Does Europe Really Interfere With National Identity? Europe As Mutual Colonization

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Nerija Putinaitė

Does Europe Really Interfere With National Identity?Europe As Mutual Colonization

Nida, 2018-09-15

The idea of this presentation came from the discussions pointing out and criticizing the weaknesses of the EU that seem to be quite common in Lithuania nowadays. People say that "we took down one union, we will take down another as well." Such statements might be noisy, but they're also irresponsible. Everyone and anyone is criticizing the EU. The faults in how the EU functions (lack of democracy, increasing centralization as well as a messy identity and lack of ideas about the future) are very well perceived. Often the EU is criticized in Lithuania without even putting the effort to understand its functional details and apparatus. Rarely (or hardly ever at all) anyone comes up with ideas how the European Union could function best, even if such vehement critics generally tend to acknowledge that the EU is necessary for Lithuania.

I will talk about the relationship between national and European identity. I will not touch upon questions of national political sovereignty, focusing more on the cultural concept of nationality. I will demonstrate, first, that national identity is strong and lively; second, that the common European identity is very week, and the national identity is affected by globalization rather than by the European identity; and third, that Europe is shaped by nationalisms, and new nationality challenges to Europe reveal its imperial and nationalist nature.

 National Identity Is Strong

In terms of cultural national identity, in Lithuania we are still under a strong influence of the exclusive and competitive nationality (as discussed by Algirdas Julius Greimas) which was very firmly shaped during the Soviet time: the Song Festivals, rustic amateur arts, pseudo-national cultural attributes created and supported by the local nomenclature (like the Šeduva windmill, or the mass produced paintings or household items decorated with ethnic patterns).

Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas said the following about the production of Mindaugasby Justinas Marcinkevičius: "in terms of emotional energy, while sentimental, and in terms of emphasizing the ethnic uniqueness in a rather aggressive way, it is more characteristic of the Eastern and Central European space dominated by the Soviets than of Lithuania of early 13th century and hardly at all conceivable in the Western world" (Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas, „Justino Marcinkevičiaus „Mindaugas“, in: Kūrybos studijos ir interpretacijos, p. 195).

Aggressively manifest and emotionally colored cultural nationalism in the context of the Soviet empire aspired to emphasize cultural uniqueness. Aggressiveness and sentimental emotionality was also probably a certain contrast to bland friendly internationalism

The "essentialist" concept of nationality is still quite widespread in Lithuania. It means that there must be some pure nuclei of national identity which form the foundation of the nation. This "purity" is quite peculiar. The Lithuanians are perceived to be not a "nation of blood", but a "nation of language". The Lithuanian language has become analogous with nationality. During the Soviet time, the main struggle was against the patina of "foreign items" on it. In independent Lithuania, the Lithuanian language is not perceived to be a living and developing means of communication in the society either. It is perceived to be carefully protected and maintained by specialists in order to preserve its purity and correctness.

Some public opinions (e. g. Zigmas Zinkevičius') about the identity of the residents of the Vilnius region also indicate quite a strong presence of "blood nationalism" as well. According to Zigmas Zinkevičius, “it’s nonsense to use Polish spelling for the names of Lithuanian citizens,” the Vilnius region residents have "forgotten" that they are Lithuanian and must eventually remember that. 

There’s no doubt that the majority of the purportedly Polish last names are in fact of Lithuanian origin. They were polonicized during the Polish and Soviet occupations. Polish spelling, as is said further, would be nothing but polonization of Lithuanians (“the so-called Polish Lithuanians”).

The fact that the Polish language is imported in Lithuania, and people who use it are nothing but Polish-speaking Lithuanians, is a fact of the history of language. Spelling their names in the Polish fashion is nonsense. By the way, it is no less nonsensical to refer to them as ethnic Polish (ethnic Polish in ethnic Lithuanian lands!), unless they really have moved in from the ethnic Poland (Little Poland, present-day Krakow region).

