Bigger and Smaller Nations in Europe: To What Extent Can They Identify Themselves with the "Whole"?

Bigger and Smaller Nations in Europe: To What Extent Can They Identify Themselves with the "Whole"?


Presentation by Péter Kende at the conference "The Future of the Enlarged European Union" on 29 November 2002.

Let us begin with the notion of "identifying". First of all I would like to make it clear that when someone identifies with a "whole", smaller or larger in scale (with an institution, a community) it does not mean that he takes himself to be the same as the whole, but that he considers the goals, principles, etc. of the given country his own ideals as well. It is important to differentiate, because nowadays collective (for example national or minority) "identity" is used too often and too easily. It is used as if collective formations, notably linguistic or ethnic communities could have the same self-identification as the individual!

Collective identity? It is high time we got rid of this shady, scientifically not founded illusion. A collectivity, that renews with the passing of time not only in the biological sense of the word, but changes constantly under the influence of the surrounding world, is never "identical with oneself" like the individual, whose consciousness is a given ontological quality, such a subjective fact that can only be bent by mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or Alzheimer's disease or can be ended by brain death. The so-called collective identity is a mere metaphor, to which some wish to attach substance. However, this substance is entirely composed of acquired qualities: language, gestures, tastes and habits. The individual attains these with the conveyance of culture, but at the same time casts them away under the influence of cultural process or at his own wish to take up new characteristics. So, would it not be more correct in case of group to talk about "attributes" instead of "identity"? These, the members of the group can acquire during a learning process, by spontaneous or forced identification and usually attain them by the method of imitation. The attributes are retained until the members get under another acculturation influence. If it is so - and in my opinion it is - then the boundaries between "identity" and "identification" are already blurred, in the sense, that behind collective identity one should search for mainly - or exclusively - the output of identification mechanisms, the more or less stable collective resultant of collective identity. Such a resultant is of course highly variable from person to person.

It is only in archaic societies that the individual identifies completely with his group - even this is more of a hypothesis than a documented certainty. With the evolution of society, the original groups start forming part of more complex networks, social, economic and political "systems". This, of course, does leave its mark on the relations between individuals and the group. In modern societies, every single individual is de facto "member" of various groups, such as those of affinity, locality, profession, religion and generations. These groups get organized in different ways and find various means to link their members. As to what extent one identifies with these groups and bindings depends partly on the individual, while the standard measures, characteristic of the given society, can be lower or higher according to the level of individualization. There are certain groups with which we only identify to such an extent that we share their taste, approve of their goals and organize our lives or part of it (for example leisure) according to a model given by them. On the other hand, towards other groups we feel compelled to loyalty and service. Amongst these family, country and religion are foremost but some feel the same about political affiliation. It is also well known that with the changing of circumstances of life or under the influence of developments of world affairs, the same individual can identify strongly with different groups or can alter the intensity of his binding to these groups. In fact, it the modern world there is only one collective tie that is unbreakable and cannot be voluntarily chosen and that is the mother tongue, the (family, local, national) language that was mastered in childhood and therefore played a privileged role. It is a different matter how strongly this language binds us to the political and administrative frames.

With this we have reached the favoured field of collective identification, we call "nation". Everybody agrees more or less that amongst collective identifications typical of the modern age, - at least in Europe - it is belonging to a political - and partly cultural - entity that has the highest degree of emotional affection. As the source of a sense of duty and loyalty, its inner constraint has an especially strong affect on the individual's choices and his spontaneous self-identification. I am first and foremost Hungarian or French, and only after this do I consider myself a worker, a teacher, a musician or a football player. It can be seen that nationality is indeed an all-embracing frame. However, it can be argued whether there exists in the modern world a different, likewise embracing or an even wider group-concept. What about for example political affiliations based on religious or revolutionary ideas? Or movements that practice humanity's religion in an environmentalist or charitable spirit? Is it true that by the end of the 20th century, all internationalist approaches perished from them, and therefore they cannot be mentioned alongside with the national tie and the strength of the feeling attached to it? Even if we proclaim unanimously the nation winner of this imaginary race, the question can still be raised, whether national loyalty, in other words strong emotional bonds and fidelity to my own nation could not be connected to solidarity and engagement? It is precisely on the occasion of the European integration that this problem has to be raised and more closely analyzed.

