Year LXI, 2019, Single Issue, Page 45



The dilemma of European identity






And this, I think, is the meaning of European identity:
the European in conflict with his social being to become,
with others, what he is, a man.”

(Mario Albertini, L’Identità europea, Il Federalista, 1977)




European integration is one of the most ambitious political projects of both this century and the last. Marking a crossroads, it presents human society with a paradigmatic choice that will shape its destiny. Completion of the project, through the founding of a European federal state, would introduce two absolute innovations: one of an institutional nature, that is to say, the first post-national model of statehood, and the other cultural, meaning a post-national culture of cosmopolitanism and human unity. The historical advance of this process, which fortunately the cowardice of some has not been sufficient to arrest, has raised a question that troubles the minds of those who are starting to perceive the dramatic nature of this turning point: what does it mean to be European? What is it that makes a person European and, as such, distinct from a non-European? What historical and cultural elements can legitimise a political project in favour of the European demos? We do not have to think too hard to come up with some rational answers to this question. Yet, in my view, among the various elements used to form a narrative on the issue of European identity, two stand out in particular.

The first is Hellenism. Surely no one would be “bold” enough to deny the profound influence that Greek culture has had on our civilisation. Leaving aside the debate over his authorship of the great epic poems, Homer must be acknowledged as the father of Western mythos and narrative. The Iliad and the Odyssey have marked the educational journeys of many generations of students, moulding their artistic sensibilities. Plato and Aristotle are the founders of Western philosophical thought, and still today their reflections on logos and aesthetic concepts offer insights for academics, and stimulate scientific advances. Not without reason, Alfred North Whitehead remarked that “The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”[1]

The second element that, combined with the first, has contributed to shaping the narrative on our unique identity is Christianity. Again, can anyone possibly deny that our morality is permeated by the dictates of Christian doctrine? Our ethical framework, the notions of good and bad that guide our choices, and the criteria by which we judge the actions of others all refer back (whether we realise it or not) to the events of the New Testament and the meanings they convey. The influence of Christianity reaches well beyond the religious and spiritual worlds: it has taken root and borne its fruits in popular culture, in the political imagination, and even in our public institutions.

However, while there can be no denying the decisive role played by these two cultural macrophenomena, Hellenism and Christianity, in defining what we today call “European civilisation”, it would be wrong to argue that these elements alone are responsible for our cultural identity, and thus define us as Europeans, and, as such, distinct from non-Europeans.

Historiography shows that such a generalisation would, in fact, be incorrect. First of all, the phenomenon of Hellenism, meaning the spread of Greek influence through non-Greek territories and its blending with elements of local culture, extended as far as the banks of the Indus River, and therefore involved a geographical area far greater than Europe and the Mediterranean. This influence, reflected in philosophy, architecture and art, managed to permeate the essence even of populations far removed, both geographically and culturally, from Greece, and in this way gave rise to a world of common thought.

Similarly, Christianity is not a phenomenon associated solely with the European area. Jeshua Ben Yosef, the individual better known to us as Jesus, was not European, but Palestinian. He was not Christian, but Jewish. Furthermore, from the very first centuries of its development, the religious doctrine based on the events of the New Testament spread through most of the Mediterranean area.

Therefore, if we were to take the aforementioned assumptions on the influence of Hellenism and Christianity to their logical extremes, ignoring the historiographic evidence, we would come to the conclusion — absurd, because based on substantially incorrect premises — that a German and an Egyptian, by virtue of the fact that they share a certain historical and cultural background, are similarly European. The fact is, though, as remarked by historian Alessandro Barbero, whereas “being imbued with Greek culture and embracing Christianity are phenomena that involved the inhabitants of Gaul, Egypt and Asia Minor (…), the birth of the Roman-barbarian kingdoms involved Europe alone.”[2] In fact, if we were to persist in our search for exclusive traits that characterise us as European, historiography would soon present us with another lesson in the form of a most unpalatable truth, namely that the history of Western Europe — that part of history concerning only our small corner of the world — actually began with the Barbarian Invasions and the consequent birth of the Roman-barbaric kingdoms. We would therefore have to admit that, paradoxically, it was the uncivilised barbarians who defined our civilisation and began writing the chapter of exclusively European history.