An interesting point is the fact that the linguistic argument is also employed in this case - the conclusion that they are Lithuanian is based on the analysis of family names.

In his discussion of ethno-cultural nationalism, Anthony D. Smith (Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approch) contrasted it with the above concept of nationalism. He viewed nationality as dynamic, changing in the course of history, but he also resisted the idea that nationality may be created "out of thin air". Nations may have several narratives about national ancestors or golden ages of national thriving. The things that he understood to "glue" a nation together were a certain emotional attachment to certain places of memory, rituals and narratives that are based on historic events that are important to the national community. Such a nation must not be monolithic. The best examples of the Lithuanian ethnocultural identity are the inclusion of the post-war guerilla resistance narrative, and especially the discovery of the GDL period as significant to the national narrative.

A nation may also be viewed the way so-called "modernists" do, as a community shaped by the intellectual elite in modern times, by engaging the press to unite everyone, reacting to historic changes, and so on (E. Gellner, B. Anderson). By the way, if we consider the 19th century activities of the creators of the Lithuanian nation, we will discover a number of characteristics that the modernists talk about: publication of the press, a nation emerging out of a small intellectual movement, a conscious choice to be Lithuanian and to learn the Lithuanian language, organizing Lithuanian nights - at least to future presidents (Girnius and Smetona) and their families and a large number future members of the Government were involved in such activities. These are all indications that the Lithuanian nation as a community was “constructed” by employing the press that was read by a certain portion of the people. Analysis of the means of uniting the nation in the 20thcentury, it seems that the main one among them was the theater, and Amerika pirtyje (America in the Bath House)more than any other theater production.

The future president Kazys Girnius in his memoir mentions assisting with the productions of Amerika pirtyjeat the beginning of the century in Sūduva along with his wife. The performances took place in pubic houses, which were places for mass gatherings. (Now they are known as “klojimo teatrai” - “barn theaters”.) After the prohibition of the press, on the 28thof May, 1905, the Girnius couple produced and Amerika pirtyjeperformance that included a choir. They also had set their sights on a comedy Velnio spąstuose (Devil’s Trap), but eventually it was not permitted to perform.

On February 6th, 1905, after the prohibition of the press, in Vilnius the first public Lithuanian performance was produced with the assistance of the Vileišiai. The production included Amerika pirtyjeand a farce Vienas iš mūsų tur apsivesti (One Of Us Must Get Married).

All the possible variations of understanding national identities are contained in the spectrum from imagining the national identity (and even more, the national strength) as prevailing as long as certain national attribute (which are imagined to have reached us from distant past) will be protected pure and untouchable, to the constructivist approach wherein the national identity may be modified and changed in search of the best ways to consolidate the community.

All three concepts of the national identity presume a very different relationship with other identities, national or transnational. The essentialist concept rejects any other identities as harmful to the purity of the national (Lithuanian) identity. The ethnocultural concept perceives that the shape of national identity is historically mutabe: for example, as two ethnoses merge into one nation, myths and narratives are employed to provide grounds for that. For example, Smith mentions that for this reason, two completely different origin stories of Rome exist. The modernist attitude views the possible changes in the national cultural identity even more simplistically. The variety of national identities, their ability to grow weaker or stronger depending on the circumstances indicates their great strength and vitality. Until now, the national identity (even if it has as many civic elements as cultura ones) remains the strongest collective identity.

European Cultural Identity Is Weak

A much more difficult question is the matter of the European cultural identity. How should we imagine Europe and its common cultural identity? Should we imagine the European demos(since it is difficult to talk about a European ethnos) analogous to a national identity? The favorite and probably the main argument of a Europe critic Alvydas Jokubaitis is precisely based on his premise that the European demosshould function almost like a national ethnosas understood by the essentialist concept. As he fails to find that in reality, he uses that as proof of Europe's weakness and maybe even groundlessness.

