Towards a European Cultural Identity?

Towards a European Cultural Identity?


Presentation by György Schöpflin at the conference "The Future of the Enlarged European Union" on 29 Novembre 2002

The problem of a European identity is not that there isn't one, but that very broadly two can be defined - one political, the other cultural - and they are in many ways out of alignment. The result is that the process of European integration as currently understood appears to be reaching a limit and this will not change very markedly in quality unless this state of affairs is remedied.

The political Europe is the outcome of five decades of European integration and paradoxically is becoming less political in the true sense as it is being replaced by politics-as-management . This is structured by a clear commitment to consensuality, process, administrative solutions and is elite-driven. The political decisions are largely taken by the member states - primarily by the large member states - and the debate on Europe is restricted, as it is bound to be under such circumstances. Politics as a contest of ideas and collision of interests takes place at best behind closed doors and the public does not really own very much of it, with the consequence that a Europe-wide public opinion has little chance of emerging. The cultural Europe is much more difficult to define and is, in fact, highly contested. If this cultural Europe is about anything, it is about cultural diversity, but a diversity with a certain set of shared implicit assumptions and ways of negotiating difference. It is the product of a longue duree set of shared historical experiences and possibly most importantly, a particular type of modernity-definition that first arose in the Western periphery of Europe and then generated others elsewhere on the Continent. All these forms of modernity are broadly alike, but vary greatly in detail. This means that inter-cultural communication is feasible, but seldom easy.

A key aspect of the cultural identity of Europe is, in fact, the difficult and contested relationship between cultures and political power. In its most obvious form, the concept that combines the two is the nation-state. The nation-state is a highly complex entity, far more so than either its protagonists or detractors claim, at the heart of which is a set of propositions or, maybe, ideals. The nation-state has been constructed to secure cultural reproduction, to provide coherence and security and to ensure that all members of the cultural community have some access to political power - consensual government, democracy, a degree of control by the individual citizen over his/her rulers are central to modernity. The experience of the 20th century is that the exercise of political power without consent is possible, but ultimately results in stultification (communism, fascism). The difficulty then is that consent is, like so much else, culturally coded and that what passes for consensual government in one polity is not automatically so understood in another. Thus Anglo-Saxon pragmatism lives with levels of inconsistency that are irreconcilable with Cartesian thinking.
In this context, the events of the last half century have created a very odd perception of politics in Europe - a proposition that culture and politics can be decoupled, that politics is management and a matter of getting the technology of governance right. It would seem that this view, which is gaining adherents, can be derived from the aftermath of the Second World War, from the way in which the war continues to be explained by the excesses of nation-state behaviour and which is reductionist in its tacit assumption that a culture-free form of governance is not only possible but desirable. The success of the European project, the collapse of communism, the proposition that history has "ended" have in themselves added to the depoliticisation of politics. New Labour's Third Way is the classic illustration.

In reality, one of the great successes of Europe-as-culture has been the ability to combine an extraordinary degree of cultural diversity with the similarly diverse articulation of political power. No other part of the world lives with so many cultural communities that are simultaneously autonomous political communities. The question as always, however, is where the boundary between the two should lie. Excessive cultural autonomy results not only in isolation, but can evolve into a threat to its neighbours if that cultural autonomy develops practices that cut across contingent European norms (like human rights normativity) in the putative defence of one's own culture. This state of affairs, on the other hand, has a positive aspect, in as much as it adds to the potential for cultural creativity, as different cultures - in this instance high cultures - experiment with different solutions and make possible the cross-fertilisation that preempts stagnation.

But there is more. While the construction of Europe has proceeded overwhelmingly by technocratic and managerial methods, nation-states have learned to live with one another by establishing and operating various devices that go some way towards ensuring that the cultural communities that feel their cultural reproduction to be at risk do not engage in destructive behaviour. The mainspring of these devices is mutual recognition and self-limitation at the cultural level, a set of processes that involve language, symbols, rituals, memory and, ultimately, the particular significations that each culture produces and reproduces. At the European level, however, this form of cultural construction has been largely, though not entirely, ignored. Managerial politics is, of course, far easier.

