There Are No “Europeans”

The problem with Europe may not be the Euro, but the fact that there really aren't any Europeans.

At the risk of finding myself sounding like Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum when they discuss Palestinians, I find myself largely agreeing with Gareth Harding’s assertion that Europe as a united entity of any kind has always been largely a myth:

The European Union was built on the myth that we are one people with one common destiny — an “ever closer union,” in the words of the 1957 Treaty of Rome that founded what was then called the European Economic Community. We are now discovering that regional and national differences are not dissolving and that Europeans think and act very differently from one another. The British view of the state’s role is very different from the French view. The Greek or Italian concept of law is very different from that of Sweden or Denmark. Latvians have a very different view of Russia from Germans. What an Irishman is prepared to pay in taxes is very different from what a Dane or Belgian will allow.

This lack of unity is Europe’s third and most profound crisis, one that underlies the continent’s economic and political woes. Most Europeans have little idea what the EU stands for in the world, what binds its people together, where it has come from in the past, and where it is going in the future. After more than 60 years of EU integration, 200,000 pages of legislation, and a hefty (and still growing) stack of treaties, we have succeeded in building a European Union without European

Harding goes on to note that he came to this realization in part because of his inability to answer what would seem to be a rather simple question from one of his students – “What is a European?” If that question were posed to an American, it wouldn’t be that hard to come up with. The answer might vary depending on whether you’re asking a college professor or a businessman, or whether the person lived in the urban metropolises of the Northeast or a small town in the Midwest, but I think it’s fair to say that there is at least a general agreement about what it means to be an American, even among people who disagree politically. Harding, however, discovered an ability to do the same thing:

The question from one of my students should have been easy enough for me to answer. After all, I was born in Wales and have lived in continental Europe — Oslo, Prague, and Brussels — for most of the last 25 years. I’ve traveled to every EU country except Malta. I speak a handful of European languages and studied European history and politics at university. I have worked in the European Commission and European Parliament. My best friends are Dutch, German, Slovak, and Swedish. My partner is French, and my children are bilingual. Unlike some recent U.S. presidents, I know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia. If anyone should be European, or at least know what constitutes one, I should.

Yet I found myself stuttering and stammering as I searched for an answer. I waffled for a bit about European values — freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law — but didn’t convince myself, let alone the class.

“European fundamental values are sacred,” Jan Peter Balkenende, then Dutch prime minister, said in 2004. When it came to actually defining those values, however, he was fuzzier, admitting, “We have been discussing the idea of Europe for the last 1,200 years, but we cannot grasp what it means.” That’s the problem: Values matter because they are the glue that binds countries and peoples together. They help define what a society stands for and against.

American values are clearly and succinctly defined in the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution, which most American schoolchildren have to study and some senators carry in their back pockets. The European Union, on the other hand, has no constitution, and its Charter of Fundamental Rights only became legally binding in 2009. The nearest thing the EU has to a founding document is an almost impenetrable legalistic treaty that has been amended six times since the 1957 signing of the Treaty of Rome. The latest incarnation of the EU’s rule book, the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon, commits the union to values such as free speech, democracy, and sustainable development. No wonder it is hard to disagree with American journalist Christopher Caldwell, who wrote in his provocative 2009 book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, “There is no consensus, not even the beginning of a consensus, about what European values are.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that it’s not at all easy to erase national identity, or the differences between peoples of various nations, and replace them with some kind of new transnational identity, especially when those national and ethnic identities have existed for thousands of years. In the United States, it took roughly a century for a true national identity to overcome regional loyalties that had only begun to develop in the late 17th Century at the earliest and even today there remain real cultural differences between north and south, east and west. In Europe, the Soviets and the Nazis discovered that even brutal force wasn’t enough to wipe out national identities, including those that had been repressed by the Russian Empire for centuries. If force couldn’t do it, is it really all that surprising that a legalistic treaty and a ‘government’ dominated by bureaucrats can’t do it either?

