The EU and Identity: A Night for SFS’ers

Philodemic Room

September 29, 2016

This past Thursday our venerable Society decided to indulge its SFS members by debating “Resolved: The European Union is unable to form a European identity.” On the affirmation was Mr. Sam Kim (SFS ’17) of Michigan, while on the negation was Mr. Patrick Eisen (MSB ’17) of California.

Mr. Kim began by providing the Society with a definition of identity: a set of potentially changeable common values that hold a community together. He then used three perspectives to argue that the EU is not, and will never be, held together by a set of common values. First, the theoretical perspective: if one is an international relations realist (defined as someone who believes that geopolitics are shaped by each country’s individual desire for power), then the suggestion of a binding common identity ought to be rejected. Second, the historical perspective: the EU was created to solve cooperation problems as an economic-political institution, and was never intended to foster a common identity. Finally, the contemporary perspective: from attacks on free movement, to the disproportionate burden of immigration borne by southern countries, to the rise of fringe groups and Brexit, cracks are beginning to show in the EU’s structure and viability. And in the light of these cracks, isn’t it a bit odd to suggest that this same institution could be responsible for uniting all of Europe with one identity?

Mr. Eisen rose to defend the EU, and began by presenting the axiom of our little debate: a European identity is necessary for the survival of the European project. In contrast to Mr. Kim, he argued that the EU was designed precisely to combat further European fracturing in the post-war era, not to simply solve economic coordination problems. Yes, Europe may be a multicultural society, and yes, homogeneity is an impossible and undesirable goal, yet the European Union was created by strong parliaments with clear mandates in a time of great diversity throughout Europe. Mr. Eisen further noted that, although no clear European identity exists as of yet, European states have grown progressively closer, and incremental strengthening of the EU will eventually produce a European identity.

Throughout the night, many speakers discussed the concept of identity itself: if Europe does have or could have a common identity, what would it look like? Would it replace national identities or simply co-exist with them? Ms. Landau, early in the debate, argued that people can have many identities, a point which was later brought up again by Ms. Madison Pravecek (SFS ’19), who pointed out that, upon coming to Georgetown, we all add a Georgetown identity to our other identities. Yet the existence of any European identity, no matter how weak, was not the issue of debate, as Ms. Sophia Peng (SFS ’20) pointed out when she stated that although she may call herself Asian, her primary identity is still Chinese. Similarly, Mr. Vishwanathan illustrated that “Frenchman” is a far more distinct identity than “European.” Ms. Wilson, for her part, saw the nebulous nature of “European” as a good thing: “European” still can be defined on positive grounds as an extraordinarily inclusive identity, while “Frenchman” was defined over centuries into an exclusive category. Yet Mr. Ma pointed out that a European identity, if it is simply the negation of nationalism, is not an identity of its own right; Ms. Scoratow later agreed, stating that an embrace of multiculturalism is not in and of itself its own identity. President Thanki compared the EU to a squabbling family that nonetheless presents a unified identity to the rest of the world, but Ms. Scoratow again rejected this conception of identity: a unified presentation to the world is more coordinated theatrics than an underlying identity.

In a more theoretical sense, a few speakers talked about the very role of nation-states in fostering identity. Mr. Pullin argued that the nation-state will always be the most fundamental provider of a sense of identity, yet Mr. Mullaney presented an alternate view: that nation-states are increasingly becoming supplanted by state-nations, in which a single state contains peoples of many different national identities (as the EU aims to do). Mr. Hinck reacted quite strongly to Mr. Pullin’s suggestion, arguing that in fact humankind can move beyond nationalism and that the future European identity will be based on inclusion, not exclusion. Assenting to this view, Mr. Ernst responded that humankind is not deficient in its ability to create unity, and, citing Rome as an example, that Europe itself is quite capable of being unified. Although Ms. Ludtke agreed that perhaps a European identity is theoretically possible, she questioned its feasibility and argued that a second Roman empire is not the desirable means of attaining such unity. Ms. Spira agreed with Mr. Hinck’s rhetoric about a world without nationalism, but argued that a European identity must be clearly differentiated from an abstract human identity.