There has been a good deal of comment that Europe in its current phase has no vision, that the process that Europe is attracts very restricted popular identification, that the politics of European integration have no deeper legitimacy. What this adds up to is a sense that "technological Europe" is not being matched by a "political Europe" where politics includes the underlying cultural norms that define political power. The European Union remains to a considerable extent what it was set up to do - an organisation that has the power to control certain areas of economic and commercial life through a variety of complex administrative instruments, and despite a variety of political add-ons, remains managerial.

Let it be said that overall the EU has been highly effective in what it has been designed to do and, indeed, in achieving the underlying goal of securing peace in the Europe that it and its member states control. Where the real gaps are is in the kind of political activity that demands much greater direct identification and that, again, raises the question of a shared and articulated culture, including the issue of significations. In a word, vision needs a shared culture at the level at which the vision is to resonate. After 1945, this vision existed. It was about recreating a Europe without war and more specifically about ending Franco-German antagonism. The Cold War became an added, helpful factor. Today there is no such vision.

There are good reasons why Europe and the elites that define such cultural norms have fought shy of engaging in these processes. Even as memories of the Second World War have faded, they have not disappeared, indeed, the two world wars have left such a deep imprint on the consciousness of Western Europe, that there is a profound and tacitly understood imperative of "never again"; and given that the primary cause of war has been repeatedly identified with nationalism and that nationalism is generally identified as beginning with cultural nationalism, the hostility towards the relationship between culture and politics is deep and difficult to disentangle, having been thoroughly naturalised.

The entire issue of a European culture is bedevilled by two constitutive issues. One is where the boundaries of Europe are and the second is, who is and who is not European. These are both problems of immense difficulty, a difficulty that few people are prepared to confront because of a third factor: the claim to universalism. This last in effect says that anyone who lives in Europe and accepts the conditions of Europe-as-political-management can be European, that is to say, it assumes that migrants come to Europe culturally naked and need make only the minimum adjustments to be useful citizens. Any problems that do arise in integration are dismissed as the fault of the majority ("racism"). This perspective is resonant and flawed, because it effectively screens out both the culture of Europe and those of the immigrants.

This problematic affects the other two factors. If Europe is only a matter of political technology and compliance with a set of political and legal norms, then anyone can indeed be European and, theoretically, Europe need have no boundaries. This answers by dismissal the doubts raised over the European credentials of Russia and Turkey. In theory, therefore, there is no reason (under this definition) why, say, Pakistan could not one day demand admission to the European Union, as long as it complied with the acquis and human rights normativity. However, given the doubts even about Turkish accession, it is hard to deny that some sense of a shared European culture does operate.

The problem is what this culture is, how it is to be defined in a resonant manner and, vitally, whether it can be condensed sufficiently to allow for a Europe-level legitimacy through identification to come into being. In this connection, one's doubts become even stronger than they were previously. Not only is there the very real difficulty of integrating immigrants from non-European backgrounds into anything resembling a condensed European culture, not to mention the storm of opposition that this would arouse among those who recognise that a denser set of cultural norms would make the integration of non-Europeans far harder, but the more subtle opposition of the nation-state would also come into play.

The European nation-state is in many ways a remarkable instrument for dealing with a number of political and cultural problems. It has been successful in creating systems in which consent to be governed has been culturally coded without appearing to be so coded. The standard proposition is that consent to be governed is ultimately vested in the civic contract. In reality, there exists a strong cultural coding of citizenship and civic rights - a brief glance at the nature of French and Dutch conceptions of citizenship will show marked variations of a cultural nature - but this cultural coding has been screened out, by reason of the factors already sketched, including universalism, the association of nationhood with war and the problem of diversity.

Centrally, consent to be governed has a tacit cultural coding and relies on this as an ongoing process, not least because the modern state extends its rationalising activity continuously and needs the tacit consent of the governed to make this effective. The civic contract operates as a discursive strategy, but relies on the implicit values of cultural norms that include and exclude. The reciprocal relationship between rulers and ruled that a democracy is based on must equally rely on high levels of trust and that trust lives parallel to a sense of solidarity. Solidarity is produced and reproduced when people have acquired the discourses that make mutual recognition within a community possible. Without this self-evidently cultural foundation democracy is difficult to sustain.
This proposition makes it clearer why a cultural Europe appears necessary for the deepening of the European project. At the same time, it also clarifies why movement in that direction is so difficult. Not only is such a dense European culture strongly contested and would cut across existing commitments to diversity, but it is hard to see the nation-state giving up what it has attained in this field unless compelled to do so. The most likely such compulsion is globalisation, but it would be hard to argue that globalisation as yet represents a threat powerful enough to impel the nation-state towards submerging itself in a wider European identity.