Let us examine the nation as a tie first. It is evident, that it starts in childhood, if not with birth but with the sense of consciousness, with the moment of becoming aware of the surrounding world. For a schoolchild - at least in Europe - the country and language to which he belongs is as much of a direct potentiality as his gender or whether he has parents. (Of course, there are some, who were born abroad, or children by a mixed couple, from a bilingual family, but let us not complicate our formula even further.) So the basic situation is the following: I am born Hungarian, Danish, Polish or French and as such do I become aware of social life. Only after further experience do I discover, that other nations exist as well, that this fact given by birth is not as irreversible as gender, it is not coded in my genes, therefore in my character like gender. By the time I grow up I realize that I too shape my emotional and political relationship with my nation, and if I am - let's say - Hungarian, it is partly so because I want to be one. And it is around this time that it dawns on me that my national identity is nothing else than the common resultant of a spontaneously assimilated culture and a more or less deliberately executed identification. This is to say that while my gender is defined by nature, my being Hungarian, Danish or French is because I consider, I want myself to be one. Even is someone has dual nationality, in the deep of his mind he decides to what extent and why he belongs to one or another group.

The point I am trying to make with this chain of thought is that as all collective identification, the acceptance of nationality has as well a voluntaristic component. From this it derives that the broad political-cultural community with which I identify myself in a special way, can be of a different kind than the state-nation. For some - notably the minorities - the main level of self-identification has remained under the national level. For others it can rise above it. In my recently published paper, pondering over the future of the conception of the republic I wrote: "If the cardinal point of the social treaty joining up the nation - any nation - is the accordance in law and the universal principles of freedom, called the sentiment of 'constitutional patriotism' by Habermas, then the feeling of being of the same political set, that has appeared mainly in the form of national identity can be expanded over the historically given national borders to all those political-human-civic-civil communities, that share the same principles. This statement - as it can be seen - is conditional - 'if … then …' - and Europe's future, which is the primary experimental territory of the possible development trend, clearly depends on the fulfillment of the above condition."

One of the big questions here is of course, that why should "constitutional patriotism", mentioned above as a working hypothesis, be only linked to Europe. Why more to Europe than to a wider-ranged federation of states, spreading to other continents, such as the Atlantic Treaty? The answer is not at all obvious. While in the meantime we instinctively feel that no matter how well-founded this extension of the collective plural might be, it can only work within a certain dimension. It also speaks in Europe's favour that it is a civilizational and - to a certain extent - cultural unity, that - in a wider sense - was shaped by common history and whose members, even if they speak 30 different languages, are linked by geographical proximity, the continental network of communication appliances, the similarities in forms of settlement and way of life, mass tourism motivated by mutual curiosity, and many other different factors. The feeling of "being European" and that we are related in some way with each other is much less abstract, much less speculative, than - let's say the notion of world citizenship.

Here we are faced with a great difficulty. One can only identify - in the political sense of the word - with a real political entity, which has boundaries, which - when faced with other entities - shows its difference by coordinated actions and stands for its interests. The mere fact that it forms a civilizational community does not make Europe or a more widely viewed Western world such an entity with which one can identify with politically. Neither does it become one, even if it is aware of the common interests and holds disputes of a very high level within institutions fit for the purpose. The political-legal-economic entity called the European Union is not even geographically well defined, it is an open debate whether in the medium or long term Turkey or a democratic Ukraine is entitled to membership. But the definition of the boundaries of Europe has an even greater obstacle: notably that the European way of thinking, more rhetorically the "European spirit" is apt to think of itself as universally human. It is not a mistake in itself, as this made the culture of European people the source of universal values. But at the same time this identification with the "universal "is what makes it difficult for Europeans to behave as particular entity - different from the universal - in world politics, or if we like it "on the stage of nations". Apparently no such considerations paralyze the United States of America, the child of Europe far away: this is why it can exist as a world power. Regarding its material givens, Europe could as well be a world power, but on the one hand it is the lack of internal concord, on the other hand the constant conflict that pulls Europe towards identifying with the universal human that prevents it from fulfilling this role. This does not impede identification with one's own nation, but when one should step out from the narrower (national) community towards something larger, this larger usually does not take the form of Europe in European minds but a kind of blurred, geographically unidentifiable "world solidarity". To help the Sicilian or Polish peasant? Yes, but one should not forget about the Burundi neither!
It is time now though, to talk about the smaller and larger nations of Europe, as I promised in the title of my presentation.

