Euro crisis can build European identity

When European Union leaders meet in late June, they will weigh ideas that point to more political unity as a way to stem the euro crisis. Will Europeans give up more national sovereignty?

Alvaro Barrientos/AP Photo
People in Pamplona protest May 31 against cutback plans by Spain's government. The European Union urged Spain to come clean on how it plans to finance the overhaul of its banking sector.

Two years into its debt crisis, Europe has finally arrived at the nub of its problem: Will there ever be a common European identity?

The answer may start to become clear at a European Union summit June 28-29. Leaders will weigh proposals to create a binding political union as a way to prevent a collapse of the euro – as well as to prevent the effects to the world economy.

The euro crisis began because too many countries, such as Greece, acted on old national impulses under the umbrella of a single currency. They spent too much money – borrowed from other EU countries – with little regard for the new European rules on fiscal discipline.

Instead of one for all and all for one, it was more often simply all for one.

Financial markets finally gagged on the red ink and now insist that the euro’s 17 member states create a political authority as strong as their economic union.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, agrees, in large part to justify helping Europe’s wobbly banks. But this would mean that each nation would need to give up a lot more sovereignty, such as control over spending on health and education.

Europe, which invented the nation-state, is faced with diminishing it for the sake of an elusive United States of Europe. Up to now, however, much of the EU’s unity was based on a negative identity. In 1945, Europe didn’t want to be like its fascist past. Then during the cold war, it rallied around not being like the communist Soviet Union. And it has long tried not to be like America.

Now it is being forced to assert an affirmative identity in order to persuade a skeptical public into accepting far more centralized governance. But where is that common belonging?

Europe shares no common language and no common media. Even the old glue of Christianity has faded. The EU was able to find some bonding across borders by doling out the economic benefits of easier trade, freer immigration, and subsidies to the poorest nations by wealthier ones – mainly Germany. For decades, that was enough.

Now, with a deep financial crisis and higher unemployment, some of those benefits are disappearing. EU leaders must scramble fast to come up with other reasons for people to call themselves European even as they retain individual national identities.

Finding the right mix between the two is possible. As historian Linda Colley famously wrote, “Identities are not like hats. Human beings can and do put on several at a time.” Even the Greeks, despite the onus of severe austerity, still want to stick with the euro.

Communities are indeed invented from what people choose to imagine are their common interests and values. The more universal those interests and values, the easier it is to see others as worthy of respect and trust.

A big part of the EU’s identity woes is caused by its ruling institutions not being very democratic or transparent. People don’t see themselves in the elite who run the institutions. Voter turnout for the elections of the European Parliament has declined over the years. Yet the ideals of democracy are one of the best unifiers for the EU.

At their coming summit, leaders will likely move toward more direct elections of EU governing bodies. Ms. Merkel, for example, wants a directly elected president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU.

Granting more power to everyday people could become the central expression of European identity, far more so than the euro. Only when people see a respect for their views will they willingly give more authority – and some of their identity – to the institutions of a more unifying Europe.

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