Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start by thanking the Centre for European Policy Studies for inviting me to speak to you today. Since its foundation in 1983, CEPS’s intellectual contribution to resolving the problems faced by Europe and the European Union has been a striking and effective one. Your reputation goes well beyond Brussels and the European institutions, and you are able to make a real contribution to policy debate across Europe. I look forward to watching this continue.

Europe is in the middle of a period of reflection on its future. With that in mind, I have sought to use this autumn to set out some thoughts about the future challenges that face Europe and how the EU might best respond. In Florence I sought to set out “the case for a Global Europe” – how Europe can face globalisation and project its values and interests into a complicated and dangerous world. At Yale University last month I explained why Europe needed to take a lead in the Doha Development Round of world trade talks, and why continuing reform of agricultural policies was needed. Today, I want to explore an issue which, spoken or unspoken, often underpins those important issues and the whole range of contemporary attitudes towards the European Union: the issue of European identity.

Let me begin by setting out my argument. Much of Europe’s long historical development, certainly since the Middle Ages, has been about the gradual evolution of national identity out of tribal, cultural, and ideologically-based units. By the 19th century the nation state had become the embodiment of that expression of national identity. At the same time all those emerging and actual nation states had certain common features - political, cultural, philosophical, and increasingly economic and social - which were to an outsider identifiably European. That has not changed with the creation of the European Union. But what the EU has brought is, for the first time, a common European political structure and framework for managing the previously competitive and unstable relationships between those states. Does that mean that we are now seeing the creation of a European political identity?

No. Thousands of years of common history, language and geography have developed into a common sense of European identity. In the 21st century, our European identity is one based on the values of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law, values tempered in the aftermath of two world wars into a project to bring peace, stability and prosperity to our continent.

But there is no strong evidence that a European political identity is replacing that which our citizens owe to nation states. Our European identity is not threatening to erase our national identity any more than it can replace our individual or family identities. It is not a winner takes all contest, with our different identities slugging it out until only one is left standing. Our identities are mutually compatible, and I would argue, mutually supportive. The strength of the nation state is the fundamental building block of the European Union, the bricks and mortar that gives it its legitimacy. In turn by combining that strength and working together as Europeans, it keeps our nations, and national identities, strong in the face of sweeping global change. Though in the face of change our instinct is to cling to a strong national identity, those diverse identities are best preserved by cooperating. The strength to weather change gives us the freedom to fully express our national and regional identities. Europe’s future strength will come not from trying to replace the nation state but by helping it to flourish.


Our European identity is deeply rooted in our shared history. Exploring the historical roots of European identity is complicated by the fact that the idea of Europe, as we understand it today, has evolved as a process of exchange between different civilisations. Concepts of European civilisation, European values have constantly developed from the days of the Greeks and Romans to those of the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades. These are not just of historical interest. The similarities and differences are striking. For Greeks and Romans, North Africa and the Middle East were part of their cultural world. They would have been astonished by the deep division that now lies across the Mediterranean Sea, and which it must be a major historical task of the new Europe to help erode. In contrast, Charlemagne’s Empire is sometimes evoked by both sceptics and proponents of a core Europe as a valid model for future political developments, and even occasionally as one which conditions the attitudes of the modern states that descend directly from it.

Most educated Europeans have always been part of a common European cultural world. The Latin language was central in this until quite recently. Let us not forget that works as central to the European world view as Thomas More’s Utopia, Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Cœlestium, and Newton’s Principia Mathematica were all written in Latin and owed the rapid dissemination of their ideas to that fact. All this formed part of the cultural, intellectual, and political blooming of Europe through the Reformation, where the seeds for a more humanist and secular Europe were planted which would flourish during the Enlightenment. European thinkers were exploring the concepts of nationhood, universality, rights and individuality. It was no exaggeration to say that Europe was the intellectual centre of the world.

As we now know, it all began to go wrong in the late nineteenth century. The nation-building of that era combined, in some places, with ideologies of blood and soil, of cultural inclusion and exclusion, and of historical destiny which in the end resulted in the catastrophe of the World Wars and Revolutions of the first half of the twentieth century. The concept of European unification developed as a reaction to that breakdown of civilisation and the persecution of minorities that went with it. Sixty years ago it would have seemed unimaginable that Europe could serve as model and guide for the rest of the world.