As Harding points out, there were many in Europe who speculated that the increased integration that the introduction of the Euro would bring about would lead to the creation of a new European nationalism, especially among younger generations. It seems hard to believe, though, that something as mundane as a currency unit could create the kind of common culture that they were dreaming of, and recent surveys seem to indicate it hasn’t happened yet:

In opinion polls, however, voters today consistently identify much more with their nation-states than with Europe. As Chris Patten, former European commissioner for external affairs, has said, “The nation is alive and well — more potent than ever in some respects…. It is the largest unit, perhaps, to which people will willingly accord emotional allegiance.” In fact, even the nation-state is too much for many Europeans. Europe has 16 more countries today than it had in 1988, thanks to the shattering of artificial states — the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. In Belgium, a country smaller than Maryland, there is such a vicious division between Flanders and Wallonia that until December there had been no government for well over 500 days — a world record.

The travails through which Europe is going are at least somewhat reminiscent of the early history of the United States, although the analogy if far from perfect and is subject to being stretched to far. Like Europe, however, the United States faced several crises in its early years that threatened to tear the nation apart, and nearly did on more than one occasions. The Articles of Confederation, for example, made the nation as a whole largely ungovernable and it’s hard to see how it would have stayed united for much longer had it not been for the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia producing the Constitution. Even after that, though, the birth pangs continued to produce divisions that could have led to danger from the birth of our political party system, to the divisions over the French Revolution, to the beginnings of the divisions between the mercantilist North and the agricultural South. During the War of 1812, opposition to the war in New England reached a point where secession was openly discussed, although rejected. And, of course, after the war, the disputes continued as trade policy and slavery became the issues on which the nation would divide itself for four more decades until a war had to be fought. And all of this happened in a country, as I’ve said, where regional identities had only begun to form a century or two before.

Comparing that history to the present day, we see Europe going through yet another crisis and it’s not an easy one. Fixing it is likely to require unified action by a number of parties acting in the interests of a common Europe. The problem may well be, though, that people don’t really think there’s a common Europe at the moment.

Harding closes his must-read piece with the argument that the crisis in the Euro Zone isn’t really just about money and debt, it’s about whether there really is a European identity anymore, or if there ever was:

Shortly before the launch of euro coins and notes in January 2002, Duisenberg, the European Central Bank president, mused, “The euro is much more than just a currency; it is a symbol of European integration in every sense of the word.” He was right, but not in the way he might have hoped. A decade on, the plight of the embattled euro seems to encapsulate a broader breakdown of Europe’s dreams of a united future. Rather than bringing the European Union closer to its citizens, the currency has widened the gap between rulers and ruled. Instead of ushering in a new era of prosperity, the euro has condemned millions of Europeans to decades of penury. And far from bringing together the peoples of Europe, it is on the verge of tearing them apart.

If there is no European identity, then the question of what Germany is willing to do to save the PIIG countries, for example, is more of an accounting exercise and a question of what is in Germany’s interests than about helping to save “Europe,” whatever it is that might be at this point. Similarly, for the Greeks, it seems as the Europe is increasingly seen as a far away place that is forcing decades of austerity upon them while the Eurocrats live the high life in Brussels. That’s not exactly a recipe for unity. In the end, it may be that Europe is discovering that you cannot create a national identity out of whole cloth and graft it on top of  more than a thousand years of history.

H/T: Andrew Sullivan

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Europe, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    I think we have discovered that there are no Iraqis either.

  2. Marian Wirth says:

    As a European, I herewith certify that you don’t sound like Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. At least not as far as Europe is concerned.

  3. Tano says:

    t I think it’s fair to say that there is at least a general agreement about what it means to be an American, even among people who disagree politically

    And what would that look like Doug?

    I don’t find Europeans to be any less identifiable than Americans. Indeed, “American” is a more heterogeneous concept that “European”, given that the latter seems to be entailed within the former.

  4. Gustopher says:

    There are also no Christians — the beliefs of the Catholics, Baptists and Lutherans are all wildly different. And Mormons are even further from the pack.

    The umbrella term “Christian” means basically nothing.

  5. Iguana Mom says:

    I think you should post this on stormfront, also tell them there is no such thing as “The White Race.”

