Loved or Hated: On the polarized appreciation of the European Union

By Nikki Ikani | 17 December 2012

To quote this document: Nikki Ikani, “Loved or Hated: On the polarized appreciation of the European Union”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 17 December 2012,, displayed on 22 March 2023


Some Americans like the saying: America, love it or leave it. According to this article, the EU has a wholly different mantra going on. The EU suffers from what I intend to call the ‘love it or hate it syndrome’. Media, politicians and the public seem to either be frantically Europhile, or distinctly Eurosceptic. Meanwhile, a more nuanced version seems nowhere to be found. This article posits that as long as loving or hating stands in the way of reasoning on the Union, the EU will be unable to move forward. What is needed is the acknowledgement that there is no singular European identity with which we can all associate ourselves, which does not mean that there are no European identities at all.

It could not have been more awkward. While firebombs and tear gas were filling the streets of Athens, while general strikes were bringing transport to a halt in Spain and Portugal and while demonstrators were trying to break through armored cars in Rome, the European Union was nominated as the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.  On December the 10th, President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy, President of the Commission Manuel Barroso and head of the European Parliament Martin Schulz collected the peace prize granted to the EU for fostering peace on a continent that has struggled with war and destruction for centuries. The decision sparked very different reactions: on the one hand there was the wide spread criticism that the EU, mishandling the financial crisis and tightening its grip on Greece, did not deserve such a laudation. As was to be expected, the highly EU skeptical newspaper The Economist could not wait to crush the Nobel Committee’s decision, gibing at the EU as it quoted Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party: “This goes to show that the Norwegians really do have a sense of humour. The EU may be getting the booby prize for peace because it sure hasn't created prosperity. The EU has created poverty and unemployment for millions.” On the other hand, there are the Europhiles, Europe-loving newspapers and students in European Affairs, who could not help but rejoice over the recognition of this ‘triumph of peace’.  A nuanced, middle-of-the-road assessment was nowhere to be found.

How did this happen?

Since the 1990s, debates on Europe have become less identity-oriented and more focused on technical issues and institutions. Throughout Europe, national press and broadcasters remain predominant over pan-European or international broadcasters. Moreover, it seems that Europe appears in the national media only when it serves a certain national agenda: fighting over the Constitution, the mismanagement of the financial crisis, etc. The EU does not matter to most citizens, and if it does, it does so in a negative way. An explanation could be a lack of a common European identity.

According to philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762) and Max Weber (1946), without identity there can be no durable legitimacy for a certain political entity. How would such an identity be formed on a European level? Without a social contract of any kind, without identity, the EU cannot justify the political integration, nor have any authority to enforce its power. Much of the national media and politicians, however, base their assumption on a lack of European identity on the citizens’ resistance to either further integration (in the case of Turkey for example) or to financial assistance to other European countries in need (Greece, Spain, Italy). This leaves the bigger picture of  European identity ill-explained.

A lack of a common identity, however, does not fully explain why in parallel, a certain ‘European elite’ seems to have monopolized the European identity. This elite, to be found in schools such as The College of Europe or Sciences Po, but primarily in the European diplomatic community in ‘Brussels’ is completely taken in by the process of Europeanization, while the average man in the street feels disconnected from this European project. This is due to two phenomena, described by Inglehart in 1970. Firstly, there has been a process of cognitive mobilization: certain European citizens, through their access to political parties, education, European programs like Erasmus or media, have developed their capacity to receive and interpret messages related to the EU. Secondly, these groups have started to internalize the values of the EU, which have become less threatening due to their increased knowledge of them. Now one should be careful with this notion of cognitive mobilization: it is by no means implied here that the higher the education, the better the image one has of Europe. But what did happen is that due to the increasing dominance of European and global networks of wealth, power and information, a certain ‘European elite’ has become disconnected from local societies.

