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Europe’s post-Brexit identity search

A defining unity

A Sept. 16 summit of the remaining EU leaders must start a deep search for what binds the European Union other than economic convenience and preventing war and atrocities. 

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    German Chancellor Merkel (L) speaks to French President Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Renzi (C) on Ventotene island, central Italy, August 22.
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On Sept. 16, the European Union holds its first summit since Britain voted in June to leave the EU. The number of leaders at the gathering will be down by only one, from 28 to 27. Yet the loss of a major player like Britain – and the prospect of losing more member states – merely adds to an identity crisis for the bloc. The summit should be a moment to create a higher sense of the EU – one that unifies through shared principles more than shared prosperity.

The crisis over Brexit is just the latest for the EU. Its political unity has been shaken in recent years by a migration wave, Russian aggression, a near-collapse of the Greek economy and the euro single currency, and a string of terrorist attacks that has raised anti-Muslim fears. On the world stage, Europe feels weaker against a rising China and the comeback economy of the United States.

The summit is designed to start a period of deep reflection. “All families occasionally need phases in which they think about where they go from here,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel while visiting other European leaders in the lead-up to the gathering. Or as one German newspaper put it, Europe is on “a quest for meaning.”

The EU still has a strong base of unity to build on. Two thirds of Europeans consider themselves to be citizens of the EU, according to a poll conducted last May. And trust in the EU is higher than trust in most national governments. The EU is a complement to national identity, not a substitute for it.

What is important in such polls is the concept of European citizenship. Too much of the EU effort treats people as consumers – of easier trade, improved products and services, and better finances. While this has lifted weaker states – Ireland is a prime example – it also creates a selfish and weak bond for unity when economic times get tough, as they are now.

European unity must also be about more than geographic proximity, overlapping cultures, or common interests on topics like energy and technology. And the EU should recognize that its founding was based largely on fear – fear of the kind of atrocities and authoritarianism that marked Europe during much of the 20th century. As one EU founder said, the supranational body was designed to make war “not only unthinkable but materially impossible.”

Identity based on a collective fear of repeating the past is not always a clear road map for the future. Plenty of European thinkers are now struggling to redefine the EU. Stephen Green, the British author of a recent book on European identity, says Europeans share a view of society that fosters individual creativity, protects the weak and marginal, and remains open to interacting with other cultures.

Brexit has marked a “deep break” in EU history, said Ms. Merkel. And Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy says the EU must now “write a new page for the future.” Its citizens need a political vision based on values that bind each EU nation and a system of governance that is closer to the people.

The EU can no longer be simply a convenience for its citizens or a bulwark against old demons. Its identity must rest on enduring values that bind the affections of an entire continent.

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