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Spain is an artificial construct as are nearly all of the European countries. My wife is from Mallorca (the largest of the Balearic Islands off the Mediterranean coast of Spain). Catalonia is autonomous and most Catalans would just as soon break away all together. If Spain has trouble holding together, what chance has Europe?

  7. ponce says:

    How nice of Doug to dredge up the writings of a British fringe right ranter for us.

    Special Ed at Hot Air on vacation or something?

    Suggested follow on piece: “There are no Americans!”

  8. michael reynolds says:

    All of these constructs are artificial. Italian is a catch-all term describing dozens of peoples. Those groups are themselves catch-alls for smaller sub-groups, endlessly re-shuffled by history. In the modern era, at least in the western world, where religions and ideologies and culture cross all the lines, the lines stop meaning much of anything.

    Describe “American,” then describe, “Canadian.” Now describe “Mississipian” and “Californian.” You’ll find bigger gaps between those latter two than between the two nations. Just as you’ll find larger differences between Sicilians and Milanese than you will between Swedes and Norwegians.

    Of course it’s hard to describe “European,” because the entire taxonomy of human division is artificial and too often nothing but a convenient means to justify hostility and war. We are homo sapiens. That term actually means something.

  9. @michael reynolds:

    Trying to deny the importance of nationalism, especially when based on long-standing history, and believe you can create a new national identity merely be signing a few treaties and printing some pretty currency strikes me as the ultimate technocratic delusion

  10. ponce,

    Ad hominem attacks are usually indicative of someone who cannot counter the argument presented. And I was unaware that the University Missouri School of Journalism is a “British fringe right” outlet.

  11. ponce says:

    Ad hominem attacks are usually indicative of someone who cannot counter the argument presented. And I was unaware that the University Missouri School of Journalism is a “British fringe right” outlet.

    What argument is Gareth Harding, speechwriter to right wing British politicians, making, Doug?

    That somehow an Italian and a German have less in common than an Alaskan and a Floridian?

    That’s dumb even by the low, low standards of right wing blogging.

  12. michael reynolds says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    I don’t deny that people define themselves that way. But of course if all we’re talking about is self-definition — my point — then that definition is obviously changeable over time. Witness every nation in Europe, each of which was, at one point or another, drastically re-defined. Even the Brits are the children in many cases of Normans who had decided to consider themselves Frenchmen despite the fact that Frenchmen thought they were Danes.

  13. @ponce:

    The fact that you care not to understand the argument is your choice, ponce

  14. @michael reynolds:

    Yes, over time many things are changeable. Harding notes that perhaps his daughter’s generation will be the beginning of that change. The question, really, is whether a “united” Europe as we’ve come to know it lasts that long. As I noted, there were several points in the early history of the United States when survival as a united entity was in doubt. We survived, whether this “new” Europe will, or whether the Europeans even want it to, remains to be seen.

  15. ponce says:

    The fact that you care not to understand the argument is your choice, ponce

    Speaking of lazy right wing blogging.

    If I had my choice, the Confederacy would not be part of the United States, but there’s not much I can do about it.

    The EU was no more “built on a myth” that America was.

  16. ponce,

    Again. You. Do. Not. Understand.

    The point isn’t whether “European” or “American” is a myth. They both were at the beginning. The question is whether this European experiment can survive the fact that it is still at the point where there is enough of a “European” identity to get people to act in the interests of a unified entity. As I noted, the United States faced the same questions in its infancy and it took almost 100 years to resolve. Given that the world seems to be moving a far faster pace than it did in the 19th Century, I’m not sure Europe has century. So far, it isn’t going so well.

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    The EMU was foisted on the peoples of Europe by a government/business elite which saw an opportunity to gain wealth and power. Recall how Ireland was subjected to referenda until the power brokers got the answer they wanted, then the matter was considered closed. Germany itself played a key role in bullying a number of peripheral nations into the club and benefited handsomely at their expense over the following decade. Now the goal is to hammer the countries it buried in debt to rescue the people who issued it, an effort that will end in failure. The only question is how much pain debtor nations will choose to endure before the inevitable revolt.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    The interesting question to me is whether going forward any of these divisions necessarily needs to survive. Do they have any particular usefulness in business, in production, in creation? They’re really only useful for limiting redistribution, regulation, the passing of minor laws (we all agree on the big laws) and now-obsolete forms of war — conquest, plunder.