Why is this relevant?

This is not just an academic historical exposition. It is to make the point that there is a thread of cultural and philosophical continuity throughout Europe’s history, but no political continuity. In fact it is tribal, linguistic, and then nation-state based patterns of identification that have been fundamental to Europe’s development. That pattern has begun to shift again, of course, since 1958, with the creation of the EEC, and especially so since 2004 with most states on the European continent members of the Union. To reflect this, in recent years, much academic and other work has gone into examining whether there is such a thing as European identity. Does this mean something is changing? Does it mean that we are seeing the beginning of a process which will see the creation of a European political identity, and hence, one day, the creation of a European state?

I do not believe so. There is remarkably little evidence that European loyalties are replacing national loyalties. In many cases they are coming to co-exist with them – and I will say more about that in a moment. Nation states remain central to most citizens’ loyalties, not surprisingly when it is national decisions that determine educational opportunities in childhood, working conditions during the working life, access to healthcare if you are sick, and the generosity of pensions once you retire. It is as part of national contingents that European armed forces are deployed around the world, and injuries or deaths to those armed forces cause primarily national reactions. Political debates remain largely nationally focused, even among the elites in each Member State. Indeed, if anything, in our increasingly globalised world, people are increasingly focused on national identities and cultural specificities. As Wouter Bos, the Dutch Labour party leader, said earlier this year, “in the absence of a clear European identity, people want to hold on to their national identity as something that provides at least some grip in a world where so many other structures and values are constantly shifting.” In short, national states, and national identities, continue to remain the basic building blocks of the European system.

The meaning of European identity

So what is all the debate about a European identity about, if national identities remain strong?

I believe it is about two things. First, we are seeing the growth pains of a new system, under which the European Treaties provide a new framework which upholds national identities, while at the same time symbolising and encompassing those common European ideas and ways of doing things that have developed during our history. Second, the existence of these new European structures is making it easier for Europeans to express their different identities.

The Treaties as the upholders of national and European identities

I said earlier that the nation states which make up Europe had certain common elements of their political, social, and cultural life in common. In short, there was a clear strand of European-ness running through European history. That is still true today. Today, probably most people would define that European-ness as quite strongly associated with their nation states, the patchwork of national diversity that almost defines Europe. That is a very important part of Europe and it is likely to remain so for a long time to come.

But there are more subtle aspects to European-ness too. Most Europeans would probably define it as meaning a particular vision of a decent society at home, and an attempt to project that, through multilateralism and alliances, in the wider world. That vision of a decent society means taking care of the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged, and using the strength and collective power of government to insure citizens collectively against a range of life’s risks. These are the values associated with Christian democracy as well as of social democracy. We may differ as Europeans on the means, but we all agree on the ends. And our attitudes are very different from those of Americans in this area. In the wider world, Europeans seem to believe more strongly than others in the virtues of a rules-based system of global governance and to the idea of social justice. More recently too, many of us define Europe as a place which, by its very existence, improves the range of possibilities available to Europeans. To take just one example, it’s a place where British pensioners can achieve warmth in their retirement by moving to Spain, a boon which no British-based market could buy for them, but which the EU can make possible. Or, put differently, it’s a place where any European can feel in some way at home.

Those are precisely the visions enshrined in the European Treaties. The fundamentals of the nation states in Europe are reflected in Article 6(3) of the Treaty on European Union, which states that “the Union shall respect the national identities of its Member States”. In Article 1, the task of the Union is defined as “to organise…relations between the Member States and between their peoples.” Of course, this primacy of the nation state emerged even more clearly from the Constitutional Treaty. Yet the more subtle aspects of European identity are reflected too. Again, Article 6 says: “The Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, principles which are common to the Member States.” These are the values of democracy in practice, of the accountable division of power, the checks and balances between the Executive, Parliament and the Courts, the respect for law and due process, the defence of fundamental rights and freedoms, fair and efficient public services; universal education, equal opportunity and social mobility.

