European Identity: A Somewhat Forgotten Component in the Quest for Leadership
May 28, 2018
By FTI Consulting
FTI Consulting’s newest team member in Berlin, Consultant Kevin Hackl, who grew up in Vienna, Austria, takes a look at the continent he calls home and finds: despite its shortcomings, Europe has a lot to offer to the world – and should seek to make use of it.
Within the EU, the race is on for political leadership, and it’s head-to-head between Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, and Emmanuel Macron, the French President. Some feel the choice is between stability and progression respectively. This somewhat self-absorbed Franco-German division of European power, however, neglects to address the question: Who are these “Europeans” who are to be led, anyway?
Europe – whom to lead?
Americans often mistake Europe as a homogenous country. But Europe is no unified continuum, and in crunch times, local patriotism often wins over national or even supranational identities. In his landmark piece Benedict Anderson analyzes that nations are merely “imagined communities” held together by unifying narratives. Europe, however, lacks a strong cultural narrative that would constitute a common identity.
A historical approach offers an answer to this dilemma. Being shaken by a more or less constant state of warfare through the centuries, “European concepts” were mainly the result of a necessity to create peace and stability throughout the continent after World War II. In that sense, the EU is a successful project as its inhabitants enjoy an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. Yet, from an identity perspective, the EU still needs to transform from a community of need to a community of purpose in order to fill a strong global leadership position.
How to create European unity?
But how do you achieve a common European cultural rooting? First of all, this does not happen overnight; it’s a process that will accompany us for generations to come. Plus, this transition will not happen without effort. Our identity is a construct largely defined by societal elites, reiterated in our daily encounters, and manifested in our (sub-)consciousness. So, if you want to create some sort of European identity, political stakeholders need to provide opportunities to experience Europe.
Today, people who describe themselves as Europeans are predominantly young and of rather privileged background: be it international students who have the financial backing to discover their home continent as travelers, or young urban professionals working in attractive cities far from home.
Current European initiatives are trying to broaden that base and aim at providing the European experience to a wider group of people. Free Interrail, for instance, lobbies for providing every EU citizen when turning 18 a voucher for a free interrail pass valid for a month, giving them access to Europe’s vast railway system. In 2018, the EU Commission will provide €12 million for a test run – 15,000 young aspiring people will be selected. Between 2021 and 2027 the EU wants to invest €700 million to realize the project on a larger scale.
Let’s talk Europe
Europe’s political decision makers have meanwhile acknowledged that the struggle for forming a European identity cannot only be fought and won among political elites, but has to include and extend to “regular people” as well. In 2018, all across Europe, citizen dialogues on the future of Europe will take place. Interested citizens can get in touch with political stakeholders, share their ideas, and voice their worries.
As Antonio Gramsci pointed out, leadership needs consent from the elites but also from the masses. Otherwise it will be weak or ultimately fail. A case in point that tells a lot: Currently many Europeans tend to condemn most of Donald Trump’s international moves. Yet they seem incapable of stepping up and providing a different leadership style for the Western world.
Changing this is the biggest challenge Europe’s leaders presently face. A lot depends on their success. But to me, it’s worth it. For the future of Europe.
The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting LLP, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals, members or employees.
Kevin Hackl was born and raised in Vienna, Austria. In 2017, he joined the Berlin office of FTI Consulting. He advises clients in the fields of Public Affairs and Corporate Reputation. Kevin graduated in English and American Studies as well as History and Political Education. As Austrian he adds the foreign gaze to our analyses of political developments in Germany.