25th Oct 2016

'We need to invest in a European identity'

  • A celebration of the EU's 2004 enlargement to the east - a significant moment in the union's history (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The European Parliament is trying to cultivate a "European identity," with top officials saying that it is the only way to ensure a lasting union between member states.

"National systems have very much invested in constructing their own identity," Klaus Welle, the secretary general of the European Parliament told an audience at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a think-tank, on Thursday (29 March).

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"If we want to build a lasting union of solidarity we also need to invest in European identity. We need to understand history as European history and not just as compilation of national histories."

Referring to his native Germany, Welle noted that people speak of the country as if it has existed forever. But the modern German state was created in 1871. Before that there was the German Confederation, which also included Prussia and Austria.

Up until Napoleon's time, there used to be around 300 German-speaking statelets under the Holy Roman Empire.

"It [1871] is very recent. We have reconstructed our own history as if we have always had a nation state which is completely false and untrue," he added. "In order to stabilise identity, we have created national museums, we have created national curricula, we have reconstructed national history."

The parliament is now seeking to carry out a similar exercise.

The recently-opened Parliamentarium - a visitor-cum-exhibition centre - is "one attempt to contribute" to a European identity. There are others in the pipeline. A "House of History" - the brainchild of former parliament president Hans Gert Poettering - is due to open in 2014. The parliament is also "rediscovering" the fact that it owns the house lived in by Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union.

The issue of European identity is a touchy subject. MEPs have often referred to the need for countries to make sure that European history is part of national curricula.

But the suggestion alone raises heckles about interference from Brussels. The European Commission, which has the sole right to propose laws, has no real power in education matters, which remain in the hands of member states.

Much of the identity debate - which also encompasses European values and culture - is bound up in the discussion on how most average Europeans feel removed from 'Brussels.'

Many of the laws governing their lives emanate from the EU capital. But most people are hard-pressed to name their local MEP or explain what the European Commission does. Politicians compound the feeling by heaping blame on Brussels for a variety of problems, while many media report on the EU from their national point-of-view only.

Welle - a powerful man in the EU bubble, whose job is to ensure the smooth running of the parliament - is currently overseeing an exercise of self-examination by the parliament.

He is compiling a study on where his institution should be in 2025. It was partly prompted by the fact that parliament now has real powers in the EU legislative process but voters turn out in ever-fewer numbers at European elections.

The last one - in 2009 - saw just 43 percent of EU citizens bother to cast a ballot. In some countries the number fell below 20 percent.

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