The Construction of European Identity: What Is The Role of the European Union?


European Identity is considered as the main purpose to achieve for the European Union (EU). In order to achieve that, many policies have followed regarding the EU’s structure since its beginning until today. It is significant to convene under the same identity within the EU root for the future and perpetuity of the organization. Besides that, the differences in society and culture of the EU member states, disinterest of the citizens against policies, and commitment to their own national identities has posed an obstacle to create the common “European identity’’ and “Europeanness’’ consciousness.

Keywords: European identity, Europeanness, the European Union, common identity.


Identity represents the place of the people or groups in the world. It reveals the unique sides of them and determines the distinctive features. They adopt their characteristics as identity and it led to formation of “others” which can be turned into a policy determinant. In this context, the EU emphasizes the importance of common European identity and its contribution to integration of Europe. Historical background of Europe has contributed to this process. With certain purposes, the EU organization has tried to settle the EU on a durable ground and has shaped its policies towards building the European identity. Without a doubt, there are some reasons that make this process more difficult such as having already national identities of citizens which are more significant to adopt and protect for them and structure of member states’ system. In this research paper, it will be discussed what the efforts of the EU are in order to create the European identity and what the failures and success are in this process. The first part of this study defines the identity concept based on its main components and it focuses on its formation process. The second part concentrates on the historical background of this process which has contributed to determine the common values of European identity and gives information about the establishment process of the EU. The last part explains the efforts of the EU in order to form European consciousness and discusses its policies with failures and successes.

Identity Concept and its Formation

“Identity” refers to sustained and fundamental value belonging to an individual or a group which constitutes distinctive features for them. It provides to separate people or groups from other ones. When identity determines the unique factors of an individual or a group, it also results in creation of the “others”. Identity consists of the similar features of the individual and groups, and also their differences from others, so it represents the integrity of those similarities and differences. In addition, there will be a consciousness on generating an identity. This consciousness helps to perceive the existence of identity. It can be said that identity is not an objective matter, but there are also common things that are shared by individuals or groups which constitutes identity consciousness. If this consciousness will not constitute;  identity does not exist (Şen, 2004: 5).

The process of identity formation cannot constitute by individuals or groups themselves. It is formed with the other ones or against others in a social process. Thus, identity is a concept which is not meaningful without a society. There must be a belonging sentiment to feel as a part of an identity. It can be given to people with their birth, so they can have identity naturally but it does not mean all identities belong to us forever. Some people can change their identities depending on its characteristics. For example, their religion or national status can be replaced with former ones. In addition, we witnessed that certain identities had outshined against others in some societies regarding the historical processes (Kılıç, 2019: 5-6)

Identity understanding was converted through historical processes. It has been newly emerged as a concern of politics or political sociology field, but it is considered as a social status from the ancient times. After the beginning of neo-liberal process in the 1980s, identity concepts came into a more complicated condition in societies due to the great migration waves. Identity concept was grazed from its limited definition based on citizenship and expanded its concerns to gender, race and ethnic categories (Alpan, 2015: 10).

Construction of European Identity with Historical Processes

1. Ancient Times and Rising Christianity with the Roman Empire

‘Europe’ had been used as a name since the ancient times in order to determine a geographical area including all Greek territories. Greeks and following the Roman Empire did not define themselves as “Europeans”. Greeks had not a common culture as a whole, but they had an impact on Modern Europe with their education, policy, social, and economic culture understanding. Romans also played an important role in the constitution of European culture in modern times with their secular thought understanding. Both civilizations saw the other societies as barbarian and, so they had created the “other”. It is considered as the fundamental of the view in which the Europeans see the others today (Tekin, 2007: 12).

Religion factor is another significant impact on shaping common European identity. With Christianity, there was religious identity in Europe. Europe defined themselves as being Christian and had great pride in it all time, but they did not respect it the same way to other societies. They ascribed the barbarian who is not Christian, because they are not from them. Thus, Christianity integrated to Europeans and it is a sign that means further from just a religion. The Roman Empire aimed to constitute Christian community including the whole Europe and adopt the belief and living regarding the Christianity. During the 5th and 6th centuries, other religions were forbidden and disabled by the Roman Empire. The Roman Catholic Church strengthened its domain against kingdoms in Europe. The kingdoms disturbed from its weakening position and claimed that there must be a separated administration between earthly and numinous systems. This discussion led to the emergence of the conflict between the power and church that would remain for a thousand years. This conflict ended with the age of Enlightenment. Today, even if it can be seen that the impact of the religion factor decreased compared with former times, this is an undeniable fact that the majority of the member countries to European Union is Christian. Religion represents the fundamental of a common culture for Europeans, and an important accelerator component of the membership process to the EU. Islam has been always perceived as “other” by the Christianity (Aksoy, 2020: 29).