Of course, these provocative reflections should not be allowed to shake the foundations of our common sense, or make us think that we owe our existence, as Europeans, to Alaric and his warriors more than to Greek philosophers and Christian teachers. What they show us, however, is that there actually exist no exclusively European socio-cultural elements and traits. In the same way, there is no exclusively European history. Accordingly, the European as such, distinct from the non-European, simply does not exist. The basic issue at the heart of all this, which explains the absurdity of certain conclusions, is identity, an ambiguous and slippery concept much studied by philosophers and anthropologists.

For the purposes of our analysis it is useful to adopt the so-called contrastive approach developed by anthropologist Fredrik Barth[3] From his theoretical standpoint, identity cannot be considered an intrinsic quality, something to be found in nature. Rather, it is an artificial construct whose primary function is to signal a distinction between one’s own social group and others. In other words, identity is defined by boundaries, and therefore by alterity, or otherness, in relation to other groups. Therefore, if the Italian peninsula were the only habitable land, it would make no sense to speak of Italianness. After all, there would be no borders and no “foreign” peoples in relation to whom we might define ourselves. Accordingly, the Italian, per se, does not exist, whereas we can talk of Padanians (people from the Po Valley) as opposed to people from Campania, for example. The Italian as such can exist only in relation and in contrast to the Frenchman or Frenchwoman, for example. These contrasting forms of identity are purely artificial: they are the historical products of narratives, i.e. systematic reworkings of facts, events, traditions and ideas. These reconstructions ignore the true complexity of the world, and mask the profound and inextricable historical, social and cultural ties that bind an Italian to a Frenchman, and an individual from one area to a person from another, such as a Padanian to someone from Campania, and so on.

Barth’s contrastive model fits the concept of national identities for several reasons. The first is that the nation, understood as a people whose members share the same ethnicity, language and culture, is an artificial construct, in other words the result of a mythopoeic reworking of the past that involves the selection of some traits, the rejection of others, and the formulation of a neat and persuasive narrative. The second is that national identity is, by nature, an oppositional concept. It aims to achieve almost complete cultural homogeneity internally, discouraging heterogeneous traits, underlining differences between one’s own nation and others, and fostering the idea that the existence of national borders is in the natural order of things. All this produces a national character and national behaviour. The citizen is shaped by the nation and directed towards national ends. From the identity perspective, the political phenomenon of nationalism champions the prevalence of difference (i.e. all that separates and distinguishes) over the universal (i.e. all that represents common ground and unites). According to Italian historian and philosopher, Federico Chabod, “a sense of nationality means a sense of historical individuality. The principle of nation is reached when it is possible to affirm the principle of individuality, that is to affirm, against the generalising tendencies, the principle of the specific, of the single individual.”[4]

Anthropologist Pietro Scarduelli wrote a brilliant book on the topic of national identity, trying to explain its functioning through recourse to classic categories of the concept: “Neither national identities nor the new European identity are objective realities, but instead collective representations, imagined communities, intangible cultural artefacts.[5] What Scarduelli seems to be saying is that the task of defining the political identity of a human group amounts to a collective and virtual constructive endeavour. “From this perspective, it matters little if the elements making up the narrative are inhomogeneous or even irreconcilable (such as Christianity and the Enlightenment, religious faith and scientific rationality, the Roman empire and representative democracy, for example). An ideological narrative does not necessarily have to be coherent: it just has to be convincing. (…) Every collective identity is, by its very nature, contrastive and relational, given that, to exist, it must differ from something else.”[6] These reflections are enlightening: as well as bringing out the contradictions inherent in any attempt to build an identity, they also show the persuasive and representative function of the latter. At the same time, however, he makes a consideration that we will examine more closely in the following lines: “Even the construction of the image of Europe cannot avoid using this mechanism.”[7] Scarduelli, in comparing the national identities with the emerging European identity, sees very similar poietic processes at work, and observes a substantial similarity in the creation of these narratives. This leads him to suggest that the building of a European identity must inevitably come about through mechanisms substantially similar to those used by the nation-states.

