Why there can be no “European Identity”

Ursula von der Leyen President of the European Commission

Raymond M. Keogh

Roots of confusion

There is a general consensus that there are no easy answers to the question: What is European Identity? In his book When Culture becomes Politics; European Identity in Perspective (2008), Thomas Pedersen informs us that: European identity is one of the most complex phenomena within European studies and social science.[1] The core of the problem resides in the word “identity” for if we cannot define this word then, by inference, we cannot define any related term like “European identity”.

However, according to Markus Prutsch author of the EU’s European IdentityThe attractiveness of identity as a subject of scholarly studies is manifest in the sheer amount of literature in the field, with tens of thousands of publications addressing different aspects of the concept.[2] But citing quantity as a measure of significance is deflated by the curt statement of Dr. Richard Bourke, Professor of the History of Political Thought of the University of Cambridge who says that identity … has been incessantly invoked as a method of explanation even though it appears to explain so little.[3]

Problems with the use of identity have been pointed out by several other social scientists.[4] The confusion associated with the topic can be traced back to its late 16th century origins, combined with a conundrum that stretches into the remote past. The word emerged from Medieval Latin identitas or idem meaning “sameness” or “same”. Unfortunately, “sameness” has been difficult to comprehend. This is well illustrated in the ancient Greek paradox of the Ship of Theseus, which was kept as a monument to its hero at Athens. As time passed the planks had to be changed one by one when they began to rot. At what point, philosophers asked, did the original ship cease to be itself? If every plank, rib and panel were replaced, along with the nails that held them together, how could it be the same ship? Surely it was only a replica. We know that the chemical constituents of our bodies are continually changing. As such, are we the same person as we move through time? There have been no adequate answers and thus “identity” has suffered a crisis of meaning—until now.

Personal and group identity

Happily, the paradox is no longer a stumbling block. Identity has an individual and a group dimension. Since 1987, hundreds of forensic cases have been decided with the assistance of genetic fingerprinting. Confidence about its application is based on the observation that our individual DNA sequences are unique. Even so-called identical twins are not really identical. In other words, science reveals what is meant by “sameness” in biological terms in who we are. It shows that we are one and the same person at every moment of our lives.[5] Therefore, our DNA sequences provide the basis of our identity at the personal level which can now be defined using older and more rigorous meanings of the word. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED 2nd Edition, 1989), defined personal identity as: The sameness of a person at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a person is itself and not something else.

Human genetics demonstrates that, from a communal point of view “sameness” is present in the human genome at the species level and only at that level. A species is generally defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding to produce fertile offspring. This is the essential unchanging constant that distinguishes us as human and, as such, defines “sameness” in the entire group.[6] Even the probable interbreeding with Neanderthals and Denisovans failed to establish a separate species. Therefore, communal identity can be defined as: The sameness of a thing [group] at all times or in all circumstances; the condition or fact that a thing [group] is itself and not something else (OED 1989).

Human genetics do not correlate well with the normal divisions of humanity like race, ethnicity, culture, nation. Indeed, it is not possible to recognise “race” in terms of our DNA. So-called ethnicities and cultures blur into each other when examined from the same perspective. Nations are, by and large, artificial segments of territory on the globe’s landmass and contain few, if any, collective genetic traits that distinguish people within their borders from those outside. In other words, genetics reveals the nature of “sameness” in our basic underlying biology and is the ultimate classifier at the individual and group levels.

Basing human classifications on our underlying DNA makes sense when placed in the context of the history and pre-history of Homo sapiens. The common origin of our modern species—our ancestral singularity—can be traced back some 200,000 years ago in Africa to a relatively small “bottleneck” of an estimated 10,000 people in which our genetic diversity was relatively narrow and in which all our ancestors shared common ethnic and cultural attributes.

The main difference that is often used as a distinguishing feature between “ethnicity” and “culture” is the common ancestral dimension of the former. However, the common ancestral dimension applies equally to all ethnicities and cultures, thus diminishing the distinctions between these terms. Our shared base, the narrowness of the makeup of the genome itself and our ability to reproduce universally shows that only one human cultural foundation existed. The variety of cultural expressions we find within the human family—despite their apparent wide diversity—are appendages or outgrowths of that one cultural base. However, sub-cultures can be studied and compared in terms of their normative characteristics while acknowledging, at all times, that we are dealing with convenientrather than fundamentaldivisions. Differences among humans are one of grade rather than essence and do not constitute separate identities. Confining identity rigorously and specifically to the dictionary definition given above overcomes all loose uses of the term.

