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The Idea of European Cultural Identity

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The term “fault line” has its origin in the geological definition of a phenomenon in the formation of the Earth’s structure in different eras, from different materials, whence rifts develop and proceed to tear apart the very ground we stand on (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2007). Likewise, Europe has been sedimented throughout the past centuries from a multitude of socio-cultural, economic, and political pebbles, creating the base upon which the European Union started and continues to be built. Our current socio-political balance is being threatened by actions that touch upon the sensitive contact between these pebbles and may cause rifts among them.

Prominent attitudes and discourse in past and ongoing EU Member States’ elections stir old diverging opinions or fault lines placed in the deep European bedrock, and create new ones in the recent layer of the EU. These new fault lines are produced due to the fact that the themes approached in the debates on European culture and society are historically singular in character and depth. Namely, we are experiencing unparalleled socio-cultural, religious, and linguistic contact in our midst, in the context of increased global movement of people and EU-wide freedom of movement. Therefore, in this paper, “our” culture and identity will be divided on two coordinates axes, an EU one and a national one.

This paper argues that it is in fact the lack of focus on traditional national culture and identity in public discourse that deepens fault lines. Within Europe, the current emphasis on internationalism and multiculturalism is what makes of once-legitimising national identity a resistance one, by demoting the thick substrate of cultural European history in favour of a singular culture that manages to systematically undermine all cultures that it is derived from. Within the bedrock analogy, this is what causes the earthquakes that strain old fault lines in their contempt over loss of legitimisation, threatening to surface in the EU layer through the possible elections of right-wing parties in countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and France.

“Identity is people’s source of meaning and experience,” writes Castells (2010, p.6). He goes on to define identity as the principal meaning on the basis of a cultural attribute (p.6). Within every European country, its thick historical bedrock has, until recently, constituted its legitimising identity – a top-down approach from various institutions that built European civil society (p.8). Restating the lack of precedent for Europe’s current socio-cultural situation, the EU’s identity is a work in progress that started in the wake of the Second World War (Nugent, 2010), a project identity that is increasingly imposed throughout the EU as its new legitimising identity. The promotion of this EU-wide singular identity with universalistic aims has undermined national, regional, and ethnic identities (De Swaan, 2007), and downgraded them from legitimising to resistance identities, “devalued by the logic of domination” (Castells, 2010, p.8). The communities thus formed are constantly antagonised and repressed by the dominant EU identity, strengthening their opposition and polarising both factions (Castells, 2010, p.9).

The discourse of prominent right-wing parties in most EU Member States panders to the worries and needs of the people of now-resistance identities throughout Western Europe (Schäfer, 2013). In Germany, a country which has taken upon itself the burden of welcoming over a million refugees over the past two years (Dearden, 2017), the platform of Alternative for Germany is “Islam does not belong in Germany”. France, a main target for European immigrants, is threatened by the unchecked rise of the National Front, who argue against immigration and in favour of a so-called “Frexit” (New York Times, 2016). In Greece, Golden Dawn’s reactionary attitude towards austerity measures in the course of their economic crisis echoed people’s anger (Knight, 2015). The root of Europeans’ discontent and disillusionment is more often than not an EU measure or situation that their country is handling; EU-national fault lines deepen when the opposition to the legitimising tendency of the EU awakes reactionary nationalistic sentiment (Knight, 2015). Therefore, it is through EU-wide systematic neglect of regional and national culture and identity that opposition is born, and not through the promotion of traditional European values.

A concrete instance of EU-wide assertion of a single culture took shape in the introduction of a few working languages, the main one being English. De Swaan (2007) highlights diverging tendencies of enlargement of the EU language family through states’ adherence, and the necessity to find common ground for easier communication among an increasingly diverse language group (p.1). The power politics ramifications of this imply the prominence of certain languages over others not only in the communications area, but ultimately in policy writing as well (p.5). The use of linguae francae is inherently elitist, favouring native speakers and privileged students, to the detriment of the knowledge of one’s native language or of other, “less important” European languages. Similarly, smaller language groups, or groups that are acutely underrepresented in EU policy-writing (such as the Slavic language family), are understandably undergoing a phase of reactionary resistance identity formation in the phase of other languages’ exertion of linguistic and cultural dominance (De Swaan, 2007). Once policies understand and aim to help the development of national languages in harmony with more dominant ones, and once the importance of all languages is acknowledged (a tenuous task to fulfil), only then would EU policy cease to undermine national cultures and stop stirring old fault lines that would challenge the existing norm. Until such a feat is achieved, it is inevitable that the promotion of the mainstream identity and the principal languages of the EU to the detriment of national ones will do nothing but accentuate the resistance identity of Europe’s many population niches.