In short, the European Union represents a system in which both the fundamental and more cultural and ideological aspects of European identity are reflected. It is a framework in which national identity is fundamental, yet where European identity is important. The two ideas co-exist easily, and not at the expense of each other. And anyone who doubts this should look carefully at the way that, for most of the former Communist countries, identification with Europe was an essential component of rediscovering their own national identity.

European identity as one of many

The discussion so far has focused very much on the interface between the national and the European level. Yet it is of course true that quite a few European states are quite new and not all have a political tradition of a strong nation state. In those countries especially – but not only there – regional identities have often remained strong, in co-existence with the political loyalty to the national state. So the second change that the European Union is introducing is connected with the increasing development of regional political identity and development, and at the individual level with the increasing possibility of multiple identities generally.

What does this mean in practice? In the UK it would be entirely feasible to meet a British-born person whose grandparents were Welsh Jews and London Asians, with political loyalties to the United Kingdom, but with a much wider spectrum of cultural loyalties. Or, more prosaically, someone who considered himself – as I do – Scottish, British, and European. Throughout Europe, you can find similar examples, partly because of the immigration we have seen into Europe since the war. And these multiple identities are, in at least some cases, behind the growth of regionalism and localism we have seen in recent years.

And those are not coincidental phenomena. Europe has always received immigrants. Catalonia has always had a separate identity. What has changed now is that the additional level of authority represented by the European Union has made it easier to develop similar layers below, without it generating the same fears about the break-up of national states or the loss of national cohesion. Who believes that Belgium could have developed the level of internal devolution and decentralisation it has, and still remain a single state, without the existence of the European Union providing a framework in which it can develop? Indeed one could make the point even more strongly. Because the very building-block of the EU is the nation state, and the members of all of its institutions are defined in terms of their nation state origin, the EU actually guarantees a meaning and purpose to national governments. Every nation state has to have one Minister in the Council of Ministers, one Commissioner, one judge at the ECJ, one central bank governor at the ECB, and so on. The sytstem cannot operate without being based on national states – yet, paradoxically, that is what makes devolution below national states easier.

To make the point in a slightly different way, closer to my own country, I do not believe that we could have easily made the progress we have in Northern Ireland, if we had remained within the zero-sum game of politics until the Good Friday Agreement. It was only when we found a way to accommodate the different identities in Northern Ireland, culturally and politically, that a way forward became feasible. I doubt you would find a single mainstream Irish politician who would deny that the European Union was an important element in making that possible. John Hume made it very clear in his Nobel Laureate speech. He said that those who founded the EU ’broke down the barriers of distrust of centuries and the new Europe has evolved and is still evolving, based on agreement and respect for difference. That is precisely what we are now committed to doing in Northern Ireland… The identities of both sections of our people will be respected and there will be no victory for either side.’

I could give many other examples. But the point is that, if your mental model of Europe is of 25 billiard balls jostling up against each other, then obviously you don’t want to see any of those balls anything other than perfectly homogeneous or perfectly round, or the pattern will be spoiled, and the balls won’t sit neatly together. But if your image of Europe is as a mosaic, it’s perfectly possible to accommodate all sorts of bits of different sizes, within what looks a rather complicated wider framework, without ruining the picture that you are trying to build up. More than that, the picture is actually stronger, less brittle, for it. That’s why I regard the development of regional and other identities as not just inevitable but actively desirable.

What we see developing in Europe is a system which enables political power and accountability to be exercised by the entities and cultures with which our citizens identify. The fundamentals of citizens’ lives remain governed by their national states. That is reflected in their own loyalty to it and identification with it. Yet the challenges of globalisation mean we need to tackle some issues at a European level. That is why we created the European Union, with its own mechanisms of accountability, and developed a way of helping people to identify with it through its representation of European goals. And this, in turn, helped make possible a flourishing of regional identities, allowing power and accountability to be devolved to a level with which many citizens identified too.