In the first part of the lecture I tried to show that the mechanisms to identify with one or several larger "entities" are laying in the back of every person's mind, therefore it refers to Europeans as well. Then I pointed out the difficulty in creating a notion of Europe as an enclosed entity and for Europeans to accept it. It the remaining time I would like to try to find the answer to the question whether there is a difference between the smaller and larger nations of Europe from this aspect.

Let us start with the larger ones. Here "larger" does not refer to the size of the population but to the role these nation played in history and today's international politics. In other words - without any further explanations - it is France, Germany and Britain in our case, compared to the others, who can be marked as "small" or "medium" nations.

The first problem with these three larger nations of Europe is that all three of them have - in their own time - been Europe's leading power - England has even been more than that. Therefore, they can only with great difficulties imagine a European history that does not revolve around them. They have accepted European integration partly because they thought that collaboration, this new kind of political construction is what can best counterbalance the ousted (or in Germany's case: collapsed) influence of their power. Accordingly, the European Union means primarily the extension of France for the French, for the British the expansion of English influence, while for the Germans it gives the unparalleled opportunity of becoming a significant, but in the meantime not fearsome international factor, even without strong national features or substantial German diplomacy.

A vexed English prime minister once said: "When De Gaulle speaks of Europe, he thinks of France". I think this is the paradigm of the identification of the larger nations with Europe. To expound, this means that all three of them tacitly identify Europe with themselves, their starting point is: it is only good for Europe what is directly advantageous for them, i.e. the Germans, the French, the British. Of course, some concessions can be made in return for compensation, as opposed to the sharp, what's more, stiff refusal that any proposal within the union would meet, that could make France less French, Britain less British, Germany less German. In other words: from the French point of view the ideal future of Europe would be Europe as an entity becoming a kind of large France, and the same can be said of the Brits and the Germans, even if in the latter case the idea is a bit less categorical. 