Central Europe and the EU

The enlargement of the European Union is now all but complete and the post-communist states of Central Europe have been promised full membership by 1 May 2004. Adjusting to EU requirements has transformed a wide range of activities in the post-communist world - in health and safety, for example, or environmental protection or the regulation of financial services. It has also upgraded state administrative and judicial capacity. Enlargement is already an economic, political and to a considerable degree legal reality. Increasingly it is also becoming a cultural reality - cultural in the widest sense - though this is where the most serious problems lie, both in Central Europe and in the West.

In brief, what seems to be happening is, that to a significant degree, the discourses needed to make the societies of the applicant states feel that they "own" EU membership have either not come into being at all or are being constructed only very partially. So far, there appears to be only a rather restricted understanding on the part of public opinion of what EU membership entails. Indeed, in several of the applicant countries, as accession approaches, so the enthusiasm for it declines, implying that the political-managerial Europe is itself a problem, presumably because as knowledge of the EU expands, it collides with existing assumptions about political norms.

The technical elites from Central Europe who have been directly involved in the negotiations with Brussels have rapidly and successfully absorbed the knowledge of European Union, of its meta-languages, its formal and informal modes of negotiation, the range of obligations and duties that the EU expects. The closing of the chapters has been an important learning experience for the Central European elites - a genuine reengagement with Europe and a socialisation into the EU's way of doing things.

But these forms of knowledge have not been transmitted to the opinion-forming elites in the various applicant countries - indeed, there has been considerable resistance to this transfer, not least because it would mean abandoning the forms of knowledge that have been constructed under post-communism and which have been central in maintaining the high status of these elites. What Zygmunt Bauman identified a decade ago as the liminal condition of post-communism, where elements of the old and new live side by side and different discourses do not really engage with one another,[1] not only persists, but does so because the opinion-forming elites in the public sphere have an interest in excluding new ideas and new entrants - change always devalues existing knowledge. They do this at least in part by actively resisting innovation in the public sphere through construction of the new discursive fields that owning the EU's discourses would signify. Crucially, for this integration of discourses to take place, the post-communist elites would have to accept a much stronger reciprocal relationship between themselves and society and thereby give up a good part of their legislative role,[2] the one that is legitimated by tradition as being "the conscience of the nation".

The consequence is that societies remain to a large degree ignorant of the broad picture of what EU membership will mean. They may be familiar with small parts of the picture, like the activities of EU teams that impose much stricter conditions on economic activity, but the proposition that this can have positive results tends to be overlooked. Indeed, there is still life in the exclusive sovereignty position, an "ourselves alone" attitude, that it is perfectly possible to run a country largely cut off from the rest of the world. The concept that member states of the EU do not regard each other as foreign, but as something like partners is a long way from being recognised at the elite and popular levels. Thus, by way of illustration, there is the Czech Republic's reluctance to accept that the operation of the nuclear power station at Temelin is not simply an internal affair but affects Austria and Germany too. There are now all-European concerns and within the EU, the very concept of "domestic affairs" has less and less meaning.

All this has certain consequences for Central Europe: entry into the EU will very likely produce a culture shock.[3] In some instances this will be articulated as nativism, xenophobia, rejection of the new - that which we like to survey with horrid fascination as the new radical right. Lepper and Csurka come to mind here. Matters are further exacerbated by globalisation, against the effects of which the EU offers certain protection, but does so at the cost of pooling local values, giving up local ways and local forms of knowledge.

The rejectionists have discovered further fuel for their beliefs by the way in which the accession negotiations with the Central Europeans have been handled by the EU. Put simply, these have been marked by a certain lack of evenhandedness, a lack of sympathy for the concerns of the applicant states. In effect, the EU has imposed the acquis communautaire on Central Europe and negotiations have been about detail and not principle. The metaphor of "joining a club" has been used to legitimate this. This metaphor, however, is flawed. It would be cogent only if there were other clubs that Central Europe could join, if there were a choice of clubs. In reality, there is no choice.

