The general expectation is that Mr. Macron’s electoral success and the results of the German elections next September will boost the process of European integration. The debate fundamentally revolves around two basic positions. On the one hand, the idea of a leading group of Member States of the European Union. This group would aim at a closer integration or even a proto-federal structure, also in terms of enhancing the democratic features of the institutional framework (the so-called multiple-speed/concentric circles Europe). On the other hand, a minimalistic approach, based on the idea of Europe making small steps forward by focusing on solving the more urgent European challenges (i.e. the economic crisis, immigration flows and the fight against terrorism).
The question of the European identity, however, is unavoidable: the strengthening of the sense of belonging to a supranational community and of upholding its project remains crucial and cannot be achieved through institutional reforms alone. Indeed, History shows that institutions and identity, although intertwined, may have a separate evolution. Reforms as well as the awareness raising on the concrete utility of the European project are indispensable but (still) lay on sand. This instability is due to the disaffection on the part of a significant share of Europe’s public opinion vis-à-vis both the idea of integration and the institutions that embody it – which is worsened by serious disagreements among Member States. Several factors have led to this state of affairs (the long economic crisis that plays a prominent role but is not the only cause). In any case, anti-European thrusts are probably facilitated by an underlying weakness that a true shared identity has not yet taken shape. One is bound to observe that sixty years after the adoption of the Rome Treaties, neither the various institutional reforms nor the progressive legal harmonisation, nor the economic-financial integration, have as such permitted to mould such an identity.
Furthermore, fostering a European identity is also indispensable with a view to providing the necessary popular backing without which ambitious institutional reforms within the EU would risk not being successful in the long term (or they would possibly not even be attainable).
Indeed, those Europeans who know Europe well and who feel “at home” – so to say – even outside their own country still represent a minority, although more numerous than in the past. As a matter of fact, most Europeans remain firmly attached to their respective homelands.
Of course, there is nothing more difficult to foster than the birth of a collective identity. Besides, such an attempt must take account of the specific context to which it relates and cannot follow a unique criteria. So in Europe, diversity is in itself a strong element of identity and must therefore be carefully preserved. As a result, two methods that were used in the past would be equally inappropriate or unacceptable: an abstract identity, imposed from above or of a purely theoretical nature, or worse the hegemonic attempt to impose a particular national model (and for mercy’s sake, I will spare the various examples that European history provides …).
The current attempts to promote a European identity rather resemble the first method, although, of course, without any character of imposition (for example, the “common cultural/historical roots” are real but the generic reference to them has very little impact on Europeans’ hearts and minds). We need, therefore, to devise means that would be capable to attract national audiences’ attention and trigger off true community feelings among them. So here are my three concrete proposals (leaving aside the issue of the language):
1) As Europeans may know, the feast day of Europe is celebrated on 9 May, which is the date of the Schuman Declaration. However, as it stands now, this ends up as one of many among the official days on the calendar. I do not question the choice of the 9 May as such, however: first and foremost, the celebration of Europe must become an official holiday; secondly, Europe’s feast day may well continue to be based on the date of adoption of the Schuman Declaration, but it should aim above all to foster a European collective memory of those crucial historical moments that – for better or for worse – have forged modern European conscience, which characterizes (and marks out vis-à-vis the rest of the world) Europe and its vision: enlightenment and human rights, liberal revolutions, the abolition of slavery, environmentalism and of course the two world wars and their catharsis, that is peace. These historical moments mean something to all Europeans: thus enlightenment fed on the works of French-speaking philosophers but also of other key European figures, such as Cesare Beccaria; thousands of Europeans volunteered to defend, in countries other than their own, the progressive ideals in the mid-nineteenth century; Scandinavians, particularly Swedes, gave a crucial contribution to the beginning of environmental protection, but the German von Humboldt is considered to be its precursor (in addition to being a great humanist, who fiercely opposed slavery and racism).
2) Another key ingredient of a shared identity comes from knowing each other. Youths are logically a primary target in this respect, but the Erasmus programme still involves only a minority of European students. The Erasmus school programme, proposed by Mr. Macron, is a good idea but its outreach would still be limited. In any event, the focus should also be on enabling Europeans to share important experiences, the meaning of which could go beyond the personal sphere. In the past, several countries used conscription exactly for this purpose. Of course in today’s Europe this option is no longer available. However, a European civil service (with a serious framework and adequate financial support) would be a valuable alternative – and a particularly formative one in a European perspective.
3) Negative stereotypes, which fuel harsh and superiority discourses to the detriment of other European nationalities, sometimes bordering on racism or hate speech, badly harm the development of community feelings. Knowing each other and sharing meaningful experiences would definitely help. However, those negative stereotypes do not only result from ignorance, also come up in the public and media spheres and must be addressed. It is somewhat surprising that the EU treaties do not yet lay down a principle of respect for the nationalities that make up the EU mosaic (a principle of respect which does instead appear – twice – in the Swiss Constitution). Such a gap could easily be filled. Furthermore, specific programmes on addressing generalized negative stereotypes to the detriment of European nationalities could be drawn up and started immediately, by analogy to the measures that have already been adopted with regard to racism and hate speech in general or to gender-based negative stigmatizations.
Perhaps, irrespective of institutional reforms, the much evoked leading group of States, that would move forward towards closer integration, could form precisely around this kind of measures, beginning especially with the first one. For this “forefront”, 9 May would become a holiday and could absorb, where they exist, those national holidays that now celebrate the end of the first or of the second world war (8 May in France, 11 November in Belgium, 25 April in Italy and so on, that could nevertheless be maintained as official remembrance days). This “switch” would not only serve the purpose of compensating in terms of productivity, but also of starting to remember together (rather than separately) that European integration and its cementing fundamental values are the dearly paid fruit of the immense tragedy of two wars that were European and fratricidal before turning world-shaking. Without that wealth of memory and values, Europeans would – simply – not be what they are today.
* This article was first published on 6 June 2017 in AffarInternazionali