Europe’s symbols

Where do the symbols of Europe, the flag, anthem, and so on, fit into all this? I do not of course buy the arguments of Eurosceptic commentators that these are an attempt to force Europe down the road of a single state. But I am not myself convinced either that it necessarily helps to overplay the importance of these symbols. Eurobarometer research showed that 19% of those who voted no in the French Referendum did so because the EU threatened their national identity. In the Netherlands, the figure was 26%. The trappings of a state , the flag and motto, probably do not help deal with these anxieties. So we should be careful how we use them. Flags and anthems are no short cut to a strong political identity. Support for the European Union won’t be advanced by creating symbols that heighten anxieties rather than diminish them.

At the heart of this problem, of course, is the fact that we don’t have a familiar vocabulary that explains simply what Europe is and what Europe does. Our political vocabulary centres around States and not-States. It has very little room for the very special construction which Europe now is, the Union of national states. And it is in this context that we should be careful of simplifying this reality by over-casual use of symbols which imply that Europe is something which it is not.

The threats

The intricate and subtle European political system is of course vulnerable to damage, and is currently under threat. Karl Popper’s most famous work, a response to the intellectual and physical horrors of totalitarianism, was “The Open Society and its Enemies”. He tried to draw attention to the dangers represented by those who hated intellectual freedom. The challenge that faces us, fifty years on, is a slightly different one.

I do not believe the kind of European society I have described faces any significant intellectual challenge capable of commanding more than fringe loyalty. But it definitely faces a physical challenge. Recent events have brought home to us in the UK that someone who had been brought up as a British citizen, been educated in a British school, spoke in a broad Yorkshire accent, had watched British television, and read British media, had loyalties that were not to Britain but to something that motivated him to commit a act of terrorism against his own countrymen and the place of his birth. Those, like him, who wish our society harm hate its cosmopolitanism, its openness, its – as they see it – blurred sense of identity. They have shown, on 7 July and elsewhere, that they are willing to take violent action to try to destroy it. They live in this continent but actively work to undermine these our values. We cannot stand by and let this happen.

There are vital limits to the extent to which any society can accept those who do not buy the most basic tenets by which it works. We are coming up against those limits now. We must deal with the threats at the regional, national, and European level, in order to make the response the most effective possible. That is why we as Europeans must work together in all these ways against those who preach intolerance, against criminals who exploit legal loopholes to pursue cross-border crime, and against those who simply want to cause harm to what they hate. Indeed we are already doing so. One recent example makes the point clearly. The alleged London bomber who escaped to Italy and was arrested there was been sent back to the UK, quickly, without extradition procedures, thanks to the use of the European Arrest Warrant - an EU law that helps us fight terrorists. More generally, the measures that this Government is taking against intolerance, and the EU’s determination to move to tighten up legislation which can make a real difference in the fight against terrorism, are testimony to our collective commitment to making a difference.

I am confident that the opponents of our open society will not succeed. The mosaic of Europe is too strong to be damaged by such attacks. But we must remain vigilant, determined, and ready to work together to defend our common values. Indeed I am convinced that the closer cooperation to which these threats force us will itself help reinforce and strengthen those values and our attachment to them.

But to prevail requires more than action within Europe. It is also about a stronger collective effort to project our values in the wider world. To defend ourselves against terrorist attacks in Europe, we must act internationally against those who sponsor terrorism. To counter extremism in Europe, we must act internationally against those who preach hatred and reject the idea of multiple identities. We Europeans share a common commitment to spreading democracy, good governance, and the benefits of sustainable development and wealth creation. In today’s borderless world this is both a moral imperative and a matter of self-interest. We must maintain this global perspective. The world around us is changing faster than ever before. Europe must keep up with it.

So let me conclude my remarks on a positive note. The Europe we have now is the heir of twenty-five centuries of intellectual, cultural, and political history. At no time has Europe been so good a place in which to live. At no time have the life chances of individual Europeans been better. Nor have the identities of individuals ever been more complex and diverse - or, potentially, stronger. At no time have European nation states, or the regions which make them up, been more prosperous, more powerful, or more respected. Ours is a rich inheritance, and so today we face a future rich in possibilities. Let us now ensure that we work together to realise those possibilities.