Despite the need to make an initial and profound mental adjustment, the advantages of applying the objective meaning of identity are enormous. The overwhelming benefits accruing from this change are compelling arguments in its favour. These benefits include: the standardisation of the meaning of “identity” across all disciplines; linguistic precision; the achievement of an important inroad against subjectivity in the social sciences; knowledge that every person has a unique unchanging identity that cannot be removed despite the vagaries of life (we may experience difficult times, but we cannot have an “identity crisis” or lose our identity); and reinforcement of the notion of oneness in the entire human family.

The new paradigm of identity reinforces the notion of oneness in the entire human family

Furthermore, the burden of reifying identity at the ethnic, cultural, national or supranational levels is removed in the new paradigm of identity. Rather than viewing the genetic (i.e. objective or universal) definition of collective identity as restrictive, it should be viewed as a positive development because it untangles the term from all efforts to understand the dynamics of sub-groups. The implications are that a complete comprehension of any sub-group at any level is lacking in and of itself unless it is placed in the context of its overarching identity which is inseparable from that of all other sub-groups. As a result, there can be no them-and-us in identity terms. Besides, the requirement of a foil in determining distinctiveness is removed. This means that there is nothing sacrosanct about any sub-group. The oft-quoted “imagined community” becomes a convenient way of viewing groups to which we might belong. But its weakness as a concept is underlined because this term is only limited by the imagination and can be applied to any sub-group with which one identifies either simultaneously or when stimulated under specific sets of circumstances. 

Identity in the European context

How does the objective base of identity change our perspectives when applied to the European question? The most common way that specialists in their respective fields normally circumvent the dilemmas posed by contemporary views of identity is to depend on sense of self in the case of personal identity and features or aspects of society that are thought to be peculiar to the community in question in the case of group identity. Prutsch’s study European Identity (2017) focuses on what is called “collective identity”.[7] It is a useful overview of the subject and employed here to illustrate the comparison between current views of identity at the European level and those of the new paradigm.

In this case “group” refers to Europeans. But in what sense? Are we dealing with … Europe as a geographical space? Europe in some cultural sense? the European Union? Prutsch informs us that in the vast amount of literature on European identity most … tends to prescribe a rather generic use of the term, without distinguishing between identification with Europe and identification with the European Union.[8]

Whatever about the group in question, Prutsch states that identity as a term … evades any clear-cut definitions and is characterised by conceptual ambiguity. It may even contain contradictions. He also states that “collective identity” … targets the group itself and is concerned with those characteristics group members have in common, with a view to distinguishing that specific group from other groups. This is a common approach in drawing boundaries and acts as a justification for the connection between the group’s members. At the same time, he points out that the individuals making up the set … might be very different in terms of personal interest, socio-economic status, etc.[9] Still, the group accepts “a fundamental and consequential sameness that causes them to feel solidarity among themselves”.[10] To a large degree, the connection between a given group’s members is imagined and constructed, since individual differences are ignored for the benefit of and covered up by the emphasised sameness.[11]

But, even if we know precisely who we are dealing with, how can a group possess a “fundamental sameness” while it harbours individual differences? Stating that the members are fundamentally the same while acknowledging differences is an oxymoron. Period. Employing feelings and imaginings which are—at best—fickle, means they are subject to change, which is a rejection of the very notion of “sameness”. “Fundamental sameness” can only exist where the group is essentially indivisible and differs from all other groups. Therefore, the entity being considered—in this case a specific set of Europeans—does not possess “a fundamental and consequential sameness”. It does not and cannot possess a genuine identity as per definition. In conclusion, there can never be such a thing as “European identity”.


[1] Pedersen,T. 2008. When Culture becomes Politics; European Identity in Perspective. Aarhus University Press; p. 10.

[2] Prutsch, M., J. 2017, Research for CULT Committee – European Identity. European Parliament, Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies, Brussels; p. 9.

[3] Bourke, R. 2020. Identity? Mine’s knottier than yours. Dublin Review of Books. Issue 124 here.

[4] Brubaker, R. and Cooper, F. 2000. Beyond “Identity”. Theory and Society. Vol. 29: 1-47. van Weringh, D. 2005. Is there a European Identity? Europe’s Journal of Psychology: Vol. 1:1.

[5] Keogh, R., M. 2019. DNA & the Identity Crisis. Philosophy Now; Issue 133; 16-17.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Prutsch, M., J. 2017, Research for CULT Committee – European Identity. European Parliament, Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies, Brussels; p. 5.

[8] Ibid; p. 15.

[9] Ibid; pp. 5, 10.

[10] Fligstein, N. 2012. Who are the Europeans and how does this matter for politics? In: Checkel, J. T. and Katzenstein, P. J. European Identity. Cambridge University Press; 132-166.

[11] Prutsch, M., J. 2017, Research for CULT Committee – European Identity. European Parliament, Policy Department for Structural and Cohesion Policies, Brussels; p. 10.

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