    If we reconcile the differences of Californians and Utahans within one polity, why shouldn’t we be able to do the same with the US, UK, ANZ, Germany and France? We all agree on the essentials — in favor of freedom, against murder, don’t let the poor starve. I’m not sure what the advantage would be aside from eliminating superfluous levels of government. (Granted, there’s Brussels to explain.)

  19. ponce says:

    So far, it isn’t going so well.

    “Experts” have been predicting the downfall of Europe for thousands of years.

    Do you enjoy the indignities visitors to America have to endure vs. the easy transit between EU member countries?

  20. @ponce:

    Nobody is predicting the downfall of “Europe,” merely questioning whether this experiment created by, as Ben Wolf notes above, elites and Eurocrats will actually survive.

  21. Ben Wolf says:

    @ponce: The very structure of the monetary union demonstrates Europeans were never prepared for unity. If they had been they would have created a fiscal tranfer union and thereby avoided the trade imbalances which are destroying the EMU now. There was no shortage of people telling them this was exactly the situation they would find themselves in, but the reality is those nations had no intention of surrendering their national identities. They weren’t ready and jumped the gun by several decades. That’s all there is to it.

  22. @michael reynolds:

    It’s a logical question, and obviously the ideal situation is one that reduces barriers to trade, travel, and exchange as much as possible. We’ve discovered over the past 50 or 60 years so that this is something that is much easier said than done. American Presidents have acted to protect the interests of American steel companies and farmers. Europeans have acted to protect the interests of European farmers.

    In reality, of course, free trade is a net good for the economy and for international peace. How you get there, though, is another question. This is why I find the criticism of people like Ron Paul to international trade agreements to be tiresome at times. Yes, it would best if we could just all agree to lower trade barriers and leave it at this. Political reality, though, means that there have to be negotiations, compromises, agreements, and boards that arbitrate disputes.

  23. ponce says:

    The very structure of the monetary union demonstrates Europeans were never prepared for unity.


    I think you are confusing the Eurozone with the European Union.

  24. Tano says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    So far, it isn’t going so well.

    I think it is going extraordinarily well.

    Take some perspective here. Yeah, the Euro is under some strain because the fiscal regulatory scheme is lagging behind the use of the single currency. It is a bit of a crisis, but it will be dealt with.

    Beyond that, you have an entire sub-continent that is coming off of a thousand years of inter-national warfare, and thousands of years of tribal warfare before that, but which is now totally at peace, with no effective borders, a largely free, continent-wide marketplace, and the free movement of citizens. All that in fifty years – unprecedented in human history. And none of all that seems to be in any danger.

    I know it is all the rage to trash-talk Europe, but I suggest you take a deeper look at things.

  25. Ben Wolf says:

    @ponce: Political union happens with adoption of a common currency and fiscal tranfer union. We disn’t start being american when the Constitution was ratified, we became americans when we all agreed to accept the dollar and gave the federal gvernment monopoly control. Now we call ourselves countrymen even with major cultural differences.

    When the EMU came into being its members were stating they were no longer French or German or Italian, but European. And yet they utterly failed to follow through because their voters were not prepared to truly accept what this entailed.

  26. ponce says:

    We disn’t start being american when the Constitution was ratified, we became americans when we all agreed to accept the dollar and gave the federal gvernment monopoly control.


    I think you have staked out a very lonely position there.

  27. peter says:

    Interestingly, I recently saw an interview of Umberto Eco who said exactly … the opposite. I.e. that there was a European identity but that you (if you are a “European”) had to go to another continent to realize it.
    From my personal experience I must say, having lived both in the UK and Germany, that there are much more similarities between these two countries than between the UK and the US.

