Professor Irene Caratelli, Director of the International Relations and Global Politics program at AUR and faculty lead of the EurHope Project, has recently published an in-depth and profound article for the IAI (Istituto Afari Internazionali). Two excerpts from that article below, along with a link to the full piece on the IAI website.
The IAI is a private, independent non-profit think tank, founded in 1965 on the initiative of Altiero Spinelli. They seek to promote awareness of international politics and contribute to the advancement of European integration and multilateral cooperation.
European Identity and the Test of COVID-19
What does it mean to be European? Identity is not a natural element, biologically determined and fixed in time, but the result of social processes and structural dynamics that together create a social construct. The COVID-19 pandemic has re-ignited debates about European identity and solidarity, forcing EU institutions and member states to navigate the old dichotomy of national-versus-European identity and interests – as if these concepts were necessarily in contradiction with one another.
European governments and citizens cannot allow the COVID-19 emergency to (re)determine our identity and interests, erecting national barriers or trade wars. The crisis can bring us together or tear us apart, but the ultimate responsibility will rest on people, the leaders and citizens of Europe, who can determine how we will emerge from this pandemic and redefine what it means to be “European”.
Identities and interests can be defined as exclusive (e.g. Belgian or Swedish) or overlapping (e.g. half German, half Polish and European). “A majority of the population feel that they are citizens of the EU in all EU countries. This opinion is held by close to three-quarters of respondents at EU level (73%, +2 percentage points since autumn 2018), whereas just over a quarter of Europeans do not share this opinion (26%, -2). ”Imagine taking a poll on the identity of Europeans across time. For most of their history, people in Europe had local identities. The concept of a state was formalized only in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. Yet, people did not feel a strong attachment to their “state” as they were subjects and often changed King (Queen/Emperor) as a result of wars (bloody and frequent) and royal marriages. People who once were subjects then became citizens. The right to hold those in power accountable is a recent concept in human history and the degree to which people do so is related to their identity as citizens rather than subjects.
National movements helped to cement states, acting as the glue that created bottom-up shared identities, against previous top-down structures. In this light, nationalism can be considered a force that helped the emancipation of people in their journey from subjects to citizens and in their fight against foreign oppression. But nationalism can be used both to unite and divide. To be sure, the nation-building process is based on the belief that people have more in common with someone of their own nationality (even if they have never met), rather than their next-door neighbour who lives across the river but is, technically speaking, a citizen of another (nation) state.
Demands for united leadership are coming from many directions. In Italy, a group of young international students enrolled at The American University of Rome were disturbed to see the initial reactions to the pandemic, the resurgent nationalisms and the difficulty in articulating a EU-wide reaction.
During our class debates on the EU, rigorously held via virtual tools during the pandemic, Adriana – a US national – argued that with all their differences, US citizens tend to rally together during an emergency, questioning why Europeans were initially driven apart. Bashir, an Egyptian student who escaped the regime and is now living in the Union with what might seem to be an idealized understanding of the EU could not believe his own eyes when witnessing the lack of solidarity between EU member states. Miriam, another student who came back to Europe after living in Asia for some years, had started to appreciate European rights and privileges, until… the COVID-19 pandemic made her question the nature of being European. Dario, an Italian in love with the US, is discovering, questioning and building his European identity and passion thanks to the crisis. Finally, Irene, half Italian-and-half Greek, would never imagine not identifying as European.
To promote a narrative of hope and possibility in the midst of the present crisis, these students launched a global COVID-19 Petition asking individuals to call on EU institutions, member states and leaders to live up to their responsibilities, holding them to the promises made in EU Treaties and work to truly integrate European societies as well as their economies.