The multitude and diversity of cleavages and imbalances that have emerged in the European space over the last centuries have produced strong reverberations about the way in which European identity has been built and internalized. Thus, identity rifts have not disappeared from the European landscape, continuing to divide and to trigger strong antagonisms in nation-state societies.

Erika Harris, professor at the University of Liverpool, is a specialist in studying nations and nationalism, focusing her research on Central Europe, post-Soviet space and the Balkans. She describes the evolution of the nation-state identity in relation to the identity of the European Union, in the context of the new cleavages that appeared in the European space, in an interview given to Europunkt by Vladimir Adrian Costea.


Citeşte versiunea în limba română aici.

Vladimir Adrian Costea: To begin with, please highlight the elements through which an entity designs its own identity. At the same time, is the identity of a state actor built spontaneously or, on the contrary, gradually, along a continuous process?

Erika Harris: A group, usually an ethnic group ‘designs’ or rather perceives its identity based on a number of criteria which are assumed to be shared among the members of the group. These are, most commonly, a language, a shared historical experience, religion (if not necessarily), common customs (a common way of life), territory where they live, etc. These characteristics define the group, or the group is defined by them by other groups. Identity is always relational, it exists only in relation to other groups. These are cultural traits and do not have to carry any political meaning; in the past, before the nation-state (in the time of empires, dynasties, city states), people’s identities were local and not determined by political structures. Nations as we know them now came later and carry a certain politically induced meaning. They are usually larger social groups and their identity is a combination of objective characteristics, such as territory, economy, a shared historical experience, and a more subjective sense of solidarity based on perceptions about the common ancestry and cultural traits. States are political entities, historically – with some exceptions – they are based on self-determination of these groups. States usually incorporate a dominant cultural group and then some other group(s).

This ‘state’ identity is not spontaneous, it may be based on the identity of the dominant group, but state identity is a process which involves the construction of an overarching identity (referred to usually as national identity) which seeks to integrate all people behind a national story. States, nations, national identities and ethnic identities may share some identity elements, but they are subject to different processes. If you look at the territory of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, you can see that since its disintegration in 1918, the states and the number of ethnic groups which they contain has changed many times. Not only the map has changed, but identities of states and national stories they tell about their nations have changed many times while ethnic groups remain largely in the same place. Since about 1850s, politics and identities tend to be closely related, so that there is not that much spontaneity in the construction of these state identities. There is a degree of continuity in the existence of ethnic identities, even if these identities can stagnate or disappear and reappear, but there is no gradual and continuous process of every ethnic group becoming a state entity – that depends on many historical, demographic and political contingencies.

Focusing your attention on the process of building the European Union identity, what are the elements that define this image?

European Union identity can’t be defined by the same identity elements as ethnic or national identity, nor should it be. It is a mistake to try and replicate similar identity at European Union level as that of a cultural/ ethnic group or even a similar identity to that of a nation, but on a larger geographic scale. European Union is a political entity which is seeking different objectives to that of a state and its identity elements should reflect these objectives.  So, not only is it a mistake, it is contrary to its main aim which is to create a political identity over and above the state.

Moreover, the European Union does not possess the necessary tools to create such an identity as it has no common education system or any other way of influencing its constituents units on issues of identity. Therefore the image of the European identity consists of different elements which too are based on shared attributes, but different ones. They are more about the future of the Union as a political project for Europe, they are about the future vision of societies, about the will of Europe’s peoples to coexist politically and benefit economically within this model, about sharing liberal values, and about the absence of conflicts among groups.

What are the main moments that have made an important contribution to the process of rebuilding the nation-state identity in the European Union?

Nation-state identities have not declined within the European Union which does not interfere with identities even if it has curbed some aspects of nation-state sovereignty. State sovereignty is not the same thing as its identity – sovereignty is a concept and its meaning changes accordingly to the evolution of international relations. In fact, for some states, mainly post-communist states, the membership of the EU has increased their visibility and their influence and for many ethnic groups it has guaranteed a better protection of their identity. The important moments for the re-building of nation-state identities within the EU depends on the extent to which the state accepts Europeanisation as an extension of its identity, or rejects it (for example Greek financial crisis, or Brexit).

What are the current cleavages of the European Union, after the experience of Brexit, the rise of populists and terrorist attacks?

The main cleavage in the EU is currently between nationalists who reject the EU as more than a purely economic Union and people who see the EU as a part of their political future. This is the main fault line.

Within this cleavage there are sub-cleavages, such as more EU, less EU, better EU, or no EU at all. Every state of the EU contains all these cleavages, but the position of the state vis-à-vis the EU depends on who is in power. Nationalists in government tend to radicalize anti-EU stance and produce more populist rhetoric as we see currently in Poland and Hungary. The rise of nationalism and populism across the globe does not signify the victory of nation-state, but reflects people’s insecurity about their own political system, a disappointment in their governments, the EU’s inability to resolve various crisis and a fear for the future in this very complex world. Nationalism thrives on fear and disillusion and appears to provide simple answers to very complex questions. Politicians engage in nationalist rhetoric because their voters want to hear something which will alleviate their insecurity and in turn keep them in government. This is the nationalism we see rising in Europe – xenophobic, short-sighted, backward looking and obsessed with identity. Terrorist attacks add to the overall sense of insecurity and provide an easily exploited reasons against open societies.

To what extent does the contrast between East and West produce a fragmentation of European identity?

European identity is about believing in European Union as a supplementary structure to the nation-state and the willingness to share its political integration with other states. The fragmentation of this identity is present in both East and West. It is not fragmentation as such, but a division between a commitment to and scepticism toward the EU.

Eastern Europe has developed differently to Western Europe – historically and since the Second World War. This gap can’t be breached in 25 years since the fall of communism and therefore there are specific differences between East and West. One of them is that in Eastern Europe there are still too many historical grievances which have not been reconciled. There is a degree of misunderstanding between East and West which does contribute to this fragmentation, but it can’t be argued that Eastern Europe is responsible for this fragmentation. Brexit is a prime example.

What are the measures you consider necessary to maximize the potential for rebuilding the nation-state identity in the European space?

If you understand nation-state as a state of and for one nation (non existent in our world whatever nationalists claim) then the re-building of such identity would lead to the world of conflicts between states and between majorities and minorities. We see attempts in some countries to maximize the ownership of the state by one dominant group and rejection of more cosmopolitan values. However, this process runs counter to building a democratic state. If, on the other hand, you see nation-state identity as an identity pertaining to the state and open to all living in it, then measure necessary to maximize this identity depend on efforts to construct an identity which has reconciled historical issues between various groups, clear about the future of the state as it currently exists, tolerant and open to the world of migration and integration. This is not easy and therefore different cultural identities must be recognized and acknowledged as a part of the state.  We are long way away from this scenario, certainly in the East which is due to different paths o development I have mentioned earlier.



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