Event Recap: Is there a European Identity?

A panel of experts debate the 'slippery' question of European identity.

Joelle Theubet
February 16, 2021

“I, on the whole, tend to run away when I come across the phrase ‘European identity,’ but perhaps you will persuade me that I shouldn’t do that,” said Mark Mazower, director of the Institute for Ideas and Imagination, as he opened the fifth session of the "Debating the Future of Europe" series.

The discussion, held on Feb. 9, 2021, centered around the EU’s integration process and whether it has forged a sense of common identity among Europeans. Participants who included Magali Bessone (Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne), Riva Kastoryano (CNRS, Sciences Po), and Mark Lilla (Columbia), admitted to be equally troubled by the question of identity and the inherent baggage that comes with the term.

How useful is the notion of a European identity and what should we bear in mind when we talk about it?

“I personally don’t like the notion of collective identity. I try to never use it and I’m very dubious about the need and use of the notion itself,” admitted Magali Bessone, professor of political philosophy at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

It is helpful to see how and when is term is used, she explained. “Right now, the term ‘European identity’ is used in an exclusionary sense by a political group that calls themselves Identity and Democracy, which was launched in the European parliament in June 2019. And this group – which comprises the French Rassemblement National, Vlaams Belang in Belgium, Alternative for Germany, and Lega in Italy – is very adamant that there is a European cultural identity. The characteristics are essential and are inherited from a somewhat fantasized past or a mythic past[…]And from this inherited past we have a homogeneous, closed, patrimonial culture common to all European people. At the same time, these groups profess a very strong skepticism towards a common political identity[…]This is what we call the identarian bloc and this is exactly the ‘European identity’ that I fear.”

“It’s much easier to define an identity by exclusion, rather than inclusion,” agreed Riva Kastoryano, who is senior research fellow at the CNRS and teaches at Sciences-Po—Paris. She noted that the debate on identity in previous decades focused on whether multi-culturalism was dividing nations and political communities, or whether it could be a model for a European identity.

“I considered Europe as a political project and I thought an identity for Europe would lead us to a common citizenship, the European space being a common good that we can share, and then we could discuss the multiculturalism, different cultures, languages, religions,” she said.

“The EU constitution brought an identity: civilization was at the core, culture was at the core, and this was much more exclusionary,” she continued. “The big challenge for Europe is to define itself as a political project versus a cultural or civilizational project.”

Identity vs. Identification

Columbia professor Mark Lilla, whose recent book The Once and Future Liberal addresses the topic of identity politics, says that the term ‘identity’ implies that “there is a little homunculus within ourselves – a little self within ourselves – that is our identity. It’s a thing. Or it’s a plant that needs to be watered. It’s something that is cultivated and that’s quite different from an identification.”

He noted that: “There are trans-political identities that have become significant. A much more powerful flag that one sees in Europe that people identify with – it’s not a national flag, it’s not the European Union flag – it’s the LGBT rainbow flag that has become a source of identification globally for all sorts of people that have motivated action. I think that’s an identity we need to think about when we consider what kind of identities and connections there are in the political sphere today.”

“When I talk about identification concerning the EU,” said Kastoryano, “I think of action, of political participation. The action to take part in a political project can be taken through an identification. Participation through identification - be it LGBT, or climate activism – will create an identification with the project, an identification with a project not an entity.

“We need the sharing of benefits and burdens in a political community,” said Bessone. “I think we do have that in Europe and don’t need a feeling of common identity in order to have something that I’d rather call solidarity or reciprocity. Solidarity is not something that is grounded or based on identity…you can have a feeling of solidarity based on common experiences – and I would say common political experiences – that is, you can have solidarity among different classes or groups of people sharing difficulties, but you can also have solidarity based on sharing values. And in this sense, if you can manage to create solidarity based on common values, political commitments, principles, you can have a solidarity that expands across borders.”

Speakers ended the debate by fielding questions on globalization and Brexit from the public which included over 200 participants from 26 countries.

This discussion is part of the series “Debating the Future of Europe,” organized by Columbia Global Centers | Paris, the European Institute and the Alliance Program.

Co-sponsored by: Columbia Alumni Association,Columbia Maison FrançaiseColumbia University Libraries, the Institute for Ideas and Imagination, European Legal Studies Center at Columbia Law School, Le Grand Continent, La Maison de l'Europe de Paris,and Sciences Po American Foundation. With additional support from the Erasmus + programme of the European Union and the Advisory Board of the Paris Global Center.