Who are Europeans?
Who are Europeans?

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Who are Europeans?

1. Overview

1 1 Who are Europeans?

When I went to Loughborough for the first time I was pleasantly surprised as a social scientist to see that the town was twinned with Épinal, the French town where the founder of modern sociology, Émile Durkheim, was born. In fact, as you enter any major English town you are likely to see sooner or later a plaque indicating that the town is twinned with another European town. But what is the meaning of this practice?

After the Second World War, which pitched European state against European state, a number of countries, particularly France and Germany, decided to bring the European peoples together and put an end to national rivalries and xenophobia.

The idea was to start at the local level and make sure that friendships between citizens developed. In the words of Jean Berath, one of the founders of the twinning movement, the point of linking two municipalities from two different countries was to establish diverse forms of co-operation between their peoples.

At the symbolic level, twinning was an opportunity to establish contacts between different communities, often ignorant if not altogether suspicious of each other and to exchange ideas. It was hoped that people would see what united them rather than what divided them. Politically, the twinning movement was meant to contribute to the construction of European unity. The key issue, however, was to start at a grassroots level and to involve as many citizens as possible. It was also a framework in which information could be exchanged at a number of more offcial levels – from matters of urban planning to racial issues, from the defence of cultural heritage to the protection of the environment.

It was in this context that the Council of European Municipalities was established in 1951. It later became the Council of Municipalities and Regions. To ratify the commitment of the partners, the ritual of signing the twinning oath was instituted. The form of the oath is shown in Box 1.

Box 1

Mayors of …

  • freely elected by our citizens,

  • responding to the profound aspirations and real needs of our population,

  • aware that the European civilization was born in our ancient ‘communes’ and that a sense of freedom was foremost inscribed in the franchise won by them,

  • considering that history is made in an ever-expanding world, but that this world will only be truly human when men can live freely in free cities,

on this day, we take the solemn oath:

  • to maintain permanent ties between our municipalities, to encour age exchanges in all domains between their inhabitants so as to develop through a better mutual understanding, the notion of European brotherhood,

  • to join forces as to further, to the best of our ability, the success of this vital enterprise of peace and prosperity: THE UNION OF EUROPE.

By the end of the twentieth century there were more than 8,000 towns twinned. Not surprisingly, the densest network of twinning was between France and Germany (more than half of the twinning), but other countries belonging to the Council of Europe, including most Central European ones, have also become involved in the twinning movement. The Treaty on European Union signed in Maastricht in 1993 recognised the importance of bringing European citizens together.

Critics of the twinning movement have emphasised that the percentage of citizens involved in exchanges of one sort or another is extremely small. They have pointed out the perfunctory and bureaucratic character of many of the manifestations of the movement; this seems to be particularly the case in so far as the UK is concerned. Evidence seems to suggest, however, that Franco-German jumelages have been much more successful in developing lasting friendships and better understanding between the two countries.

In this course we shall be considering what unites, but also what separates, Europeans. It must be stated from the beginning that ‘Europe’ is a rather hazy concept, with no clear boundaries. In recent years, Europe and the European Union (EU) have become practically synonymous; the expression ‘joining Europe’, standing (at least in the British parlance) for joining the EU. Needless to say, the EU has become a disputed object: highly valuable and desirable for some, anathema to others.

The issue of whether the development of the EU has created a sense of European identity among its people is open to controversy, due to the lack of agreement as to what is meant by ‘European identity’ and hence the difficulty of its measurement. The problem of the issue of European identity partly stems from the assumption that the EU is, for both partisans and foes, a proto-nation state and hence the comparison between national and European identities is appropriate. If, however, the EU is envisaged as an attempt not to emulate the existing nations, but to transcend them, then it will perhaps be easier to understand its trajectory. Nonetheless, fifty years after the inception of the European Economic Community (EEC) the EU has hardly dented national identity, although in most countries an important number of people are happy to express a joint European/national identity (SubSection 1.2.1).

