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Europe's Struggle with National Identity

"There is no such thing as a European identity. I have never met anyone who said I am a European American. I have only met Greek Americans, Polish Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, etc."

Australia's identity struggles can be partly attributed to history but they can also be attributed to Australia's operation within the European sphere.  Some of that operation stems from almost 80 per cent of Australians having European ancestry but also from Europe being elevated as a kind of place that Australia should aspire to be like. At the very least, when many Australian commentators fret about how Australia is seen over the world, they really mean how Australia is seen in Europe. Looking to Europe for guidance or approval on national purpose has been particularly ironic given that Europeans are hopelessly confused about their national identities and how they can integrate their national identities in the European and wider international communities.

Europe's modern identity struggles commenced with Karl Marx, the founder of Communist theory, who believed national identities were a barrier to the communist revolution being achieved. For Marx, the only identity that mattered was working class and if the workers of the world united, a transnational Communist utopia would come to fruition. Ironically, Eastern Europe, under the military might of Russia, did in fact become Communist, but it also became nationalistic as Communist leaders used patriotism to encourage individuals to subordinate themselves to their vision of the greater good. Meanwhile, in Western Europe, the intellectual class fretted about how to prevent a recurrence of World War 1 and 2 as well as how to prevent the nationalism that was suppressing individual thought in Communist countries. Economic union and a devaluing of national identities became the proposed solution. If World War 1 and 2 was caused by individuals only thinking in terms of their own national interest, the obvious solution was the creation of trans-national institutions and transnational identities without nation-based loyalties. Both Communist leaning working class as well as the studious intellectual class were thus unified in their thinking that national identities were a negative thing.

Today, the thinking has resulted in many European orientated institutions seeing national identities as a threat to the European Union, a barrier to the inclusion of migrant populations and impediment to social justice. Ironically, it has also resulted in many nationalists seeing the European Union as a threat to their national identities. Furthermore, the denigration of national characters has perhaps provoked many Europeans to react much like Germans did after World War 1 in that the loss of national pride has fed more superficial strains of confrontational nationalism. Meanwhile, for all the good will to migrants, many migrants have felt alienation in countries that struggle to offer them anything to identify with outside of a welfare system.

Englishman John Aston talks of reconciling a British identity with a European identity

Despite Europe's leaders being reluctant to define a national identity, there has been a willingness to pass value-based laws that reflect the morality of an undefined character. This has resulted in European countries having slightly different appoaches to dealing with identity while not acknowledging their differences in national character.

France has taken an assimilationist position towards migrants. For example, Muslim veils have been banned in schools and the burqa (complete face covering) has been banned outright. Furthermore, to prevent any linking between race and culture, the French census does not ask citizens to declare their race - the implication being that all citizens are French. Despite its noble intentions, France has suffered significant ethnic riots as well as race-based nationalistic movements wanting to rid France of its ethnics. In other words, despite the public declarations that everyone is French and equal, different groups see their role in French society in very different ways. Furthermore, treating all groups with equality has also proved problematic when not all groups behave equally. For example, in 2015 the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was the subject of a terrorist attack because it subjected Muslims to the same ridicule that it subjected other groups.

Unlike the French, the English have taken the more extreme post-modernist approach to a national identity. In short, they promote the idea that all cultures are different but equal. It is an identity that has emerged from a kind of multicultural identity under English leadership that was used to bind the British Empire identity during England’s colonial era. Today, the British Empire has broken apart so only the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland) remains. Whereas the minority countries of the United Kingdom  are quite confident in asserting an identity without fear of offending other members of the union or breaking up the union, England is not the same. Not only do some English blame a desire for a national identity as being responsible for England leaving the European Union, they also fear it will provoke smaller countries to leave the United Kingdom.

While nice in spirit, in practice, the English approach has not been very effective in keeping the United Kingdom united. It has also had a particularly odd effect on Scotland which almost voted to leave the union with England but voted against England in choosing to remain in the European Union. In other words, Scotland wants to be part of a union with Germans, French, Italians etc that they don't share a language with but doesn't really want to be part of a union with Britain that they do.

Aside from not being effective in holding the United Kingdom together, the post-modern approach has led to a great deal of division within England. The main problem is that it advocates apathy in the face of offensive conduct and an inconsistent application of social liberalism. For British literary theorist Terry Eagleton, post-modernist theory is defective because it basically proposes that intolerant cultures must be tolerated. Similar ideas have been argued by Gunther Kress, a professor at the University of London. In Reimagining English: Curriculum, Identity and Productive Futures, Kress wrote:

“The voices which have been loudest in the UK over the past twenty years, and which continue to dominate, are voices which speak of  very different futures to the one I imagine.”

Both men have rejected post-modernism because it has denied them the right to speak while defending the right of those they oppose to speak. Religious minorities in England have linked the rise in extremism to a lack of a national identity to hold onto, or to bind different cultures together. For example, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, wrote:

"I have never known the British Jewish community, especially its university students, more anxious about the future than they are today. But I have heard the same from many Hindus and Sikhs…By dissolving national identity it makes it impossible for groups to integrate because there is nothing to integrate into, and by failing to offer people pride in being British, it forces them to find sources of pride elsewhere. 

