Created | Updated Mar 5, 2009
What does it mean to be a European? This entry aims to address the issue from an individual, national and continental level, and also looks at the influence sovereignty and nationalism have on our perceptions of European citizenship. It does not aim to promote or criticise the European Union, simply to give an account of the elements involved in establishing citizenship.
It is not merely a question of identity, and of which identity we most relate to. Citizenship also entails legal rights, and has a direct relationship with our lifestyles as a result. In the day to day grind however, a citizen may be more conscious of who they are perceived to be than what rights that identity entails.
Issues for the Union
On top of the daunting task of establishing a super-nation with a stable economy and compatible institutions, the European Union authorities are faced with the task of uniting its citizens under one banner. This is both a legislative and psychological affair, since not only must all these citizens be treated equally, it is felt that they must also be persuaded to recognise their equality and readily relate to it.
To this end, it was necessary to establish a few traditional symbols of unity. The first of these is the flag. The 12 stars upon it initially signified the member states, but since this number grew to 15 it has been declared that 12 is being used as a number that symbolises perfection. The flag, like the Euro symbol (€), has some officially defined proportions, as well as colour schemes. The EU also has its own anthem; the last movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the prelude to 'Ode to Joy', with musical arrangement by Herbert von Karajan. The advantage of such a piece to represent Europe, one would imagine, is that it is not confined to a particular language.
There is also a Europe Day on 9 May. This date was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration - the declaration of Jean Monnet's proposal1 for the ECSC2 and for establishing lasting peace in Europe. This celebration is specifically intended to 'bring Europe closer to the people', and bring the people themselves together through festivities that transcend cultural difference, and activities that connect us with people in other member states.
If the people of Europe are to acknowledge each other as being of one shared identity, the same view must also be conveyed to the rest of the world. In order to do this, Europe must be seen to be speaking out with one voice on world affairs. This is, however, a very difficult thing for any government to do, let alone an institution forged from nations with very varied foreign relations. The UK, for example, has commitments to the Commonwealth, while France has post-colonial concerns in Africa. NATO and the United Nations are two more examples of institutions in which different member states are involved. In short, our separate histories have led us all to form different allegiances.
The Amsterdam Treaty was designed to help Europe cope with international trading pressures, particularly with the rise of trade in 'invisible goods', or skills and services. It also established a means by which Europe can take a single strategy in foreign affairs. A decision is taken unanimously by the Council of Europe, in which member states can abstain without this constituting a veto of the proposal. Member states that do abstain from voting on the policy may choose whether or not to partake in the implementation of the policy. In cases where national interests are at stake, the state concerned may bring this point to discussion. The action taken fully implements the European Commission, and is fronted by the President of the Council as well as the Secretary-General. A unit is also set up by this treaty to assess world situations and attempt to foresee any crises that may occur, in order that Europe can respond quickly in emergencies.
Where defence and humanitarian aid are concerned, the treaty aims to account for the fact that some but not all member states are also members of NATO. The European Union acts together in these matters involving whichever states are appropriate to the situation.
So, even if the united foreign policy and shared identity were successful, what can a European citizen look forward to in terms of legal and political rights?
The Single European Act of 1986, the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 and the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997 set out a number of rights for the European citizen based on some fundamental principles. Member states that do not respect these basic rights may have economic or political sanctions imposed upon them accordingly, and states must guarantee enjoyment of these rights in order to be admitted in the first place. A European citizen can expect to have his or her fundamental social rights taken into consideration by each new EU policy.
An example of such rights is equality. An EU citizen should not be discriminated against on grounds of sex or sexual orientation, race or ethnic origin, religious convictions, disability or age. In circumstances where discrimination is believed to be taking place, the Union has the power to act. The Union also guarantees each member state's religious establishments and philosophical organisations the freedom to enjoy their status in society.
Confidentiality of personal data is safeguarded, citizens have the right to voice complaints to the European Ombudsman regarding maladministration, and they may apply to a court to ensure that Union law is enforced.
As for democratic rights, these may be categorised as voting rights, petition rights, protection rights, and the right of openness. Elections to choose the Members of the European Parliament are held every five years, and a European citizen is entitled to vote within their country of residence (or origin, if they live outside the EU).
A citizen of the EU may send a petition in the form of a signed letter to the European Parliament on any Union issue. It will be examined for any case of violation of EU rights or interests by an institution or member state. This should also serve to allow citizens to indicate any gaps in legislation where rights or interests are not catered for by existing EU legislation.
Protection rights cover a European citizen who is outside the EU at a time when they need representation. The European may seek representation by the institutions of another member state if no institutions of their own state are available.
Issues for the Member States
For the member states, the question of citizenship poses a dilemma. On the one hand, membership of the Union increases the Union's collective power and thus promotes the welfare of all members. On the other hand, membership implies a decrease of the individual nation's power, through transfer of sovereignty. It would be easy to argue that this is irrelevant if it serves a common good and the nation state can reap the benefits of the collective harvest. However, the main concern for each state is that its unique needs will not be catered for in the process, and that it could lose out in areas which the other states do not consider to be of great importance.
This issue of sovereignty has had a tendency to throw a spanner in the works with regards to the establishment of the EU. While on the one hand it ensures that the system works democratically and takes all interests into account, on the other hand there is the common trade-off between democracy and efficiency. One power serving its own interests would be very swift at making decisions but entirely undemocratic, while a poll of the needs of every European citizen would be the ultimate democracy but impractically time-consuming and expensive.