An important question that we must tackle in any approach to the study of Europe is the very ambiguity of the concept. There are no clear-cut geographical, political, cultural or historical boundaries that define Europe once and forever. It would surely be difficult to conceive of Europe without reference to a core group of countries, of which the founders of the EEC (France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Italy) would definitely be part. Beyond that, the ambiguity begins. Today there are arguments as to whether Russia or Turkey are European, while not so long ago it was said that Africa began at the Pyrenees. The UK is often perceived both by natives and aliens as being detached from Europe – and not only geographically. Another important issue, discussed in SubSection 1.3.1, is that ‘being in Europe’ and ‘being European’ are different things. Even accepting the existence of a vague feeling of belonging to Europe, that might have very few cultural and political implications because the paramount allegiance of the individual is to the nation. In any case, it would be surprising, and against the grain of what we know about the formation of national sentiments, to expect that ‘Europeanness’ should have flourished in a world in which the dominant actor was, and still is, the nation. In any attempt at coming to terms with the meaning of the term ‘Europe’ we shall have to explore the literature on the topic and ask: What is Europe? Is it a purely geographical term? Does it make sense to talk about European culture? Or is ‘Europe’ just a civilization or a cultural area?

Our next stage will be to ascertain the importance of the so-called European ideal. Ideas can become social forces if they capture the imagination of people. After the Second World War, with all its well-known horrors, leading European intellectuals and politicians met a number of times to find ways of avoiding future conflicts and wars. The idea of uniting the peoples of Europe was rekindled, though it was soon realised that the path was fraught with difficulties.

How different collective actors (trade unions, political parties, and so on) have reacted over the years to the idea of the unification of Europe is the object of SubSection 1.2.1. It must be said that the building of a unified Europe has always relied upon the initiative of, at first, a few individuals, and, later, of small elites. However, the bulk of the population, particularly in the core countries of the EEC, has agreed with the moves toward further unification. SubSection 1.2.1 looks briefly at some of the ways in which unity and the development of a European identity are being created through ‘bottom-up’ processes.

In SubSection 1.2.1 we shall be considering in some detail two crucial areas which are of great relevance to any attempt at ‘constructing’ a European identity: education and the mass media. How effective have they been in creating, across the EU, a sense of belonging to a community, not only in the material, but also in the more intangible cultural or civilizational sense?

SubSection 1.2.1 explores the following issue: to what extent has a European public space or civil society developed? It is fair to say that over the years a common space has been created in the economic, legal, and, to a certain extent, political spheres. However, when we come to other realities (language, culture, religion, history, memories, values and practices, and so on) the peoples of the EU have tended to maintain their national allegiances. It is only very slowly that a public space is emerging. This should not be surprising given the strength of national sentiment and the absence of a comprehensive policy of Euro-building.

SubSection 1.3.1 is rather more speculative in considering the main variables that are likely to affect the EU in the next ten years. The point is not so much to predict future developments, but to provide a conceptual framework with which to envisage the dynamic possibilities of the EU.

In many of the documents emanating from the EEC/EU one term that seems to crop up with regularity is acquis communautaire. It is rarely translated into English, perhaps because no appropriate equivalent has been found, although ‘community patrimony’ is perhaps the closest approximation. It refers to the legal, constitutional and other levels of agreement reached by the community over the years. At the end of the second millennium, and in the light of the acquis communautaire of the past fifty years, but particularly since the mid-1980s, it is possible to state that the EU has radically transformed European society at the economic and legal levels, has created a new political space and has begun to construct a sense of European identity. What is far from clear is the final outcome of these complex processes, particularly in the context of both closer union and enlargement.

To many social scientists the project of constructing a European community out of an array of different states with different languages and cultures was utopian (Shore, 1993). There is no doubt that in the mind of the founding fathers of the EEC (Monnet, Schuman, De Gasperi, Spaak, Adenauer and others), there was a clear federalist project which, for different reasons, has been realised only in part. The construction of the European community has had its ups and downs, often following the vagaries of the moment and reflecting the difficulty in harmonising the different national perspectives. If today there is no clear picture of what the EU is, and what it wants to be, this is due to a certain extent to the often intricate language of the documents produced by the European Commission.


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