What do we mean by ‘identity’? Before considering the European identity dilemma, I would like to analyze this question so that the concept of identity can be understood within four independent dimensions: structure, source, purpose and process.
I. Regarding identity structures, I think there is a relationship between three units. In mathematical terminology, it would be a function with three arguments: the subject; a separate and different object that the subject identifies with; and a second object that the subject considers in the same category as the first one, but with which there is no identification. For example, the subject identifies with the Catholic Church, but this identification would be useless if there weren’t at least two different options in the alternative set. In this set there should at least be other beliefs that there might be no identification with, for example, Islam or Hinduism. We cannot truly identify with something when there are no alternatives.
II. Where does identity come from and where is its source? I think a subject should find common ground with the identification objects or differences with the rejection objects. In both cases, the pre-requisite is previous knowledge of those objects. Because of that, I believe identity needs a sense of closeness. The probability of the subject identifying with close people is higher, and this closeness could be spatial (neighbors), derived from common experiences (bearers of the same illness), or shared genetics (coming from the same family).
III. What is the purpose or objective of identity? A subject identifies a situation where they are one among many. To identify with a subset allows them to feel the guidance and solidarity of belonging, instead of isolation; in other words, instead of being one against everyone else.
IV. What is the identification process and how is its objective to be considered? For this, I think it’s important to note that identification is comprised of two simultaneous but opposite elements: the affiliation of a subject with an object, and the rejection of everything else bound up with that object. In addition, the elements are made up not only of direction but also of magnitude. The question ‘how strong is our identity’ is actually two questions: to what extent do we affiliate with something, and to what extent do we reject the alternatives?
We can see that this analysis is not only a simple academic exercise if we apply it to the European identity dilemma.
1: Regarding the structure of European identity, let’s first ask ourselves: Where do we place the identifying object, meaning, the European Union? If we define the EU as a country in the countries-of-the-world set, as if it were the United States of Europe, then we ask people to identify with the EU and give up their national identity. In other words, we request them to reject their national identity in favor of the European identity because the advantages of the EU are bigger than the benefits of any individual country. Occasionally, European government representatives formulate the European identity exactly in this context, which, frankly, I consider a dangerous mistake.
No one wants to betray their identity and there is no need to renounce it just in order to adopt a different one that doesn’t even compete in the same set as the former. We can identify ourselves with our family and our country as long as we know which decisions we take as members of our family and which ones as citizens of our country.
Nevertheless, there is a better way to structure European identity. We shouldn’t see the EU as a nation-state but rather as a power block, an alliance, a set just like all the other blocks or circles of influence like China, the USA, Russia, India, the Asian Tigers, etc. To be able to position itself like that, though, the EU has to further develop its own interests and find the courage to defend them against other blocks, including the USA and global enterprises located outside the EU.
2: The European government is still far removed from its citizens in their original nation states; most of the latter don’t even know how it works. Despite the freedom of movement within the EU, virtually no one visits most of the countries it is comprised of. Even if the national press does write about Brussels, there is little information about other member states. There is no European TV or radio station. There aren’t European parties; just alliances between national parties. In every part and facet of the Union, there is a lack of closeness or source of identification. With relatively minor incentives and investment, the EU could promote interaction between European citizens.
3: The EU was initially planned as an economic alliance, designed merely to promote trade between members, and to achieve the elimination of national laws that hampered the exchange of goods between European countries. Later, the goal of establishing more freedom of movement and cohesion within the EU was conceived. It was solely on customs and tariffs that countries and alliances outside the Union would be dealt with.
4: The EU has obtained some internal victories, particularly during economic crises and Brexit. It also fights for internal rules and laws, even if that requires it to act against members. Yet here it may seem that the EU actually maximizes internal tension. A view which is emphasized when we regard the EU’s response to external problems, or how it acts when European interests have to be defended against Russia or the US, e.g. the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territories or the trade war against Trump. This we can say even as the pre-requisites of something firmer – the institutions, ministers and budget – are yet to be seen in the European government. There is an imbalance between the internally-directed power against members, and the externally-directed power against rivals. In any case, the use of this power doesn’t confront but merely minimizes external menaces that could unite us. In light of this our ability to recognize why we should identify ourselves with the EU is further diminished.