Without shared values and a sense of collective identity, no society can sustain itself for long. I fear the extremism that is slowly but surely becoming, throughout the world, the siren song of the twenty-first century." 

The German government has tried to integrate migrants by working hard to ensure that the German people do not have supremacist attitudes towards the migrants. Mindful of what happened in World War 2, the German government has refrained from supporting displays of nationalism that could cause history to repeat or undermine Germany's leadership of the European Union. According to Oliver Marc Hartwich, a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies,

“In truth, modern Germany is still probably one of the least nationalistic countries on earth. The lessons of the Third Reich have truly been learnt and are not forgotten.”

Ironically, the lack of national pride might be replicating the conditions in Germany after World War 1, where low national esteem fuelled movements in favour of Hitler. Additionally, migrants have found little reason to embrace anything but the welfare system of their new homeland because there have been few positive stories being told about Germany. According to Hartwich,

"Germany's lack of national pride and identity made it harder to integrate migrants. Why should they integrate anyway when Germans found their own culture so hard to love?"

Belgium, which also hosts the parliament of the European Union, perhaps best illustrates the problems associated with a country lacking a national identity. Instead of being bound by a sense of fraternity, Belgum's French and Dutch speakers openly insult the other and operate in separate institutions in what could be termed a bi-cultural society. Immigrants suffer feelings of alienation because the prejudices of the bickering Dutch and French speakers makes nclusion almost impossible.

Belgium came into existence in the 1830s when French and Flemish Catholics rebelled against Protestant rule in Netherlands. While the rebels initially had religion to unite them, as the French speaking south became more secular and liberal, significant cultural divisions emerged with the Dutch speaking north that remained more religious and conservative. Language subsequently came to offer a more meaningful identity than religion. The linguistic divisions were further widened in World War 2 where the Dutch speakers largely sided with Germany while the French with the allies. Post-war recriminations against the Dutch speakers further widened the identity void. By 1970, Belgium had begun to split into two self-governing states – one Flemish, the other Francophone, which in time developed their own governing institutions, separate political parties and linguistically separate universities. In 2007, the country was almost partitioned after linguistic-based identity differences resulted in it taking almost 200 days to form a government following an election. In 2016, it was largely recognised as the Islamic extremist capital of Europe on the back of a significant number of the local Muslim population giving support directly or indirectly to terrorist activities in Belgium and abroad.

Switzerland is perhaps the only country in Europe that has managed to create a national identity that both unites people and preserves cultural differences within the population. Whereas Belgium has been torn apart by having two official languages and different levels of passion towards the dominant Catholic faith, Switzerland has managed to managed to satisfy speakers of four official languages, various strains of Christianity as well as migrants so that they feel comfortable with their own minority identities but also with their place in the wider Swiss mosaic. To critics in other European countries, Swiss unity has come on the back of regressive conservatism; nevertheless, the unity has spared Switzerland many of the social conflicts that plague most of Europe. Switzerland did not join the United Nations until 2002 and never joined the European Union. The decision not to join the larger bodies ensured the country did not have leaders devaluing a national identity for fear it was inconsistent with a European or International identity. As well as not joining the international bodies, Switzerland also implemented extremely difficult citizenship tests for migrants and made national service compulsory for men. To many people in other western countries, such policies were somewhat abhorrent and tinged with Nazi-style nationalism; however, they gave everyone, be they migrants or Swiss born, an opportunity to contribute to the country and feel their country has value.  

Although reconciling national identities with the European Union and migrant identities has proved difficult, social psychological observations of human nature also suggest that the reconciliations should be possible. For example, Albert Einstein said:

'if relativity is proved right the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German, and the Germans will call me a Jew.'

Self-categorization Theory (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher & Wetherell, 1987) explained Einstein's predictions by proposing that individuals adopt social identities that associate themselves with success and distance themselves from failure. Furthermore, social identities are fluid in nature so it is possible for one individual to identify with a multitude of social groups and make each group important at different times. For example, an individual may have an ancestral identity, a city-based identity, a country based identity, a religious identity and a global identity. Each identity becomes important at different times so that they co-exist without tension.

Even though it would be possible to reconcile migrant, national, and religious identities under a wider European umbrella, it is unlikely that European leadership would be capable of achieving such a goal. Firstly, a fear of nationalism is coded in the DNA of the European project. Not only does this ensure that national identities are viewed as a threat to Europe, it also means that European leaders have a hostility to geography-based identities such as one based on the European region. In short, there is no European identity and no attempt to create one. Secondly, language, religious and provincial differences have made it difficult for European leaders to have productive discussions across social boundaries that could inspire symbolism and allegiance. Perhaps the best example comes with the absurd inability to reach a consensus for the capital of the European Union that resulted in Brussels becoming the capital by default. In short, the plan was for there to be a rotation, based on alphabetical order, until a permanent capital could be chosen.  In 1958, Brussels went first and since no other city could be agreed upon, by default it remained the capital. As childish as it was that Canberra was created to be the capital of Australia as a compromise for bickering leaders in Sydney and Melbourne, at least Australians could make a decision. Europe's inability to do the same makes the European project, in regards to shared purpose and shared history, seem like a complete farce.



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