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Another instance of identity conflict zones rests in the population that can be considered native, and its contact with incoming populations. Throughout Europe, the median share of immigrants in the population is around 7%, as of 2014, over half of which are of non-European origin (Eurostat, 2015). Immigrant population is still rising in some countries of the EU, particularly due to large numbers of Middle Eastern asylum seekers, mainly pertaining to Islam. On a global scale, Inglehart (2003) highlights the “gap in values between the West and the Muslim world” (p.65), especially in regards to mentality. On a large scale, Christian-Muslim divergences cause civilizational clashes, and they have done so ever since their first contact. However, immigration is blurring contact lines through the introduction of migrants in Europe’s midst. No longer are small-scale clashes hectic and unreasonable, such as was the case of the Serb-Croat war between people who did not fundamentally differ in lifestyles and worldviews, presented by Ignatieff (1998). No longer are borders the epicentres of conflict, but cultural divides are being brought into the very fabric of Europe through immigration, truly moving socio-political trenches into people’s backyards: fears and scepticism transform new neighbours, rather than old ones, into sources of apprehension. This is a new occurrence, producing friction within the EU, rather than at its borders, in the process of migrants’ integration, and it is a tension that would have previously been inconceivable, in Europe’s past single-cultural societies (Habermas, 2008, p.20). Therefore, these new fault lines reach as deep as the new EU layer, due to their exceptionality.

The efforts of the European Union towards the reconciliation of EU culture and national cultures are not particularly efficient. The aim of the EU’s cultural and linguistic protection and promotion programmes is to prevent the feeling of neglect of traditional regional or ethnic identities, resolving any conflicts that might degenerate into or stir rifts the scale of fault lines, and serving to further integrate citizens into Europe. Concretely, to reiterate the instance of languages, the EU declared itself

“committed to safeguarding linguistic diversity and promoting knowledge of languages, for reasons of cultural identity and social integration and cohesion, and because multilingual citizens are better placed to take advantage of the economic, educational and professional opportunities created by an integrated Europe” (European Commission, 2012).

However, the project of multiculturalism and multilingualism was repeatedly denounced as a failure by European leaders (Schäfer, 2013, pp.39-40). There is, as Shore (2006) observes, a stark contrast between the EU’s universalistic goals of a singular culture, and the diversity that it is based upon and claims to uphold. There are irreconcilable overlaps of these two projects in the realms of “social cohesion, European construction, and governance” (Shore, 2006, p.8). Through its cultural policies, the EU seeks to assert its legitimising identity over the continent, by pursuing popular consent and by attempting to forge and emanate a European identity to belong to (Shore, 2006, p.10). In the past, the EU has failed to successfully establish its legitimising identity through its economic policies, creating further popular displeasure during the economic crisis and facilitating the rise of the representatives of people’s grievances, namely right-wing parties. Supported by the disenchanted voters whom the EU had failed, these parties have been rising to prominence and gaining in legitimacy since 2008 (Schäfer, 2013).

It is therefore not the focus on the protection of national culture and identity that produces fault lines in Europe. Rather, it is the lack thereof, in the context of the promotion of an overarching EU identity, that is currently creating new fault lines and stirring dormant ones.

The election cycle of 2016-2017 in most European countries is proving itself to be a point of impasse for the course of the EU. It is the overlooked resentments of the people in each EU Member State that have brought us to this decisive moment, and they stem from the forceful downgrade of what has historically been people’s legitimising identity. When one’s identity is challenged, one either submits or retorts. The people who have chosen to oppose this new EU identity, in ever-increasing numbers, are understandably electing the people and parties who echo their frustrations and offer reassuring solutions. To marginalise the stances of these people means disfranchising them and thus provides them with all the more reason to persevere in their resistance.

There is a marked need for understanding, tolerance, and cooperation that is essential for the future of relations within the European Union, as old methods of EU legitimacy assertion have undeniably failed a large part of the population through the challenging of their ancestral identities. As sensitive as the equilibrium may be now at contact points within the bedrock of European society, people still believe in the EU, just not this particular manifestation of it. The damage is not irreparable, and fault lines may still be closed without major aftermaths if we can devise a more balanced and conciliatory approach to the many intersecting identities within Europe.

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The Idea of European Cultural Identity. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-idea-of-european-cultural-identity/
“The Idea of European Cultural Identity.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-idea-of-european-cultural-identity/
The Idea of European Cultural Identity. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-idea-of-european-cultural-identity/> [Accessed 14 Aug. 2022].
The Idea of European Cultural Identity [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2022 Aug 14]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-idea-of-european-cultural-identity/
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