2. The Age of Enlightenment

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Europe witnessed the great change with the upheavals of the Renaissance and Reformation movements. This era was named as transition to the New Age from the Middle Age which had been seen as “dark age”. After this transition, the Christian unity divided into two as the Catholics and the Protestants. The hegemon of the church and “Christian Community” ideas were declined in the continent and replaced with the idea of “European Nation States System’’. Renaissance movements which had started in Italy, paved the way to meet and get close with the new cultures who are not Christian due to commercial activities. This contributed to the secular and modern structure of new Europe. After the Reformation process, the church was also shaped as today’s form. Papacy separated from governing and started to work as just a religious organization (Alganer & Çetin, 2007: 290).

The Age of Enlightenment came up in the 18th century with the effects of the Renaissance and Reformation. Today, Europe has risen over the common modern values, and it owes to the Enlightenment and following evolutions brought by this era. These values are mostly based on the individuals’ rights which bring them liberty and equality in democratic process. After the French Revolution in 1789, which is mostly associated with the Enlightenment, the aim to eliminate social unrest led to major uprisings in France and after this condition, these new concepts were brought into the European system. Its concerns shifted to modern understanding from religious one. (Bristow, 2020).

3. Establishment of the European Economic Community and Transition to European Union

After the Enlightenment period, there was rivalry between the nation states and it caused the nationalist movements. These activities were an obstacle against the integrity of Europe and the European Economic Community (EEC) can be considered as a political formation that was established in order to prevent this conflict in 1957. When this community was established, it was expected that economic attempts will consolidate the progress in political, social and cultural areas. The community was managed by the political elites, bureaucrats and the leaders of the member countries. In this process, Europeans’ belonging sense and relations were expected to be increased again, but it has failed. The EEC had attempts also in integration of political extent in the 1970s. In the Copenhagen Summit, nine member countries decided to make a declaration about European Identity. The declaration highlighted the common European civilization and values. Moreover, the Solemn Declaration emphasized the “Europeanness’’ consciousness and the requirement of progress on studies of European history and culture. These processes enabled political integrity and the EEC changed its name as the European Community first, and then it gained its last form named European Union in 1992 with the Maastricht Treaty (Tekin, 2007: 25-26).

Contribution of the European Union to Creating European Identity

Today, the EU is one of the biggest economic and political organizations in the world. It has been transformed into a peace and permanence project based on the concepts such as liberty, interdependency, democracy and human rights. When the European Community replaced its name with the European Union, discussions on the possibility of creating a European identity, and concepts of “Common Europe Cultural Heritage’’, “European Society’’, “European Citizenship’’ appeared in the continent. In the process of European identity formation, the nation-state model has still played an important role. Europe is composed of nation-states, so each EU member has various nationalities and cultures regarding their historical background. Every member determines their place in the EU in a different way, and their national identity surpasses their EU identity despite the integration efforts. Their commitment to their own states obstructs to form the European identity. The EU tries to create more homogenous Europe through constructing similar family structures, secular understanding, tolerance, cultural diversity and individual rights and liberties in all EU member states. This understanding will both facilitate the adoption of a common European identity for all members and enable to increase the respectability of the EU in the international arena (Akdemir, 2012: 193-196).

The main necessity on the road to achieve European identity was a “constitution’’ to make the European people a part of the EU. It could build the commitment to a common culture and image the European identity with the components of the constitution. For this purpose, the European Convention prepared a draft Treaty for a Constitution of Europe in 2003 and presented it to European Council. It was signed in 2004 by political figures of the member states. However, it was not ratified according to results of plebiscites in France and Holland. Thus, efforts on establishment of a European Constitution did not reach a success (Kaygısız & Ünal Sakallı, 2016: 703). It was too hard to convene under the common political culture with different societies which have various ethnic and religious characteristics. In this context, migration activities and people coming from other countries of the world contributed to construction of European identity. They bring new cultures and identity factors to European society and it enables to maintain progress on political culture based on constitutional principles. Their connections with European citizens result in acceptance of cultural pluralism. In this way, there will be a chance to live with other cultures and it will accelerate the European identity process. Nevertheless, the fact that there are two identities of Europe, which are European and national, make it hard to feel as having European identity totally. In order to integrate in economics and politics, people have to internalize a common identity based on Europeanness. Therefore, the EU has made an effort to aim to form European identity since its establishment (Akdemir, 2012: 197-198).

