Dr. Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer, European Policy Center welcomes Dr. Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer, Policy Analyst at the European Policy Center (EPC), as guest-writer this week. He writes about an ongoing European identity construction process and how “the European identity is not competing with national identities but is an additional complementary layer“. A recurrent topic in our analysis to the question What does it mean to be European?.



The process of European identity construction is still ongoing. As such, it is facing similar challenges as the European project: its precise content and its finalité are not determined. The political and legal attempts to formalize the European identity have underlined its complexity. The citizenship of the Union introduced in the Maastricht treaty has clearly acknowledged the dependency with national citizenships. As a matter of consequence, the European identity is not competing with national identities but is an additional complementary layer. The complexity arises from the deep intermingling between the layers that makes it difficult to distinguish one from the other. The cultural identity made of traditions, values and symbols is indeed much more difficult to define than the civic identity. Furthermore, it evolves depending on your relations, the place you live, your work. This is well reflected by the feelings expressed by European citizens asked if they are proud of their nationality and/or to be European. Most of them are proud of both and even if the sense of nationhood is still stronger, the European sentiments are asserting themselves with elements such as the development and maturation of the European project, the numerous transnational exchanges, or the increasing number of people with multiple identities.


At a time where people have the feeling that their (national) identity is threatened by globalisation and its various consequences, the European identity could help protect national identities. The current troubled international environment with leaders questioning liberal and democratic values is a strong momentum for European identity affirmation. Self-definition is generally easier when the “other” is significantly different. Since Donald Trump’s election, Germany has often been presented as the main defender of the Liberal world order and chancellor Merkel portrayed as the “leader of the free world”. But the German discomfort with such leadership roles and its strong European commitment are incentives for the European level.


The EU however first needs to solve internal dilemma by dealing with illiberalism developing in its own Member states. The fact that the European identity is made of – sometimes conflicting – national identities is a perpetual questioning of its evolution. The European motto “United in diversity” leads rather to European identities but the ambition of unity requests basic principles with determined limits. The challenge of the different views and understandings of European identity calls for a recognition of its limits (in both ways: what it is and what it cannot be). Transnational intra-EU discussions should help clarify some lines and simultaneously foster mutual understanding. But the European identity with its fundamental principles must then be a beacon contributing to unify and strengthen the member states and its citizens vis-à-vis the rest of the world.


More on Dr. Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer work here.

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