Me, Myself and I - A European complement to national Identities

, by Daniel Fritz

Me, Myself and I - A European complement to national Identities

“The nations are not something eternal. They had their beginnings and they will end. A European confederation will very probably replace them.” Ernest Renan, 1882, Paris

Would not it be nice, the idea to replace our old-fashioned and sometimes difficult national identity with a fresh, European one? It is an idea Germans and pro-Europeans indeed think about and sympathize with. But it is also an idea that is, in countries like France, the Grande Nation, as well as in the new EU member states, confronted with heavy scepticism or even refusal. Rather often than rarely it also causes fears. The question that arises is what is an idea about that evokes so many different reactions? Is an exchange of identities even possible? If yes, is it something worth doing? To answer these questions, we have got to take a close look - way more emotionless than we are normally used to - on the terms identity and nation. Moreover we have to think about the possible nature of a European identity. This is more than an intellectual thought experiment. Life is hard for a political collective without identity. It is not about lifting Europe to higher philosophical levels, it is about checking Europe for its viability!

What is identity? This question doubtlessly needs to be answered before entering the topic. However, to avoid the old discussion held already by the ancient Greeks about the “I”, I propose a cinematic approach to the term identity. In John Woo’s film Face/Off from 1997, Nicolas Cage and John Travolta take over the other one’s “identity” by taking over the other one’s appearance. At the surface, they are confound. The confusion, however, fails to be successful in the end, because people are getting suspicious by recognizing very atypical characteristics. In 1998, Alex Proyas is going much further in his film Dark City. There, in a fictional city, aliens exchange and manipulate people’s memories. Additionally, the people’s environment gets adapted to their new memories. The experiment seems to prove very stable and is only doomed after an unsuccessful “identity transfer” that produces a rebel without memory. This rebel sets everything in motion to find out who he really is.

What then are these examples telling us about identity? At first we get to know that human identity, the “characterising peculiarity that distinguishes one human being from another” is not existent per se but rather dependent from a multitude of factors. An old German dictionary, the “Meyers Großes Konversationslexikon”, defines identity (personality) as the result of “conscious interaction of the individual with its environment and the partly conscious, partly unconscious accumulation of experiences made, where they memories, habits or anything else”. Identity therefore is nothing fixed or genuine. It is learned, it can change and it can be influenced! Secondly we get to know that identity, or rather the question “Who am I” is of existential importance. Already Plato identified it as an indispensable ingredient of the human being. Centuries later, it was the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel who established the theory that the desire to search for one’s own self can only be satisfied through the interaction with other individuals. Every human being possesses a desire to be recognized by others. For this end, everyone develops an own idea about who he or she is and uses that self-image for representative purposes. In order to achieve higher recognition, the self-image can be adapted and identity gets shaped.

This introduction shows that identity is not bound to any concrete idea. It is in contrast more usual that we identify ourselves with multiple individuals, groups, things or ideas. Without hesitation we consider ourselves as member of a family, as a student, a fan or a member of a company. Without actively thinking about it, we carry these different identities with us, simultaneously. Besides these different identities though, there seems to be one that surmounts the others. Sometimes it is even used synonymously with the identity itself: the national identity. We are talking here about a very powerful invention that suggests that humans can be clearly classified into different peoples by language, culture, history or origin. Finding its origins in Latin, the term “nation” (being born) served until the late Middle Age solely to relate people to a specific territory. In contrast to today’s concept of a nation however, it was less clear-cut - it happened easily that a Finnish person belonged to the Saxonian “nation”... Moreover, it was far from being a normative idea, it was descriptive.

It has been the French writer, historian and philosopher Ernest Renan, about 130 years ago in a lecture held at the French university Sorbonne, who explained the absurdity of the idea of a well-defined nation. He disproved the assumptions that it is a language on which a nation can be build upon or a common origin. He showed that borders were moved so often and irrationally that there can not be any correlation whatsoever between a nation and a specific territory. He also pointed on the hazardous practice to build a nation upon religion. Ernest Renan freed the term nation from its dogmas. He also introduced the significance of oblivion in the creation of a “nation”. People, over time, simply forgot that they were conquered and violently subordinated to a new dominator. People simply forgot that their ancestors spoke a different language or settled somewhere completely different before. The only factor a nation (or political community) is build upon, following Renan, is the simple Will to form this nation or community! The creation of this Will can have multiple causes. In the times of the Roman Empire, it has been economic interests and the Pax Romana that gave the conquered provinces a feeling of belonging to the empire. New, formerly unknown rules were accepted in return to new opportunities offered.

