EDUVINET Authors| |Add your URL & Materials| |EDUVINET Logos|
|Mailinglist| |Guestbook| |Search & Search Engines| |Homepage|