National Identity Disrupted

In this PDU podcast Emilie Mendes de Leon argues that one consequence of European Integration is the creation of a generation less attached to a monolithic ideal of the nation. However, the current EU decision making procedure does not acknowledge this shift in experience. 

Power-sharing institutions and multi-layered forms of belonging are not a novelty in the modern era in Europe. In fact the Holy Roman Empire balanced the principle of non-intervention and power-sharing structures for centuries. When the Holy Roman Empire officially dissolved in the beginning of 19th century, Europe ushered in the era of national unification, standardization of language, and civilian armies. By the early 20th century, the idea of the nation state as a community of people sharing language, symbols, blood, tradition and culture had already taken hold, and national legal codes created citizenship predicated on that that idea of the nation.

These forces, in particular the unification of Germany, disrupted the balance of power between the European states. Rivalry between nation states played out in the tragedy of two horrific wars, and at the end of the Second World War, there was a desire for a new model of political cooperation in Europe. New institutions were set up to moderate the competition between nation states.

The preambles of the treaties establishing these institutions express a hope for a more integrated Europe, but nation states remained the primary actors within the new institutions. Of course, early political disputes over the Common Agricultural Policy, British accession, and proposals to strengthen the power of the Commission and Parliament were eventually overcome. Time, treaties, and key legal principles developed by the European Court of Justice slowly muddied national boundaries for trade, business, students, and workers. The removal of border patrols, the creation of harmonized product standards, and eventual mutual recognition of qualifications led to the realization of a true single market.

The decisions made by national governments within the European institutions to establish a common market and share a currency have slowly started to dismantle the enclaves of one country, one language, one history that once upon a time united a population under the flagship of one common identity and belonging. A Europe of blurred borders has given birth to a generation of individuals with mixed national identities, habits, and cultural references.

starsToday, 14 million Europeans live in a different Member State than the one where they were born. A quarter of a million students study abroad in another Member State each year as a part of the Erasmus Programme. The younger generations of European citizens nurture detachment from the conventionality of a single national identity. Only 7% of those belonging to “Generation Y” say that all of their friends are of the same race or religion, and only 49% of them feel patriotic.

In the political sphere there has also been a shift. Regional and ethnic groups remain important actors in national and European level politics. Massive popular support for referendums on self-determination in regions such as Scotland and Catalonia demonstrate firstly, a desire for citizens to feel that they have a stake in their political system and secondly, a desire for national governments to recognize and respect local cultural nuances within regions and communities.

Agreements between national governments played an important role in the creation of the single market, but the consequence of these agreements was the creation of a generation less attached to a monolithic ideal of the nation. The current EU decision making procedure does not acknowledge this shift in experience. Despite a democratically elected European Parliament and a series of institutional reforms throughout its history, the complexity of EU institutions and procedures continues to distance the EU citizen and empower national governments.

The European Parliament is the only institution with directly elected representatives. By way of comparison, the President of the Commission and the Commission as a whole is indirectly elected by an incredibly complex process. The heads of Member States, acting in the European Council, elect a nominee for President of the Commission. The European Parliament then votes by absolute majority to approve or reject the nominee. The Member States make suggestions for Commissioners (usually one from each Member State) with input from the President of the Commission, the Council adopts a list of Commissioners, and the Parliament approves this list to formally appoint the Commission as a whole.

It is time for the EU institutions to empower the individual rather than cater to the political games of national governments. There have been numerous reforms of the institutions throughout the decades that resulted in complicated procedures like the one described above. It is time for a true federal structure in the Anglo-American tradition with a directly elected President of the Commission. Competencies like foreign affairs, the army, and financial and economic policy, which are currently jointly managed by the institutions and national governments should be managed by the Union. It is time for the institutions of the European Union to become a forum for deliberation by directly elected representatives rather than an unknowable bureaucracy.

The realization of a single market has given birth to generations with increasingly layered notions of identity. Our institutions should reflect and respond to the plurality of identities and experiences in the European population. The result will be a people more connected to the legislative process, more engaged with the institutions, and more the focus of the institutions that are there to serve it.

Many thanks to Dadiana Chiran for her contribution and insights.

Image: ‘European Union Stars’, courtesy of Mark Notari via released under Creative Commons 2.0.

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