The EU has not taken into account a variety of factors specific to Central Europe and these could well generate unintended consequences that will affect the functioning of an enlarged European Union. Thus, to start with, it is well established that without a normative debate, ideas, rules, values or concepts are not internalised or integrated, just imposed.[4] Imposing rules rather than debating them produces compliance not consensus. Rules that are imposed will not be implemented in the spirit in which they were conceived, but subverted or ignored wherever possible. That was one of the lessons of communist domination. At the same time, the West has evolved certain paternalistic attitudes towards Central Europe, along the lines that the West knows best and that local discourses, procedures and values should be abandoned as negative. Correspondingly, there is a tacit attitude in the West that Central Europe has nothing useful to contribute to the construction of Europe. The most striking instance of this was the radical way in which East Germany was assimilated into West Germany.

Then, as the counterpart to this paternalism, Central Europe already has historical models of living with a one-sided relationship that can be summarised as the one that came into being through the engagement of the European Great Powers with small states of the region.[5] These have been encoded at a deep-cultural level and persist still. Thus there is no strong sense of agency, indeed there cannot be when choices are limited and preferences are regularly overridden. Hence the familiar discourses of "path-dependence", of "constraints", of "what they want to do with us". The absence of any alternative to the EU comes to create a sense of inevitability and fatalism which erode the Central European sense of self.

Third, one does not have to go as far as József Böröcz and his team, who argue - tellingly, they speak of EU "expansion" rather than "enlargement" - that what we are seeing is nothing more than a new form of colonialism.[6] Yet there is a disproportionate use of its power and prestige by the EU, something of which the EU is largely unaware and is inherent in the large state-small state relationship in Europe. The outcome is to reproduce the indeterminacy that has marked Central Europe since the coming of modernity.

Fourth, the small state-large state relationship is one that is overwhelmingly ignored in both the negotiations and, for that matter, the academic literature. This is a relationship that impacts on the small states of the West as well, though they come to it with a different historical experience from the post-communists. Small states have inherent difficulties in finding the recognition, status and parity of esteem that they feel is proper to any sense of cultural security, above all the security of their cultural reproduction. The large states of Europe are resentful and irritated when the problem of the small states arrives on the agenda, as was demonstrated by France at the Nice summit for example. All the large states - France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy - have been guilty of this kind of impatience, of this reluctance to understand that, while they may not have any problems with parity of esteem, the small states do.

Now, all the states of Central Europe are small, and this includes Poland, which though medium sized, is psychologically small, given its fragmented history (the Partitions, frontier shift, the destruction of Warsaw, the impact of communism). For the Central Europeans, membership of the European Union means far more than joining a common market. It is a form of recognition of self as equal members of a symbolic Europe - large states can ignore this proposition, but that will not make it go away.

When the European Union was constructed after 1945, it had a number of explicit objectives. As noted, ending for ever the possibility of war between France and Germany was one of these. This has worked brilliantly. Creating such a high degree of interdependence that conflicts have to be solved by negotiation was another. Securing the European welfare state and the transformation of the remnants of the rural population from peasant status to citizenship - one of Europe's greatest historical projects - was a third. There always was and remains a fourth aim: the creation of a space in which the security concerns (hard security, soft security) of the small states could be addressed, a space where the small states could feel safe.

Democracy and democratic theory, however, demand that those affected by power should have voice, that those wielding power should exercise self-limitation, that there should be mutual recognition in a reciprocal relationship and an understanding that obligations without representation is a recipe for trouble. In effect, there is a legitimate set of questions to be put here: has the West, by negotiating enlargement with the particular methods that it has employed, ended up by exporting the European Union's democratic deficit to Central Europe? Has the EU unwittingly contributed to conserving the liminal condition of post-communism? And how will all this change after the full membership of the applicant states?

A Central European Synthesis

The last point is about the nature of the voice that the Central Europeans might well use as members of EU. By and large, the cultural great powers of the West tend to take the view that they have an oligopoly of European discourses, though they will accept that the smaller Western European states can make an input. What is not being noticed is that though they are still small, there are voices coming out of Central Europe that are, paradoxically, closer to an all-European synthesis than anything coming out of the West.