It was in the 19th and 20th century, when the nation as idea was further developed to a normative concept. It was abused to strengthen the people’s readiness to go to war. The own nation got glorified as superior to other nations which included the entitlement to conquer, occupy and suppress. This megalothymia though, the desire - again Hegel - to be recognised as superior, represents less the human nature as describes above, but the irrational devotion to the desire itself. Self understandingly, this devotion leads nowhere. The reason is obvious when nationalism (the overestimation of one’s nation) is thought out. The total conquest of the world would extinguish every other individual that possibly could recognize. Therefore it was often demanded that groups, that understand themselves as a nation, should better strive for isothymia - the recognition as an equal nation among equal others. This in turn thought out would mean that every nation were obliged to bring itself to perfection to give others a reason to respect and acknowledge them as equal. In a globalised world of the 21st century that would, without a doubt, mean to further advance economically and technologically. This advancement however needs to be ecologically sustainable and respect essential human as well as social norms.

We now demystified the term nation - or better: we dismantled it. A group of people may well understand itself as a nation, as long as it does not base its self understanding on a superior history or a nature-given superiority. Nevertheless, Renan’s argument that a nation is and stays a nation by simple decision seems insufficient. The term and the idea are combined with emotions, with a natural feeling of being emotionally closer to those that are spatially nearer to me then to those who are far. Europe-wide tendencies of regionalisation as well as regions that demand higher degrees of autonomy even in very centralised states - as in the UK, Spain, Italy or recently even in Poland - do show that this spatial sense of belonging can not be adequately met by most big nation states. There are almost everywhere examples of opinions expressed by sub national or regional groups, that do not share the feeling to belong to a constructed or mainstreamed national culture. The feeling to belong to a specific region or the “feeling of being home” is regional, not national. Therefore, a European Identity can under no circumstances be successfully created with a spatial implication. One can not identify spatially with Europe, it is simply too big.

In their empirical research about the nature of a European Identity and its possible compatibility with a national identity, Górniak et al. discovered, that Europeans feel European rather in a functional than in a cultural way. That means, European’s Identification with Europe, if at all existent, underlies, like the provinces in the Roman Empire, a cost-benefit calculation. In case of a positive result, they accept the new common rules and can identify via that path with the EU. The EU system appears legitimate and therefore increases its stability. The research by Górniak et al. shows that the big majority of the citizens of member states taken into consideration identify with the right of free movement and residence as well as with the common market and its economical elements.

To conclude: a European identity rests upon other elements than a possible national or regional identity. Therefore, they are compatible and neither do they compete nor are they a thread for each other. Hence, talking about a European identity need not create fears. Moreover if one considers the normality of multiple identities within one and the same human being. A European identity is not and must not be based on biological elements or the fact that Europe’s cultures are more similar to each other than to other cultures - otherwise it would only be reasonable to expect e.g. Americans to feel European. A European identity rather comes close to Ernest Renan’s definition of a national one, which claims that it is the people’s Will to feel as a European group that belongs together and that decides to carry out some tasks. This Will follows a calculation of the costs and benefits to belong to that group. Nevertheless, a certain degree of homogeneity needs to be assumed by the EU citizens when deciding whether they want to form a group or not (however, it need not be evident!). A more intense communication of the progress made by new and soon-to-be member states of the EU would prove very helpful to nourish that assumption of homogeneity. In the end, to meet all the requirements of the definition of the mutual identity formation theory (presenting and shaping self-image to receive maximum recognition), we have to add that a European identity can only come into being if it is recognised by non-EU countries. This of course demands from the Europeans to have a well thought-out self-image and to communicate it in a uniform way. In brief, a European identity is the Will to have it and the strength to develop it!


Renan, Ernest (1882): Qu’est-ce qu’une Nation? Lecture hold at University Sorbonne, Paris

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich: Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften, Bände1-3. Redaktion: Eva Moldenhauer, Karl Markus Michel. Frankfurt am Main, 1970, Suhrkamp.

Górniak, Kandulla, Kiss, Kosic, Ruiz Jiménez (2004): European and National Identities in EU’s Old and New Member States: Ethnic, Civic, Instrumental and Symbolic Components; European Integration online Papers (EIoP) Vol. 8 N° 11. Online:

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