“In order for the state to emerge, the faith, love, sacrifice and loyalty of the people who create it are required. Meanwhile, the European Union is supported by the left iberalist ideology that is only identified with by the elite, bureaucracy and financial calculations.“

„For the European Union to be a serious political entity, the dispute of the skeptics, optimists and realists must first disappear. It is ipossible to create a political entity if its members doubt the point of it. Faith, passion and sacrifice are required to create a political community.“

Besides, precisely this essentialist concept of the European cultural identity is unavoidably more or less at odds with all three of the above concepts of national identity. Unless we seriously believe that the national identity, like any other common identity, may be constructed by political, economic or managerial elites. But no one is in fact seriously speaking about an essentialist European cultural identity.

The European cultural identity that could unite Europe as a community is very weak. It has hardly any consolidatory effect at all. Neil Flighstein (Euro-Clash) studied which forms of mass culture could be considered common to Europeans. He discovered that there are no television or radio stations that were "transnational", the phenomena of cultural globalization are more prevalent than the phenomena of Europeization, and the nationality runs deep. The Europeans mostly read the national press and watch the national channels. He also discovered that among the movies that Europeans watch the majority are American. Europeans mostly read translated novels, and the European / non-European distinction makes little difference here, even if Harry Potterseems to dial the novel-reading statistics up towards Europeanness rather than globalization (or Westernization).

Generally, the European cultural identity is perceived in one of two ways. The first is related to the European cultural history, its Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian heritage. The second, with the efforts to come up with a common narrative that could unite Europe, that could be common and acceptable identity narrative to all Europeans. Bearing in mind the European history of constant war and multidirectional centuries-long splits (with occasional unification), this idea is more an ambition rather than a possibility. The most prominent initiative was the 2014 effort of the European Commission to create a narrative about Europe rooted in the Renaissance idea of Europe (it was called A New Narrative for Europe): the Europe in which technological advancement, new ideas, geniuses and arts thrived. Meetings and discussions of intellectuals regarding this new identity were planned. However, by now it is apparent that the idea is not developing at all. 

The first way is more philosophical. It is fun for the intellectuals and too complicated to be attractive and accessible to the masses. Remi Brague (Excentric Culture) mentions specific cultural traits associated with "Europeanness". It is a certain perception of the inferiority of the European culture that leads to openness towards other civilizations and cultural innovations, an interest in something that is interesting from the human and civilization perspective (and not in what is "own"), respect to cultural objects and things.

The only clear foundtion of the European cultural identity to which its demos might be linked is Christianity. Not the Renaissance, but the Medieval Europe may become the axis of the arrative common to the whole Europe. That would truly make it possible, culturally at least, to talk about Europe that lies on the foundation on Christianity, and in this sense, even about the European „nation“ (Christians) and ant least partly politically consolidating empire. Christianity, a very prominent mark of Europeanness, was important to some of the creators of Europe too. Today, Christians remain the largest demos of Europe that crosses the boundaries of national identities.

Christianity is doubtlessly the only cultural and civilizational item that is truly a common attribute of the Europeans historically and nowadays. The unwillingness to declare Christianity as a clear cultural grounds of Europe indicates that the weapons seem to be laid down on this front. The only prominent and clear ideas of European identity are associated with the political project of Europe as the European Union. Numerous researchers and thinkers have observed that it would be very difficult to associate the European identity with a cultural idea, and simply identify "Europe" with the political project of the "European Union".

But however misty the cultural idea of Europe seems to be, and however it crumbles as soon as we try to fit it to a particular definition and connect to the whole "real" Europe. What has been said so far also indicates that if anyone is in fact "threatening" the national identity and its certain conceptions, it is not the Europeanness, but globalization. Lithuania entered Europe and the world at the same time, and it is difficult to see the distinction between these two entities. Or maybe there is not much willingness to see it, placing all the blame for the identity-related insecurities at the feet of whoever is closest and most tangible - Europe and the European Union. Any suggestions to "bring down the world order" or "exit the world" would not at all sound serious, whereas choosing the European Union as the object, the project seems much more rational. Europe itself is strongly affected by globalization, and its main cultural pillars are the cultures of the various nations of Europe.

