Does the EU's 'European identity' make the rise of the far right inevitable?

A cohesive continent requires the EU to transcend geography and focus on values

Nick Donaldson/ Getty
Powered by automated translation

The elections for the European Parliament began on Thursday, June 6. It’s both a pertinent and poignant date. June 6 is the 80th commemoration of the start of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. Out of the ashes of this devastating conflict, the nations of the European continent would go on to forge new relationships.

Far from creating just an economic union, the architects of the EU were citizens who had observed the carnage of the Second World War up close and sought to build a peaceful Europe. It was a political project that used and strengthened economic ties between nations to try to avoid another cataclysmic war and to prevent France and Germany from ever coming into conflict with one another again.

It is unsurprising that a lot has changed since the 1957 Treaty of Rome that established this community. The EU has always had to wrestle with a host of competing interests. This is inevitable in a union of 27 states and almost 450 million people that contains myriad economic, cultural and social differences between its members. One way to transcend all these differences was through championing a European identity: a sense of belonging to a unifying concept of “Europe” that could speak to all. Identity is the glue that holds people to a national home and produces a familiarity that enables them to identify with one another.

In these elections, we can see the weakness of such a “European” identity. States are tribal, and their own national interests dominate the electoral picture. “All politics is local”, to borrow a phrase used to describe American politics, and there is a dizzying number of reasons to explain why European voters are motivated principally by domestic, not EU, issues. Coalition instability in Germany, corruption in Bulgaria, budget problems in Denmark, inflation in Austria, geopolitics in Finland, housing issues in Ireland and an assassination attempt against a prime minister last month in Slovakia all suggest that, for European voters, the domestic trumps the regional.

As things stand, electoral predictions suggest that the far right will improve its position in many countries. Confronted by such exclusivist and nativist policies, it seems difficult to believe a pan-continental European identity has anything to tell us about the current state of EU politics. Is modern Europe, symbolised in the institutions and practices of the EU, in fact built on xenophobia and exclusion?

The common focus is on Europe’s cultural composition. As a cultural community, Europe has heard arguments to exclude “non-European” – perhaps culturally non-Christian? – nations.

The EU is more than a cultural project – it is also a political project. Its members are expected to legalise and apply certain values

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy embodied this view in his own policies towards potential Turkish membership of the EU during his time in office, and afterwards. “What is the idea behind Europe?” he asked in a 2016 interview with a French channel. “Can Turkey be regarded as a European country culturally, historically and economically speaking?”

He added: “But if we begin to explain it – that Turkey is in Europe – European school students will have to be told that the European border lies in Syria. Where’s common sense?”

Ankara’s application to join the EU dates to 1987, but in 2019 the European Parliament formally suspended negotiations with Turkey.

But the EU is more than a cultural project – it is also a political project. Its members are expected to legalise and apply certain values such as democracy, a free press, the rule of law and human rights to name a few. These values are often held up to the point of being cliched, but they are applied. The EU has fined or withheld funds to members it says have breached them – members such as Hungary and Poland, two states that do not culturally clash with the concept of “Europe”.

The EU also has several new applicants on its books including Muslim-majority Albania and Bosnia, as well as Serbia and perhaps – eventually – Ukraine. As a regional institution, the EU was always going to be exclusivist in some way, but it continues to exert a gravitational pull for neighbouring states.

Nonetheless, is there really any hope for a concept of European identity based on democratic values when a 20 per cent surge for far-right parties is broadly predicted in these elections? In a sense, the EU is a victim of its own success. Perhaps the geographical nativism embedded in the pan-European project gives even greater fire to the nativism that has already long been a feature of national politics. And as an institution that straddles the local and the global, with soft-power dominance, the EU for perhaps too long has deluded itself on its ability to transcend the national problems its members face.

One obvious issue, ignored for too long, is illegal immigration, which certainly seems to link several far-right parties across borders, and rallies voters to their cause. The ugly language of extreme nationalism, always more widespread during crises, suggests the institutions of the EU are not up to the task of dealing with migration, and national governments must instead build walls. The EU has to respond more robustly to such sentiments, while refraining from demonising citizens’ sentiments, expecting these problems to simply go away or merely invoking the language of a chimerical European identity.

If there is optimism, it can still be found in the ideals attached to European identity – but this is not the same as national identity. A European identity cannot not really be rooted in a cultural landscape that is far too diverse to emotionally connect everyone. Instead, a truly European identity can best be found in the political; it is the political values of EU member states that make it what it is. This must of course always be juxtaposed within an ugly history of European colonialism and conquest. But the men who threw themselves at the beaches of Normandy on D-Day 80 years ago, and who died in their droves, were sacrificing themselves for these ideals and helping to build a Europe free from fascism.

It is the upholding of these ideals, for all Europeans, born there or otherwise, EU citizens or not, that is the best way to contribute to a more unified concept of Europe and a more solid conceptualisation of European identity.

Published: June 07, 2024, 6:00 PM
Updated: June 10, 2024, 5:01 PM