Other speakers argued about whether or not the European Union already has something resembling a European identity. Mr. Marrow, for instance, was quite eager to illustrate to the Society that the only commonality among Europeans, and in fact the only thing which the liberal establishment of the EU cannot erase, is a hatred of other Europeans (a view which Mr. Pullin later reiterated). Others, however, saw Europeans in a more positive light: Ms. Haag argued that Europeans consider themselves primarily as Europeans when travelling abroad. Mr. DeGastyne posited that if Brexit was a reaction against a hated “European identity,” we must conclude that some European identity does already exist; similarly, President Thanki argued that the ability of xenophobia to spread from country to country shows that underlying commonalities exist throughout the EU. Mr. Perez-Reyes pointed to the recent commemoration of the Babi Yar massacre, in which Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews stood together in remembrance of a massacre that had driven them apart 75 years earlier. And yet, Ms. Weissman argued that this view of Europe is romanticized, for if independence movements make it impossible for Spain to maintain a Spanish identity, how much more hopeless is the creation of a European identity!

What about the Europeans? Do they even want or need a common identity? Citing the fact that 75% of young people in Britain voted Remain, Mr. Mullaney said yes: young Europeans know that their future is with Europe. Yet when only 36% of young people even thought the matter was important enough to vote on, as Ms. Ferris retorted, can we honestly say that Europeans earnestly want unity? Whether or not they want unity is irrelevant, President Thanki posited, for a geopolitical system that is increasingly based on regional blocs has made greater unification of Europe inevitable and necessary.

Still another group of floor speeches grappled with the EU’s particular role in fostering a European identity. Ms. Provo, the resident linguistics major, argued that the proceedings of the EU will invariably privilege some dialects and languages over others, which will in fact drive unrepresented Europeans further apart. Yet many non-English speakers in the United States still proudly identify as Americans! responded Ms. Sarah Baron (SFS ’20). Given the fact that the European Union is just a political-economic unit, Mr. Gonzalez argued that if a European identity is ever created, it will not be the EU’s doing. Mr. Fletcher agreed: the EU lacks Weber’s “monopoly on force” necessary to impose identities; Mr. Julian Lark (SFS ’20) further pointed out that not since the Crusades has all of Europe been unified by a military endeavor. Ms. Diana Chiang (COL ’19), citing the practices of the European Central Bank, argued that the EU is largely a tool of the Germans, not a forum for promoting an identity of unity. Mr. Tu, referencing the ability of Singapore to create a national identity from nothing, disagreed with Messrs. Gonzalez, Fletcher, and Lark and argued that the EU is capable of promoting an identity even without fundamental changes. Mr. Ryan James (SFS ’20) agreed, stating that political unions can foster identities, while Ms. Tehya Corona (COL ’20) lent her support to this line of argument by saying that the EU is not “just” a political and economic organization: it also carries cultural importance.

Returning to the dais, Mr. Eisen argued that only a European identity can keep the peace: it was a desire to stay in the EU that prompted the Scots in 2014 to remain in the United Kingdom, neighbors to their bitterest of enemies. Responding to Mr. Ma, Mr. Eisen stated that even a European identity based on the negation of nationalism is an identity in and of itself, one which is fueled by an eternal repudiation of bloodshed. Finally, Mr. Eisen extolled all of the virtues of the European Union, calling the whole project a “beautiful ideal.” Mr. Kim, somewhat tired of gushing rhetoric, argued that the EU is a practical project, not an emotional or cultural one. Countries are responsible for fostering a person’s identity, and no higher institution is capable of fully meeting this need. Ultimately, Mr. Kim suggested, only an outside danger could ever fully unify the European continent.

With a vote of 18 affirming, 1 abstaining, and 21 negating, this resolution was negated! As the Society made its way towards Martin’s, I, for one, was glad to leave the realm of Europe and return to the good ol’ U.S. of A.


Micah Musser

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