Translated to the language of the European constitution, this would of course result in three different Europes, each of which would be a "whole", an entity in different ways. The German Europe would be federative, following the pattern of the German Federal Republic, where the constituent parts - the member-states (the Lands) - would retain a relatively small part of sovereign powers, as they would delegate the major share of state competence to the federal centre. The British Europe would primarily be a free trade zone, within the boundaries of which everybody could keep their legislation and traditions, their regulating rules and metric system, and the entity, called Union would serve as more of a consultation center, than a governing body striving for political unification and harmonization of legislation. Obviously, the development of the European Union has long ago passed the level of the free trade zone, which was reluctantly accepted by Her Majesty's government, but in the back of their minds, they never quite submitted to it. Lastly, let's examine the French concept. It differs from the British one in the way that it positively approves of bureaucratic harmonization of legislation, just as of common policy programs financed from the common budget, and regards it a goal that common European identity should appear on the world stage. On the other hand, it differs from the German approach in the way that it would like to convey only a very small part of the sovereignty of member states to the so-called federal, but truly an intergovernmentally functioning centre - this is what Chirac called the "federation of nation-states". In short, the French have the present status quo in view as their nec plus ultra ideal. The British - if it rested with them - would realize the ideal (though never existent) Europe of yesterday, with the intensity of connections such as the one presently linking the countries of the Commonwealth. As opposed to this, the Germans would move towards a continent-wide, real federation, even taking on the possibility, that not only would their money be absorbed in a single currency, freely damageable by anybody else, but sooner or later they would be subject to a Europe-wide, multilingual Bundesrepublik. Out of the larger nations, it is apparently only Germany that would be willing to identify with a European "whole".
Lastly, let us see what can be expected from Europe's smaller nations from this aspect. What separates them from the large ones is obviously that their influence on shaping the "whole" will always be smaller, that not for one single moment can they assume that the future Europe will be moulded in their image, after their likeness. Therefore the "whole" will always be stranger for them, that for the larger ones. (This is - amongst other things - is illustrated by the practice, that the organs of the Union consider only French, German and English as their working languages.) The identification of the smaller nations is even further hampered by the fact, that in disputes within the Union and at the moment of decision, they usually have to identify with the point of view of one of the larger nations or the majority coalition formulated around them. Of course, it is not an absurd thought that by the reform of the internal decisive structures, possible coalitions formed by smaller nations could increase their influence - but today it is not a certainty.
Nevertheless, it is easier for the smaller nations to identify with the European "whole", than it is for the larger ones, even under these circumstances, because they cannot find any better solution, than becoming part of a European entity, taking into consideration the lines of force of international politics and the economic pressures imposed upon us all by globalization. It could already been experienced in the early period of the European Community, that the smaller nations (in the above mentioned period the Benelux countries) were much determinedly pro-European, than the bigger ones. Amongst the countries larger in population, it was only Italy, which was so enthusiastically European, but partly with the same motives as the smaller states, that is to say, because it had no great influence either in world politics.

With the gradual enlargement of the European Community, the number of the small member states has increased remarkably. Out of the nine new member states, admitted in addition to the six founders, seven can be considered small. One would primarily think that mew members, especially small states are enthusiastic supporters of Europeanism. Whereas experience shows that mistrust towards common institutions and euroscepticism feeding on national egotism appear more strongly among newly admitted states, than among the founders. Of course, this statement would be correct only if we examined the attitude of the political elite and the wider public towards Europe separately. To illustrate this, it is enough just to think about the recent Irish referendum, where in the first round the voters rejected the Treaty of Nice, and afterwards what a great effort the Irish politicians - irrespective of party affiliation - made in order to persuade the majority of their voters to cast an affirmative vote in the second round. As opposed to his, in Austria the appointed government and the public together (or a majority of it) became angry with the Union, when it gave a lesson to their country because of the appointing to government of the Haider-party. In this strained situation, where the choice was between Austria's right and the principles of Europe, the vast majority of the Austrian public identified with the former and not the latter.

To conclude, let me say a couple of words about the new candidate states, waiting to join the European Union. These are - apart from Poland - also small states, in six cases strikingly small (the Baltic states, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus). It needs no further proof that these countries are craving for Union membership. However, behind the wish to be accepted, there are primarily economic expectations, then strategic considerations, in the depth of which is a bit of vanity: "The West should at last acknowledge that we are the integral part of Europe as well!" It is still a big question, though, whether over these considerations of practicality and vanity, there is a capability in the peoples of candidate states to identify with the European "whole", to be more precise, to what extent they have this capability and what affect the real experiences of integration will have on them. I do not think that any conclusions, no matter how careful, can be made on this subject, based on the "euro-barometer". As an outstanding British social scientist, Peter Wiles once remarked: "We can only make established prognosis on the past." Only experience will tell, whether the people of Hungary and the other new member states can identify with Europe as whole.

2007. január 24-én a Magyarországi Európa Társaság a Cseh Centrummal és a Libri Prohibitivel közös rendezvényen emlékezett a csehszlovák máskéntgondolkozók Charta 77 című kiáltványának harmincadik évfordulójára, amit akkor a kommunista rendszer számos magyar ellenzője aláírásával támogatott. 

László Bruszt, Visiting Professor at the Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence, made a presentation on 3 November 2016.

On 28 December 2016, HES held its traditional annual workshop where HES members made presentations to HES members.