An example of this dilemma is the single market. On the one hand our fear of national weakness, our recognition that the nation is no longer the supreme political unit, has led us to threaten our sovereignty by joining forces. On the other hand, we strive to defend it by not creating a single state which has authority to regulate the market. State interests can still be served, in some cases, by the power of the veto, although qualified majority voting3 is gradually replacing this barrier to efficient decision making.
The optimum compromise has proven hard to identify, let alone arrive at. It has been suggested that the sovereignty issue would lead to member states taking the route back to national independence, but the inefficient, time-consuming task of constantly making concessions to member states' desires to retain power has helped to make supranationalism a more attractive prospect.
In any case, sovereignty is under threat, and always has been, from forces other than the growth of the European Union. Multinational companies control vast quantities of capital that could be invested abroad over a single lunch meeting. Some countries lose sovereignty via military intervention from overseas.
Looking at practical concerns, nations within the EU who lower their border controls to the rest of Europe have a security issue on their hands. Could crime levels rise, with a new wave of criminals encouraged to commit pan-European offences? With police powers varying from one country to another, and different products being illegal from one member state to the next, policing across borders is an interesting practical problem for those whose job it is to safeguard the European citizen.
In the same way that the single market could cause custom to be attracted to those states that charge less for a product, a Europe without borders could attract crime to countries with more lax policing. A side effect of this, if the phenomenon becomes recognised by police forces, could be a continuous and competitive increase in vigilance across Europe just to ensure that one's own state does not become an attractive crime hotspot. The jurisdiction issues of criminals fleeing across borders has again touched nations' senses of sovereignty. If a crime is committed in, say, Germany, and the criminal flees to a country where his crime is within the law, the German police force would still want the chance to pursue and prosecute. The resolution of this problem serves as an example of how the practical issues of integration have forced sovereignty to be overlooked in the face of common sense.
In practical terms, it is also believed that sovereignty will cause market competition to rise, if states are eager to ensure that they hold some kind of position of power within the market. The view is held that there could be three possible consequences to this. The first, as suggested earlier, is that states may fail to see the attraction in the market and wish to return to national independence, although the belief that the state is the ultimate unit of power is one that is gradually dying out.
The second, transfer of sovereignty to a European government, may happen as a direct consequence of concerns of the above happening. In other words, out of fear of seeing the EU institution dissolve back into its component parts, it is possible that efforts would be made to create some kind of binding agent. In any case, this may be brought about by recognition of the fact that the common market has no co-ordinating authority.
The third option is the road that the EU currently seems to be taking. That instead of transferring sovereignty in the common market to a single authority, compromises are arrived at among the different states and the agreements finalised on paper, even if in practice they may not be quite so sound.
The nation state is therefore faced with having to decide whether it is better, having acquired European membership, to try to hold on to as much power as is still possible, or whether they should relinquish it in the hope that they can benefit more from the collective.
Issues for the Citizens
For the citizens of Europe themselves, citizenship is still a question of nationalism rather than supranationalism. In other words, we still tend to identify with our nation more than with the European Union. What qualities do Europeans share that we can all identify with? What is it that makes a nation and its sense of nationalism?
A nation is a difficult thing to define. Common language is a poor criterion on its own, as is a shared territory, history or religious background. One can, however, acknowledge the existence of a nation if it fits the following patterns.
Firstly, there must be a shared culture, meaning a commonly recognised way of behaving and communicating through shared ideas and common signs. We distance ourselves from other nations by focussing on the ways in which they behave and communicate differently from ourselves.
Secondly, this sharing of culture must be recognised. As long as we are pointing out differences between our own and other nations, we are always defining ourselves as belonging to one nation, and this behaviour or ideology can be referred to as nationalism.
But where do we stop? If we are to point across the border and say 'They aren't like us, therefore they are a different nation', at what level do we stop acknowledging differences and recognise a group to which we are glad to belong? The south of France can separate itself from the north. Cleveland can distance itself from Tyne and Wear. Liverpudlians can claim to be vastly different from Mancunians. We can even say we are better than people in the same street. Until you get right down to the individual, it is impossible to justify drawing a line.
By the same token, there can be no argument to stop at European identity, and the model expands outwards until we acknowledge a similarity in every living thing. And yet we don't feel comfortable unless we define a boundary in which we are happy to identify with the other people we find there. To create a European identity and a sense of citizenship, it's simply a question of broadening the boundary.
This is quite an important thing for a society to come to terms with. The consequences of nationalism in the past have on occasions been very bad, and nationalism still makes its way in the political arena to this day. The French Front National is an example of this, and it has been pointed out that in spite of the unrest over immigration in France, much of the Front's success is down to the charisma of its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the French voting system. Political ideology isn't always the foe. The Belgian Vlaams Blok, the British National Party, and the German neo-Nazis are further examples of nationalistic politics. It is exactly this ideology that resulted in the struggles Jean Monnet sought to avoid by creating the European Union.
Even in a Europe without nationalism, which would be capable of speaking out to the rest of the world with one voice, it could be that Europe itself would develop its own sense of nationalism, or perhaps supranationalism. Some say that this exists already, but in doing so they are often trying to promote its positive aspects as a step away from state nationalism. The boundary within which we define our accepted group would have expanded, but would have stopped again to exclude other continents, such as perhaps North America or Asia. It is only natural that if we eventually adopt a sense of pride in being European, that this pride should be based on comparisons between ourselves and outside cultures - and yet it would mimic exactly the same nationalistic phenomena that integration seeks to avoid.
The challenge for citizens of Europe, therefore, is to look to found our European identity on inherent aspects of our culture not found elsewhere, but not to do so by promoting them as being above those of other peoples around the world.
Further EU Resources
For more information on the European Union, see the official European Union website.