European Identity

Book Review

Reviewer: Sophia Alifirova (University of Toronto)

Publisher: New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009 ISBN:
Author's page: Jeffrey T. Checkel and Peter J. Katzenstein (eds)

European Identity

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This edited volume considers why ‘various forces and claims are [...] fragmenting the possibility of one European identity even as the European economic integration has proceeded faster and further than anyone expected’ (p. 2). It evaluates the situational nature of identity and attempts to answer the question of whether a common European identity may be developed in light of strong challenges? In the introduction, Checkel and Katzenstein summarise the theoretical background for European identity studies and situate their work in the wider literature, considering neo-functionalism, the transactionalist theory of the flow of information, goods and services, and historical institutionalism, among other theories, for comparative purposes. While weighing the benefits of these approaches, the editors acknowledge that the literature diminishes the importance of politics and politicisation; it is this theoretical gap that the volume aims to fill.

Proposing a multidisciplinary approach, the work is divided into three parts. Part I, ‘Identity as a Project,’ analyses the role of EU institutions and elites. Political theorist Castiglione argues that ‘the construction of European political identity does not necessarily rest on a definite conception of what it is to be European’ (p. 29). He considers the transformation of the conception of political identification with one’s own community and the mixed nature of the EU as a multilevel structure. In ‘Experimental Identities (after Maastricht),’ anthropologist Holmes suggests that there is ‘a fundamental change in the underlying dynamics of identity formation’ in Europe (p. 52). He argues that post-Maastricht, EU citizens are burdened with the need to negotiate the political meanings of a pluralist Europe. Concluding this section, Chapter 4, sociologist Medrano considers the emergence of the public sphere in the identity formation project and the breakdown of the permissive consensus which had previously prevailed among the European public.

Opening the second section, ‘Identity as a Process,’ historian Case considers events and ideas which have blurred the boundaries between the national and supranational conceptions of European identity and analyses the notion of ‘false oppositions,’ especially as they relate to the differences between the conception of European identity in the “East” and the “West” (p. 111). Fligstein suggests that a common European identity is likely to emerge among people who have the opportunity to regularly interact with others from European countries with whom they may have a basis for solidarity; he concludes, however, that even among those with increased opportunities for interaction, ‘there is little evidence for an outpouring of sentiment among the citizens of Europe supporting a European nation’ (p. 154). Chapter 7 analyses how migration in Europe is influencing identity formation in a territorial and a structural economic sense. Favell considers the importance of the migration of non-Europeans to Europe, the process of intra-European “elite” migration, and the ambiguous movement of East-West migrants.
The final section of the volume, ‘Identity in Context,’ opens with Kaelble’s chapter on the politicisation of the EU since the 1980’s in which he states that ‘politicisation has had a strong impact on identification with the EU since the 1980’s. It explains why public debate about identification with Europe and the EU has become more vivid [...]’ (p. 211). Chapter 9 summarises the major arguments outlined in the volume and provides some final thoughts on the subject. In it, Checkel and Katzenstein argue that a ‘politically looser and more encompassing Europe’ is rising in place of a receding Western Europe centred on the EU (p. 213). Contemporary ‘debates over the EU and its constitutionalisation increasingly intersect with other arenas of identity construction, such as professional networks, transnational religion, [and] everyday individual practices [...]’ (p. 214). The editors conclude by pointing out that there currently exists a multitude of European identities, which can no longer be studied simply thought the analysis of institutions and their effects on identity nor can they be fully understood by examining nationalist movements as separate from the institutions. Instead, these dynamics must be connected through multidisciplinary research, for which this volume aims to create a foundation.

Overall, European Identity succeeds in achieving its stated goal of ‘[relying] on multiple disciplinary traditions to offer fresh perspectives, raise new questions, and develop unexpected insights on “who we are” in today’s Europe’ (p. 19). The volume successfully elaborates on the historical institutionalist theory; it also establishes clear and concise arguments. The multidisciplinary approach works well in allowing the contributors to emphasise separate yet connected ideas. By considering European identity from the lenses of history, sociology, and anthropology, the authors are able to point out various dimensions which influence both the project and the process of identity formation. As well, the division of the volume into three sections serves the purpose of elaborating on the subject more fully. Approaching it as a project, a process, and in context, the authors are able to identify multiple angles of analysis and points of contention present. Finally, the chapters are organised in a clear and cohesive manner, each emphasising a specific aspect of European identity formation while collaborating in a larger argumentative framework.

Nevertheless, the volume has several contextual and structural limitations. Firstly, the key terms of “identity,” “project,” and “process” are only briefly mentioned in the introduction, leaving their definition to the conclusion and forcing the reader to closely analyse each contributing chapter in order to define them. The term “identity” remains a vague catch-phrase throughout the volume, failing to be clearly defined in either civic and/or ethnic terms. Without a clear definition set out by the editors, it is difficult to know what contributors mean when using the term. The key concepts of a “project” and a “process,” around which the volume is structured, are also not clearly defined until the first paragraph of the conclusion. Throughout, these are brought up; however, it is often unclear what each author means when using the terms without an initial definition. As an introduction to the field of European identity studies and a basis for future research, the volume would be significantly enhanced by clearly defined terms.  

Secondly, the structure of the volume sometimes impedes the reader’s understanding. Chapter 1 is unnecessarily dense. The editors introduce the larger theoretical field, highlight the processes of politicisation and Europeanisation, outline their own arguments, and situate the volume within the broader literature in less than thirty pages. For those new to the field or unfamiliar with the theories, the brief discussion of each sub-section is insufficient to grasp the nature of the debate. The better organisation of the material into two chapters, with one introducing the main arguments and contributions of the volume and the second outlining the theoretical background, would have been more appropriate for a book which aims to develop a basis for further research.

Despite this, Checkel and Katzenstein, along with the other contributors, successfully present the key issues of identity formation in Europe and provide valuable insight as basis for further work.

2019 - Volume 13 Issue 3