This process is still at an early stage, but it has two dimensions. In the first place, the intellectual recovery from the Marxist-anti-Marxist paradigm is now observable. In the social sciences and humanities there has been a kind of fusion of the imported Western frameworks with the inherited ones. In effect, it is no longer possible to study the post-communist countries without a knowledge of the local language, because the quality of the domestic analyses has risen sufficiently to compel attention.

Then, something else is happening. Something along the lines of a synthesis is emerging from Central Europe, one that cannot be found in the West. Thus because Central Europe is at the margin of Europe, it finds that it must pay attention to what is happening intellectually throughout Europe. Furthermore, the legacy of the Baroque, of Counter-Reformation thought, lives on in Central Europe and a key element in this is the imperative of establishing an integrated vision of the world. Thus it follows that Central European thinking will cast its net as far and as widely as it can, will seek to take on all the possible approaches that can be absorbed in order to ensure that all structures are explored and all the interconnections are made. Hence Central Europeans, if they wish to be taken seriously by their own peers, will necessarily absorb the Anglo-Saxon, the German and the French literature, and sometimes the Russian and/or Italian as well. This is quite exceptional in the West.[7]

The hegemony of Anglo-Saxon methodologies is not complete, far from it, but it is rare for British and American writers to rely on both French and German thought. There are always a few names, like Foucault or Habermas, who have been received, but it stops there. Russianists will be familiar with Bakhtin, but will seldom be in a position to compare his writings with those of Foucault, say. What I am suggesting here is that this kind synthesis is not so extraordinary in Central Europe, in particular the impact of German ideas is much greater than in the US or UK, and the reception is not so narrow. It may be audacious to argue this, but if the next vision of the future of Europe will come from Central Europe, then this kind of synthesis will play a part in the process.

In conclusion, then, the picture is complex. The EU is currently engaged in trying to establish a new institutional structure that will allow it to function with its new member states, but it is doing so without much input from these new members. Central Europe will enter the EU with its cultural capital barely changed to meet the needs of membership, with the likely result that there will be friction between them and the existing EU members as their different discourses collide. One consequence is that while in theory the Central European discourses can be readily accommodated in Europe, as the existing members are looking to condense their discourses, the Central European approaches will be marginalised. At the same time, the states of South-Eastern Europe will be left excluded from the EU, unless major innovation in institutional frameworks, attitudes and approaches are formulated. A South-Eastern Europe excluded from the European mainstream is nothing new, but it will not contribute to stability.

George Schöpflin
Jean Monnet Professor of Politics
Director, Centre for the Study of Nationalism
University of London


[1]Bauman, Zygmunt 'After the Patronage State: a Model in Search of Class Interests', in (eds.) Christopher Bryant and Edmund Mokrzycki, The New Great Transformation (Routledge, 1994), pp.14-35. On liminality, roughly definable as a state of "in-betweennness", see van Gennep, Arnold The Rites of Passage (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1960) and Turner, Victor The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995).
[2] Bauman, Zygmunt Legislators and Interpreters (Cambridge: Polity, 1987).
[3] Some of these issues are explored in Schöpflin, George (ed.) The Westward Enlargement of Central Europe (London: British Council and SSEES, 2000),
[4] Douglas, Mary Risk and Blame: Essays in Cultural Theory (London: Routledge, 1992).
[5] Glenny, Misha, The Balkans 1804-1999: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers (London: Granta, 1999) argues this for South-Eastern Europe; there are structural similarities with respect to Central Europe.
[6] Böröcz, József (editor), Empire's New Clothes: Unveiling EU Enlargement http// (2001).
[7] Some examples of work of this kind are taken in this instance from syntheses published in Hungary, but there are analogues elsewhere in Central Europe. A very random sample of such works would include Némedi Dénes, Társadalomelmélet-elmélettörténet (Budapest: Új Mandátum, 2000), Hankiss, Elemér Az emberi kaland: egy civilizació-elmélet vázlata (Budapest: Helikon, 1997), Bókay Antal, Irodalomtudomány a modern és a posztmodern korban (Budapest: Osiris, 2001), Boglár Lajos A kultúra arcai: mozaikok a kultúrális antropológia köréből (Budapest: Napvilág, 2001) and Lánczi András, Demokrácia és politikatudomány (Budapest: Aula, 2000).

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