National Identity Shapes European Identity: Between Euronationalism and Euroimperialism

The relationship between European and national identity is described in numerous ways. In the sociological surveys of EUROSTAT the European identity of a particular individual is defined in a very weak connection: the posited question is whether the person "identifies" with being European. Besides, the follow up questions ask whether the person feels only European, only part of a certain nation (Lithuanian), or if he or she sees himself or herself as both Lithuanian and European. the Lithuanians, who are among the greatest Euro-optimists (both Lithuanian and European), are also quite prominent nationalists based on the number of people who say they are only Lithuanian. Precisely that weak link to the European identity, the lack of precision in what "European identity" is, is doubtlessly the guarantee of the Euro-optimism. The surveys indicate the the "European" identity is a certain refuge to the ethnic minorities in nation states where the political system is closely related to the prevalence of the ethnic majority, as is the case in Lithuania.

Such surveys are grounded in one model of the relationship between the national and the European identity, which is called the "matrioshka". It means that the nucleus of an individual identity consists of the national identity, and the European identity is supposedly a different layer, less important, complimentary to the national identity. It does not threaten to replace or change the national identity, but rather, as if envelopes it.

A much more interesting, even though more difficult to analyze, is another model of the national and European identity, called the "marble cake". It means that the national self-perception of the nations that live in Europe and identify with it in a very subtle way influences their national identity, and the European identity is equally affected by the national identities. The European standard for car signs, the signs announcing European Union funding next to new buildings or refurbished squares are the signs of this effect and also this identity. However, in this sense it is also a very weak European identity. Its effect is only observable long-term, therefore it should not be cause for great concern as a threat to the national identity.

There is yet another model of the relationship between national and European identity that has come to prominence lately (Ivan Krastev, some others) and that especially affects the expectations of the youngest members of the European Union. It is a phenomenon that may be called "Euronationalism". I use this term to describe the phenomenon when EU is modeled on the model of national political life of a particular country, defined. Euronationalism may explain why in Lithuania, the problem of the relationship between European and national identity has become so pertinent, where its roots lie.

The European Union has crossed the boundary from simply an economic union to a political one, founded by the states that had a rich experience of national statehood, a government apparatus that had withstood the test of centuries, but they were also former empire states. The present structure of the EU political government and administration is shaped according to their (primarily German and French) experience of national statehood. Doubtlessly, Jürgen Habermas, one of the most influential idea generators of the common Europe, found his idea of a "European citizen" as more important than a citizen of a nation state, as well as the ideas for the European Constitution, in the experience of uniting the German federation and other historic experiences. The French philosophers, who have spoken up about the lack of democracy in the European Union as an entity (Pierre Manent, Democracy Without Nations), the imbalance between the influence and the accountability of its administration, are looking into their own experience of the state and the concept of democracy. These struggles and criticisms towards the European Union must first of all be understood as he efforts of the representatives of states that have functional political systems to make the European political or even cultural model as similar as possible to their own political and cultural model and their understanding of what is important for a political community.

The former imperial states laid the foundation for what is now the European Union, and it has quite a few attributes of an empire. Jan Zielonka (Europe as Empire: The Nature of the Enlarged European Union), one of my favorite authors, has even called the EU entity "neomedieval empire". This idea is primarily based in the model of EU expansion. The EU satellite states had to meet certain prerequisite criteria, and only meeting them allowed the to enter the fellowship. As we have experienced, Lithuania had to put some very serious efforts to meet the pre-defined guidelines. The motivation to do that was strengthened by a certain conviction that the rules are "good" and by the effort to escape the Russian zone of influence. The relationship between the "nucleus" and the margin states of the European Union truly has been and still remains "imperial", even if it is not imperialist. And that may also be explained by their real and tested long-term experience and not by some prejudiced meanness. The EU model that we have is based less on certain universal principles that Immanuel Kant described in "Perpetual Peace" and that have often been evoked as a source of a certain inspiration (even if self-delusional).