    P.S: Have you ever lived in Europe, Doug?

  28. ponce,

    Actually I would say that Ben is being overly optimistic in his restatement of history. Our identity as a nation wasn’t really firmly set until it was paid for in blood on the battlefields of the Civil War.

  29. ponce says:

    Our identity as a nation wasn’t really firmly set until it was paid for in blood on the battlefields of the Civil War.


    Considering the history of countries like Egypt and China, let’s hope the Civil War is the biggest upheaval we’ll ever suffer through.

  30. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis: There’s some truth in that. What I’m saying is if you take away the dollar as a uniting force our country will dissolve overnight. We don’t have the social cohesion or a strong enough shared identity for it to survive.

  31. Ben,

    I think there’s more to national identity than just a common currency, but that’s certainly an important part. At the very least, the Europeans are proving that a common currency is a necessary but not sufficient condition for national identity.

  32. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Agreed. The willingness to forge a sovereign political union, the only way in which a common currency can be successful, is a necessity as well. The EMU as it exists is not yet willing to go there, and I don’t understand why saying that makes people angry.

  33. grumpy realist says:

    What this is all about is whether the Nation-State is the correct unit of identity in Europe, or whether they can modify it to a collection of regions held under a further unifying aegis called “Europe” with its own identity and authority. Frankly, I can’t see it happening unless there is some unifying event which emphasizes the “European” identity over the national/regional identities. A whole bunch of bureaucratic regulations issued from Brussels and a common currency isn’t enough, especially in light of the many years of history of regional identity. A war carried out by Europe against an outside enemy could possibly provide the unifying impetus, but it would have to be carried on long enough so that individuals started thinking of themselves as “Europeans” rather than “French”, “German”, etc. We in the US have the American Revolution as a unifying historical moment (as well as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.) Unfortunately, Europe has no similar historical moment of fusion.

  34. Ben Wolf says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Per my previous sentence, I will admit that I myself have been known to let the rhetoric fly, sometimes unjustly. In fact I have at times done that with you, and I sincerely apologize.

  35. grumpy realist says:

    And by the way, I’ve lived in England, France, Austria, and Japan. Of all the people I met, they thought of themselves as natives of their individual countries, not “Europeans.” There’s too little identity to rally around at this point.

    Heck, you have a better chance of reviving a common ground under the Roman Republic at this point, complete with the coinage and Latin as the common tongue. At least that has a history behind it.

  36. grumpy realist,

    Given the history of Europrean wars both at home and abroad, I would surely hope that it doesn’t come to that

  37. @Ben Wolf:

    It’s fine, really. I’ve been online since the early 90s and comment threads today hold nothing to what Usenet was like back then.

  38. OzarkHillbilly says:


    Have any of you people ever actually been to Europe? I have (admittedly I have been to one small part)

    this is a really stupid discussion by a bunch of people who have no idea of what they are talking about. Here is a clue….


    Seriously, you have no idea of what you are talking about, I have been there, and I am clueless.

    You have never even been off this continent….. STFU..Please.

  39. FWIW, NPR did man on the street interviews, and showed what they claimed was an age bifurcation. People below some age (30?) were more likely to identify as European.

  40. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Two replies back to Ponce and MR in the first 10 or so total posts on the thread. You seem to be touchy about being opposed on this topic–and MR doesn’t even actually disagree with you, hes simply noting that you have inadvertently stumbled upon the truth.

    Ponce, on the other hand is making fun of you.

  41. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @michael reynolds: I have my doubts about that “don’t let the poor starve” part as far as some in the U.S. are concerned and they may come into power next cycle.

  42. Ron Beasley says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I lived in Munich for 3+ years. The Bavarians didn’t even think of themselves as Germans much less Europeans. In Bavaria they speak Bayerisch – while German it was still unintelligible to most Germans. 100 hundred years ago there were over a 100 languages spoken in France. There was a serious effort in France to discourage the other languages in an attempt to create a homogeneous French culture. Language not finance is what makes a culture and nationality.