On this latter point, I beg to differ, and advance an alternative viewpoint based on the following two considerations.

1) European identity, unlike the national identities that underlie it, remains a debated concept. In fact, European integration is still a work in progress. None of the visions of European integration thus far presented is definitive; instead, they conflict with one another, offering different perspectives and interpretations, not of what the European Union is, but of what it needs to be.

2) From examination of political discourse and intellectual analysis relating to this topic, there emerge two “identity paradigms”, or archetypal models of political identity (one national and the other post-national). These models, if applied to the idea of Europe, produce, respectively, two ideas of identity, which seem distant from each other, but are actually constructed on the basis of same paradigmatic assumptions.

The National Model of Identity.

Conceptually, the national model of identity coincides perfectly with the framing of the problem as thus far set out. Identity, as understood in the national sense, is a homogeneous entity. It is the expression of a human group that has been identified within established boundaries — a group that is, at once, substantially homogeneous from the historical and cultural point of view, and clearly distinct from others. On this basis, two ideas of the concept of Europe have evolved, seemingly antithetical but actually rooted in the same basic assumptions.

First, we have the internationalist idea, according to which Europe is a geographical and historical entity and, from a political perspective, merely part of the framework of international relations. The argument most commonly advanced by those who adopt this view is the no demos thesis. This is the idea that the political integration project is not so much undesirable as impossible, and that this objective impossibility stems from the lack of the necessary constituent subject, in other words, the lack of a European people, or nation. It is, they argue, impossible to plan a political project in the absence of a people that shares the same culture, language, traditions and interests. One of the most prominent supporters of this position was Charles De Gaulle, who, during a press conference on May 15, 1962, said: “There can be no Europe other than the Europe of the states, everything else is myth, talk, superstructures.”[8] This idea contains a logical contradiction: while recognising, correctly, the non-existence of a European people and the artificiality of any attempt to build a European identity ex post facto, it suggests, incorrectly, that the European nations exist as natural entities. Logically, if all attempts to define European identity are artificial, so too are national identity narratives.

Second, we have the Europeanist idea, which offers a different perspective. Although apparently directly opposed to the internationalist one, it actually stems from the same basic assumptions: in this case too, planning a political project is legitimate only in the presence of an alleged natural nation. What differs, however, is the judgement on the existence of a European demos. According to those who support this idea, there do exist cultural ties that define Europe. They believe in the existence of a pre-political Europe, and that the Europeans constitute a “community of destiny”. Alcide De Gasperi, to my mind one of the most authoritative supporters of this position, speaking during the 1954 European Parliamentary Conference in Paris, said: “If I affirm that at the origin of this European civilisation there is Christianity, I do not mean by this to introduce any confessional category, exclusive in the estimation of our history. I only want to talk about the common European heritage, of that unitary morality that underlines the dignity and responsibility of the human person, with his ferment of evangelic fraternity [...].”[9] In short, he believed that the legitimacy of the integration project was based on this shared “unitary morality” and on the Christian origins of European civilisation. This consideration, which brings us back to the reflections proposed in the introduction to this essay, is the result of an artificial, mythopoeic selection of those arguments useful to the construction of a narrative able to legitimise the system of cultures and values associated with Europe.

The Post-national Model of Identity.

The post-national model of identity is underpinned by a series of assumptions that contrast completely with those underlying the national one. First of all, this model assumes that the new material structure of the world, globalisation, requires the overcoming of the national system, and the creative development of a new model. Essentially, whereas in the national model identity precedes, historically, the political project and legitimises it, in the case of the post-national paradigm, this sequence is reversed: politics and the institutions determine the process of identity formation. In this sense, identity is the result of human actions and political choices; it is not an essence that can be traced back to our historical and cultural past. Within the post-national model, it is possible to identify, in my view, two ideas. The post-national model is now widespread and much cited in the scientific field, and it is starting to influence political debate, producing new reflections as a basis for envisioning the future.