The EU model is based on the political experience of its first founding member-states, just like their political consensus. EU has expanded to include the countries that Nyka-Niliūnas described as aggressively nationalist. As we have also seen in the case of Lithuania, a certain cultural nationalism was maintained throughout the Soviet time. Without the possibility to create their own state, the sole object of the efforts of the elite was cultural nationalism. It was grounded in closing ranks, protecting the nationality and aspiring to exclusivity.

The brief history on statehood meant that political ideas and dreams, political ambitions that surpassed the collected experience of the communities were more prevalent. As Vladimir Tismaneanu (Fantasies of Salvation) wrote, after the regime fell, the states got involved in the quest for new myths of nationalism in an attempt to consolidate the communities in this way. Accepting strict EU rules could hardly meet the expectations, and it was very much at odds with the previous political experience. The imperial EU model might have seemed and, apparently, does seem at least in Poland and Hungary as one that does not include the political experience and meets the unique nationalist expectations even less. "Euronationalism" is exactly the aspiration that the EU model and functioning would meet the expectations and experience of a particular state as closely as possible. Lithuania, based on Imperijos darymas (The Making of an Empire)by Gintaras Beresnevičius and Nepasiskelbusioji imperija (The Undeclared Empire)by Zenonas Norkus, also has its own empire-like ambitions, also in Europe.

“We have the chance to use the circumstances and to lay the foundation of our own geopolitical block, our tectonic plate, to restore the GDL. To recreate the space where as a nationwe would find ourselves at home, where it were up to us to provide ideas and suggestions. The greatest paradox is that they are listened to because of certain sentiments that we inspire in this zone, that are remnants of our imperialambition. There is no reason to give it up, it only needs to be translaed into globalizational (or antiglobalizational, makes no difference) rhetoric to be used.

Respect and assistance, common history, conviction that Lithuania is only acting with the best of intentions and definitely has no desire to become a leader (because of its ridiculous size and tiny economy and market), may be of great service. They may shape the circumstances under which Lithuania indeed becomes a leader.“ (G. Beresnevičius)

The present contrast between European and national identity, perceivable in some echoes in Lithuania as well, is not a matter of the possibility of having national attributes and symbols: it is a matter of the possibility to reform the previous imperial model of the EU. It is hard to say how it will end. Maybe the impotent EU Parliament will be supplemented with a much more potent EU House of Nations or something like that. Maybe necessary requirements for the EU countries will change. Such possibilities are also forecast in the five scenarios of EU development currently under consideration.

To sum up and to answer the question to what extent Europe interferes with the national identity, we have reached two conclusions. First, the cultural identity of Europe as a certain "national" community is very weak, and the attempts to strengthen it by constructing a certain common narrative have not produced a result. The European cultural identity may only be grounded in national identities. What really affects the culture, including cultural nationality, is not so much the European identity as globalization.

The idea about the conflict between the national and European identity that has been strongly expressed recently is more connected to "Euronationalism" and the efforts of the new EU members to change the EU model to better meet their expectations. Therefore it is connected less to the present EU identity and more to the new expectations regarding the EU identity and its model. Will the EU empire survive? It will depend on whether the countries of Western Europe have learned their lessons from the fall of the empires, and whether they will be able to apply this experience to solve this European challenge. It will equally depend on whether the Central European countries will be able to learn from their experience of aggressive nationalism and whether they will be able to tone it down for the sake of Europe's common future.

A very radical way to put it would be to say that one thing that does the most to unite Europe is the imperial expectations of large and small nations towards others. They create a certain network of expectations and uses that holds Europe together as an entity.