  43. Boyd says:

    Having lived for many years in disparate parts of both Europe and the US, and having been married to quite a few women, both American and European, it’s my humble opinion that, as odd as it may seem, there is much more homogeneity between Texans and Marylanders (both places I have lived for many years) than there are between Greeks and Brits.

    There is a significant difference in the feeling of being connected between wildly different US states and that of European nations. Again, in my experience and opinion, which could be tremendously different from someone else’s experience and opinion.

  44. grumpy realist says:

    @Boyd: Yah, that’s the problem. “European” right now as an identity brings to mind the Euro, VAT, pop music contests, and a whole bunch of standardized traffic signs. That’s not much.

    I’m interested to see how this will continue, because there definitely have been periods of history where Europe was able to be somewhat united under common authorities (see Roman Empire, Catholic Church before 1516, use of Roman law when statute law didn’t work) while at the same time possessing local authorities as well. (Italian city-states, German principalities, etc.) The question is whether the nation-state concept is now so ingrained that it can’t be reworked. And yah, a lot of the lines have been drawn due to language/culture and official languages of a country, and have been reinforced due to broadcasting and education. You don’t have people who grow up in one valley speaking only their own dialect and remaining their whole lives there.

    I’m somewhat dubious about any further federalization in Europe, because this will require that the nation-state authorities voluntarily give up power to the federal authority–which I don’t see happening. I can’t see France give up the power to impose taxes, for instance.

  45. Ebenezer Arvigenius says:

    As far as I can see there are two main problems with Europe:

    Firstly, there has never been an agreement whether it should be an pragmatic or idealistic endeavour. While Europe is usually pitched as an ideal (common heritage etc. – the only reason they ever leveraged Greece into the Union was the fact that founding Europe without the birthplace of modern democracy would have been just silly) the practice has been to use European membership as a low-key, benevolent reward (as in “improve your governance and institutions and you may join”).

    While the latter tactic has been a huge success and certainly improved life on the continent for many, at the same time it eroded the identification for most of us. I may be among the strongest pro-Europeans in my entire circle of friends but still … Romania? Estonia? A lot of the new member states are nowhere near the living standards of western Europe and have no cultural or historic ties to the “core member states”. Few if any citizens of the “old guard” see any reason to sacrifice on their behalf.

    Add to that the fact that most of them have only recently regained their national autonomy and are, understandably, reluctant to transfer autonomy and the general situation becomes even stranger.

    Secondly, there is no lingua franca for the continent. While the ability to move freely is to some degree creating a unity, most Europeans aren’t able to make use of it easily. While a guy from Connecticut may move freely to Florida to look for work, movement from Spain to say, Germany, will require major training and will rarely be worth the effort. This puts not only a strain on the common market and currency but also hinders identification.

    At this point, political and financial avenues seem largely dead to me. The only option I can see would be a common European defence force under the authority of the EU parliament. This would improve the standing and accountability of the parliament, require Europeans to clarify their values (and the degree to which they are ready to stand by them) and generate a common stakes situation instead of the prevalent “influenced by a common Europe but affected alone”.

  46. Dave Schuler says:

    michael reynolds has lived in France and in Italy. I’ve lived in Germany (Westphalia, actually).

    Something that hasn’t been mentioned is that while France or Germany define themselves ethnically, the artificial construct that is “French” or “German” has been constructed fairly recently with a certain amount of repression, forceful and otherwise. So, for example, the decline of the Breton language in the 20th century was accomplished by suppressing the Breton language in the schools.

  47. Rob in CT says:

    I don’t know how it’ll all shake out, but Tano’s January 7, 2012 17:16 post struck a cord w/me.

    Things are screwy now and we don’t know if Europe will be able to maintain its shaky quasi-Union. Ok. But the overall trend (if it’s really a trend!) has been excellent. Maybe my optimistic side has taken over today (odd, being a Monday), I dunno.

    So, wither the European Dream (E. Izzard, represent!)? I’ve no idea. I’ve traveled in Europe, 15 years ago, but mostly what I have to go on are the views of my 85-year-old Brit father. So… yeah, I’ve no idea.