Events & News


European Identity: Bright Ideas, Dim Prospects

Dr Branislav Radeljić, Associate Professor in International Politics School of Law and Social Sciences, University of East London, UK

9 December 2013 (Monday)

CIT Auditorium, Level 2, Computer Centre, NUS Campus, 2 Engineering Drive 4, Singapore 117584




The EU Centre hosted a research seminar by Dr Branislav Radeljić (Associate Professor in International Politics, School of Law and Social Sciences, University of East London, UK) entitled “European Identity: Bright Ideas, Dim Prospects” on the 9 December 2013 at the CIT Auditorium, Computer Centre, NUS.

In the introduction to his lecture, Dr Branislav Radeljić explained that his research interest in European identity started from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. During Cold War, Yugoslavia’s identity was ambiguous – was it a part of Europe or was it Europe’s “other”? Yugoslavian officials in the 1970s tried to convince European Economic Community (EEC) officials that it was part of Europe, in the wake of EEC’s 1973 Declaration on European identity.

That declaration in 1973, in Dr Radeljić’s interpretation, was a reaction to a series of seminal events – the  oil crisis and growing unemployment in countries like France. When the then EEC leaders met in Copenhagen to talk about challenges to Europe, the issue of the need to redefine European identity arose. The Christian democratic ideals of the EEC founding fathers, Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet, were invoked.

Dr Radeljić found the Declaration on European identity problematic, as it identified no strategies to meet its aspirations. Equally problematic was how European identity was constructed in relation to an “Other”; more often than not, religion played a key role here. Here, Dr Radeljić used the concept of the otherness of immigrants in Europe formulate by Eldad Davidov among other scholars.

Immigrants to Europe in the 1950s came to rebuild the war-ravaged continent.

France had bilateral agreements with Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia on migrant workers for instance, while Germany had such agreements with Turkey. Despite this migration waves from Northern Africa, Islam was not visible in Europe in the 1950s and early 60s, until the family reunifications that followed, during which the children and families of the migrant workers came to Europe to stay permanently. The 1980s and 90s saw the construction of the  Muslim identity in Europe, with events such as the headscarf affair in France. Such events sparked debates on the role of the state versus religion, and on civic identity.

However, it was not just Islam but also non-Catholic Christianity that was used to forge a European identity against.

The European Parliament debates on the breakup of Yugoslavia were essentially preoccupied with deciding, in the words of Dr Radeljić, “who were the good ones, who were the bad ones”. In studying the Hansards of those debates, he found that much of the impetus for Slovenia and Croatia to be recognised by the European states had to do with their Catholic heritage, vis-à-vis the Eastern Orthodoxy of Serbia. This was somewhat ironic, since religion did not feature during the Communist era in Yugoslavia, and the supposedly Orthodox Slobodan Milošević was in fact an atheist.

The German philosopher Juergen Habermas had questioned the necessity for forging a European identity, arguing instead that transboundary civic ties and constitutional patriotism should be tapped on in building an identity for the EU. This, however, has not caught on, as the reliance on national identity still seems to be dominant force in Europe, especially since the onset of the euro zone crisis in 2009.

More recently in 2000, the EU started using the motto of “United in Diversity”, speaking of the “many different cultures, traditions, languages” of Europe. But to what extent should tolerance be practiced in Europe? Who decides what or who can be tolerated? It appears that bureaucrats in Brussels are making those decisions on behalf of European citizens, even if they might not be the most suitable for taking on the task of such a social project.

A major factor that has complicated the task of defining European identity has been the rounds of enlargement of the EU in 2004 and 2007, during which 12 new countries joined as members. The discrepancies within the EU of today abound, between post- and pre-2004 EU countries, in terms of size, between northern and southern Europe, East and West. During the European Year of intercultural dialogue in 2008, the Council of Europe was rendered unable to address the concept of European identity for this reason of the EU’s new identities that it had absorbed into itself.

The EU also does not yet speak with one voice, as most clearly evidenced by the issue over the recognition of Kosovo’s independence since 2008. Countries such as Spain, wary of separatist elements in its own Catalonia and Basque region have been very cautious in reacting to such declarations of independence.

In conclusion, Dr Radeljić returned to the topic of the former Yugoslavia, a region now gradually integrating  into the EU through Association Agreements and other treaties. Here, questions abound the identity of countries in this region, and how they relate to the EU. Kosovo is in the process of working out its own identity; but if it does indeed join the EU, how would it switch to a new EU identity which is still vaguely defined? In Bosnia, negative peace is the fact of life, on which there is little if any cooperation between the Bosniak and Bosnian Serb communities which live in the separate entities of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska.

In the question and answer session, Dr Radeljić  emphasised that EU enlargement is a political decision, determined by the exigencies of the existing EU member states rather than the measure of European-ness of a candidate country, which is hardly a science. While it is desirable to construct a sense of European identity for reasons of the EU’s solidarity, it is an exercise fraught with difficulties and at times tainted with the unpleasant prejudices of politicians.