According to the first idea, which we might simply call the post-national idea, political identity emerges through the exercise of democracy. In other words, it is not a source of legitimacy for a political enterprise; rather, it is the negotiated product of the relationship between the new institutions and the citizens that those institutions represent. In this sense, the European Constitution and the institutional structure destined to derive from it can be seen to act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The theory is that the creation of a broader political arena and the involvement of a greater number of citizens (N.B. citizens, not members of a natural people or nation), rendering the shift of power clearly visible, would have the effect of generating debate and triggering creative cultural processes. I would say that the main supporters of this idea are Jürgen Habermas and Zygmunt Bauman. Supporting the thesis that the people is born in conjunction with the state’s founding act and grows with its institutions, Bauman, in a passage from his book Oltre le nazioni (Beyond Nations), remarks as follows:

“The strength of a democratic constitutional state is based precisely on the ability to create and recreate social integration through the political engagement of citizens. The national community does not precede the political community, but is its product. (…) Whatever its roots and wherever it derives its power, the stimulus for political integration, and the factor necessary for its growth, is the shared vision of a collective mission.”[10]

The second idea linked to post-national paradigmatic assumptions was developed mainly in the context of federalist analysis. Federalism, as a theory, maintains that identity, understood as the product of a process of mystification driven by nationalist culture, is a monolithic and uniform construct. Therefore, with the advent of federalism, political identity, because of the multilevel governmental structure that characterises the federal state, is destined to undergo a process of fragmentation and re-organisation. In this context, political loyalty is manifested at different levels, reflecting people’s membership of progressively broader political communities. According to this view, someone born in Milan is, simultaneously, a citizen of Milan, Lombardy, Italy, Europe and the world. These levels of identity are not mutually exclusive, but complementary and coexistent.

Pavia born philosopher, Mario Albertini, the leading theoretician of federalism, further dissected the idea of identity, showing that it should ultimately be superseded. Addressing these questions with great rigour in an essay entitled L’identità europea, published in this journal in 1977, he remarked that the nation-state is “a state that would have its members believe that they form a group who are naturally, or essentially, different from all other human beings”,[11] and he defined its culture as “the culture of the division of humankind”. In this sense, the European Union is the first political project aimed at undermining the national system and promoting the unity of mankind.

In this project, however, Albertini identified a risk. The European federal revolution would objectively be a cultural phenomenon capable of offering the world new political values. However, as he realised, the revolution would be one thing, and the perpetuation of its effects at institutional level quite another. In other words, federalism, having introduced, for the first time in history, the post-national political culture of the unity of mankind, would run the risk of institutionalising, and wrongly identifying, federal culture as “European culture” — a misleading expression that seems to suggest the existence of a European “nation” and identity. As Albertini explained, “European culture exists as such precisely because, in the face of the political culture of the division of the human race, Europe represents universal culture, which has reached, within it, its first fulfilment, as a separate culture, as its culture (...). [In this scenario] there would no longer be any European culture — only universal culture presented as European —, but there would, of course, be the European state (...); and, with it, the European citizen, the European social identity (yet another case of affirmation of some and denial of others).”

Bearing in mind that culture, for Albertini, means political culture, and thus refers to the “behavioural criteria that emerge with the great episodes of history”, the contradiction he highlights is illuminating. The European integration project embodies a new way of understanding culture and political identity. However, if its institutionalisation results in the new values it bears becoming crystallised in an exclusive entity, then it risks losing its revolutionary significance. “This is tantamount to saying that the contrast that always appears between a ‘cultural fact’ and the power that follows it (as seen with the French Revolution, the Soviet Revolution, etc.) seems to be active not only in the sphere of the pure ideal, but also in that of the political ideal, now aiming at the reunification of mankind, at the political recognition of all men.”[12] In this sense, if we accept that the integration project should mean more than just building a new superpower, i.e. if we see it as the revolutionary event that will lead to the overcoming of the national system, then “European identity” must be understood as a transitory concept, part of a transformative process that will necessarily lead to its dissolution. “Thus, having overcome the political culture of the division of mankind, and thereby removed the grounds for presenting human culture in European terms (in other words, having eliminated the concept of European culture to allow the creation of universal culture), Europe would then need to eliminate itself in order to be recreated at global level. This, I think, is what is meant when it is said that the European federation will pave the way for the world federation. And this, I think, is the meaning of European identity: the European in conflict with his social being to become, with others, what he is, a man.”[13]