European identity and national identity

National identities may prevail in Europe, they may not be as natural as they seem. Manuel Castells (2004) argues the institutionalization of identity in the state has historically been a selective process. In each community he argues, the social alliances and their political expressions have been specific and corresponding to the power relationships existing in the territory, and its specific economic structure. In other words, dominant elites and identities are often reinforced by the state, while social groups who are not represented on the state level are being deprived of it and isolated. Jürgen Habermas (2001) makes a similar argument, stating that the history of European nation states has been a sequence of painful processes of abstraction of ‘solidarity among strangers’. What constructs the French identity of today, for example, is not necessarily the identity all French feel. Similarly, the birth of a European identity, the construction of a European political culture shared by all European citizens, is not  that different, or less difficult than the birth of national identities. A consequence that the EU has witnessed is the penetration of the political system and the media by symbolical politics: single-issue mobilizations and support for easy, populist solutions. These movements “all challenge current processes of globalization, on behalf of their constructed identities, in some instances claiming to represent the interests of their country, or of humankind, as well” (Castells, 2004, 166).

Cultivating identity

In March of this year, the European Parliament presented plans to cultivate a European identity. Klaus Welle, the secretary general of the European Parliament, stated, "If we want to build a lasting union of solidarity, we also need to invest in European identity. We need to understand history as European history and not just as compilation of national histories." An exhibition center on European identity has been opened, and in 2014 a European ‘House of History’ will open its doors. But can a Europe-wide identity actually take root in a time when inequality between European nations has become a permanent structural feature? I would like to argue that a legitimization of sharp European values is hard to achieve when the asymmetries of Europe are as contrasting as they are now. It is not difficult to guess the Greek perception of “co-European” Germany, or vice versa. A House of History is not likely to change that.

Singular and multiple identities

The problems arising when thinking of a European identity bring us back to the media. In a time when Internet interconnects our world, the media still has an important role in generating and maintaining a shared political community, as Habermas argued. In order for this to happen, the media need to step out of their black-and-white pro-European versus anti-European stances. Suggesting that the EU is the greatest thing since bread came sliced is just a off the mark as stating that the EU is the cause for all your troubles. This may sound caricaturized, but such portrayals are at the heart of the media-reality we live in today.

What is important to realize for both the media as well as for EU decision-makers is that there is no singular European identity, just as there is no singular national identity. This is what Amartya Sen argued in his work Identity and Violence in 2006. A person can be the bearer of multiple identities at the same time. The importance of one identity therefore does not need to obliterate the importance of others. Hereby, Sen responds to the ‘singular-affiliation view’, the presumption that any person belongs to one group and one group only. Sen warns for a narrow conceptualization of culture as merely religion, and for fatalism about the dominating power of it. Other things, such as class, race, gender, profession and politics also matter, and matter powerfully. He propagates that if we were to see the bigger picture of our multitude of identities, we will be able to resist polarization.

Thinking is easy, acting is difficult

It needs to be said that the ‘wisdom’ of acknowledging multiple identities is not that obvious. What Sen presents as being a choice not to choose, is not that straightforward. If one perceives for example the British identity as being singular, then the rise of a non-British, European power becomes a threat to it. Identity politics, rising in support throughout Europe, thus thrives by the notion of a singular identity, and reinforces this notion. This makes the case for the acknowledgement of multiple identities even more stringent.  And it is exactly this feature that is needed in the public appreciation of Europe. The European Union should embrace the multiple identities of its citizens, in order to move forward and keep evolving. As for the media, what would be best is that instead of a priori criticizing the EU’s achievements, the analyses of EU actions and outcomes should be based purely on their merits. Stating that the EU has too many leaders; or is a many-headed, undemocratic, Kafkaesque beast is not just plain, unoriginal, but also old news. In order for European citizens to interpret and receive complex messages on what the EU does, media should take up its role of putting things into perspective.

To go further

To read

  • Castells, Manuel. The Power of Identity: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Habermas, Jürgen. 2001. “Why Europe Needs a Constitution.” New Left Review 11 (October): 5–26.
  • Inglehart, Ronald. 1970. “Cognitive Mobilization and European Identity.” Comparative Politics: 45–70.
  • Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1994. “On the Genealogy of Morality” and Other Writings. Ed. Keith Ansell Pearson. Trans. Carol Diethe. New York.
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1762. Du Contrat Social, Ou, Principes Du Droit Politique. Amsterdam: Marc-Michel Rey.
  • Sen, Amartya. 2006. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Weber, Max. 1946. Selected Works. New York: Oxford University Press.

Source photo: © Nikki Ikani