The European Union’s first formal attempt on European identity issues was the declaration about the European identity which was prepared in1973 Copenhagen Summit. The declaration focused on the European identity including different cultures based on democratic values and rule of law. The EU supported social, economic and political unity within its system. In this context, it concentrated on the policies of European history, culture and the EU constitution. They supported the television shows related with the European common cultural relations and created the syllabus on schools that is aimed to revive the Europeanness consciousness. It will enable the formation of European citizens which possess the European identity sense. In order to develop the common EU culture and guarantee that it is adopted by European people, they created the EU flag and national anthem, and determine a special Europe Day (09 May). The common EU identity cards have been given to the EU citizens. The exchange programs in education such as the EU Socrates, Leonardo da Vinci and Erasmus were established in order to provide students to meet with different cultures. Cultural activities organized within the scope of Culture 2000 Programme until 2006 from 2000 such as “European Culture Capitals’’ and “Europe Common Heritage Days’’. Moreover, free movement and employment policies were supported with the intent of consolidating social interaction between Europeans. The EU citizens could settle other EU countries from their own countries. It created an environment where European identity is meaningful to belong. EU countries removed their border controls to other EU citizens and the common passport that is used by them contributes to the common identity consciousness. Euro was determined as common currency and commercial activities has become widespread and easier than ever. The developments widened to social community activities like sport and art. The UEFA Champions League and Eurovision Song Contest also has contributed to this integrity. The subsidiarity principle that is accepted by the EU forces member countries to comply with certain common policies (Tekin, 2007: 27-30).

At the Helsinki Summit in 1999, European Council made progress on “European Security and Defense Policy’’. Thus, European identity was also aimed to be shaped at the common foreign policy. It shows that the EU is not formed around just common cultural or economic interests, but also security interest. The Helsinki Summit was also a turning point in Turkey-EU relations. Turkey applicant for EU membership has accepted the Council (Turkey and relations with the European Union, 2020). It can be interpreted as toleration of the EU against other countries from different geographies which have different cultures or religions. The applicant of Turkey, it has emphasized that any country could not be excluded from the EU. Democratic structure of countries determined as standard considered them as “others’’ by the EU. Therefore, it can be justified the “others’’ definitions in the eyes of the EU in this way. Unlike, this understanding may provoke the discussions of radical groups in Europe (Tekin, 2007: 31). After 9/11 attacks, othering process has accelerated a lot especially against the Muslim countries. Mostly because of the USA’s discourse, the EU system has also been affected by this crisis and shifted its policy towards exclusion of Islamic countries (Kaygısız & Ünal Sakallı, 2016: 704).

Within all these mentioned policies of the EU, common education policies find less approval due to differences in the education system of member countries. In addition, media sectors have organized at the national level in countries, and lack of common mass media create another dimension for this European identity issue. Political parties also cannot organize around the common interest of the EU. According to the Maastricht Treaty, democracy, equality, rule of law and human rights were determined as the common values of Europe. Although it is not enough to create European identity, the rule of European Union was built on these components. The Maastricht Treaty also highlighted EU citizenship, but it was also accepted then in the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty that this identity would not replace national identity. The right to elect and to be elected is another emphasis concern of the EU. At the same time, the low participation rate in the most important elections of the EU, the European Parliament elections, is a conspicuous condition. This tendency shows that there is still not a political culture in Europe and European citizens are disinterested on this issue (Tekin, 2007: 29-30). Therefore, it seems that the formation of European identity process is not exactly maintained and completed as expected.


The European Union emerged as an economic community and has become one of the biggest political organizations in the world. There are so many elements that are tried to be protected and maintained such as democracy, human rights and rule of law. These determinants have been constructed with the historical process in the continent. Since the time that it was established, the EU’s main aim is to integrate based on these values under the same European identity and other countries which do not have these values are excluded by the EU. This othering process is another dimension of constituting European identity and it forms the EU’s foreign policy. It was so important to become a unit with all EU citizens due to having different cultures and national identities, so the EU has worked on this purpose from its beginning. Their attempts and exercises on shaping European identity have seemed to be success at first, but it could not help to progress on this issue. The main reasons to have failed is that the EU member states’ mixed culture and strong commitment of citizens to their national identities. Today, power of the nation-states is rising despite the EU efforts, so it can be said that the common European identity will stay as a dream of the EU.


Uluslararası Örgütler Staj Programı


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Kılıç, A. (2019). Avrupa Kimliği İnşa Süreci ve Türkiye – AB İlişkileri. (Yüksek Lisans Tezi). Ankara: Başkent Üniversitesi Avrupa Birliği ve Uluslararası İlişkiler Enstitüsü.

Şen: (2004). Avrupa Birliği’nde Kimlik Sorunu. (Yüksek Lisans Tezi). Ankara: Ankara Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü.

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