Federalism is a revolutionary political perspective. Although it is commonly perceived merely as a source of administrative models and solutions, it is actually much more than this. When we speak of federalism, we are referring to something with a far greater critical mass. For some scholars, it is not just a theory, but rather an ideology, or a complex system of ideas on the basis of which to interpret the world and manage the course of history.

Federalism is revolutionary because it touches on sovereignty, and therefore gets right to the heart of the status quo, of nationalist ideology, and of the national system. From the nation-state perspective, sovereignty is seen as monolithic and indivisible, or at least divisible only in a functional sense, according to the classic division of powers (executive, legislative and judicial). Instead, federalism exposes the shortcomings — absurdity even — of the national model, given the objective reality of our globalised world where the complexity of interactions between states demands new forms of government, structured on a number of levels. Thus, federalism entirely dismantles sovereignty, the very heart of the nation-state, breaks it down into pieces, and re-organises it, dividing it between different levels. This is done not simply out of a natural aversion. Federalism is a critical theory, in the sense that it does not simply seek to engage in a battle of ideas and values. Instead, highlighting the fundamental contradictions and distortions of reality, it sets out the transformations that states will have to undergo in order to avoid being overwhelmed by events. For Marxism, the socialist revolution is not simply a political goal but a historical necessity; in the same way, for federalism, the federal revolution is a transformative transition demanded by the material structure of the world.

The monolithic and uniform identity typical of the nation-state is a direct corollary of the monolithic idea of sovereignty: the idea that sovereignty goes hand in hand with one state, one power, one nation, one people, one language, and so on. By debunking this misleading myth of monolithic sovereignty, federalism shatters the idea of national identity, another distortion of our times, dissolving the concept and restructuring it in post-national terms. Once again, this is not simply a question of fighting over values, but of solving “the fundamental contradiction of our times”, which “is no longer to be found in class or power conflicts within nations, but instead lies in the division of mankind, which perpetuates the unequal distribution of power and wealth among peoples (states) and precludes rational government of the world.”[14]

[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, New York, Free Press, 1979, p. 39.

[2] Quote from a lecture given by historian Alessandro Barbero entitled Ai confini dell’Europa: da Adrianopoli a Poitiers in Matera on 9 February 2019 as part of the Future Digs cycle entitled Lezioni di storia. Oltre i confini,

[3] For more on this, see: Fredrik Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, Boston, Little, Brown, 1969.

[4] Federico Chabod, L’idea di Nazione, Bari, Editori Laterza, 1999, p. 17.

[5] Pietro Scarduelli, Antropologia del Nazionalismo. Stati Uniti, Unione europea, Russia, Sesto San Giovanni (MI), Mimesis Edizioni/Antropologia Oggi, 2017, p. 36.

[6] Ibidem, pp. 38-40.

[7] Ibidem, p. 40.

[8] This remark was made by Charles de Gaulle during a press conference at the Elysée Palace, Paris, on May 15, 1962. “Il ne peut pas y avoir d’autre Europe possible que celle des États, en dehors naturellement des mythes, des fictions, des parades.

[9] Words taken from Alcide De Gasperi’s speech at the European Parliamentary Conference of April 21, 1954. This quote can be found in the Parliamentary Assembly, Council of Europe, Official report of debates, 2003 Ordinary Session (Third Part), 23-27 June 2003, Volume III, Sittings 17 to 24, Pages 559 to 839, p. 776.

[10] Zygmunt Bauman, Oltre le Nazioni. L’Europa tra sovranità e solidarietà, Editori Laterza, Bari, 2019, p. 16.

[11] Mario Albertini, L’identità europea, Il Federalista, 19 (1977), n. 2, pp. 75-83,

[12] Ibidem.

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Ibidem.


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