Camilo José Cela Conde



monographic · Do Europeans Exist?


Do Europeans Exist?

Camilo J. Cela Conde



The question in the title is an ambiguous one. If we take it literally, the answer is simple: of course Europeans exist! But if we want to pinpoint what we understand by ‘European’, bringing in issues surrounding what shared identity means and what it covers, the question becomes one of the thorniest that we can ask on the subject of Europe. And it is difficult from the outset because we would need to define what we understand shared identity to be, and how and when it appears.

We as Spaniards have some experience in this respect, because we have been discussing what it means to be Spanish for a long time now, and it doesn’t look like we’ll be agreeing on an answer any time soon. So let’s turn to history to help us make some headway here. In the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella in the 15th century, Spain as such did not really exist, or rather, no one would have considered themselves to be Spanish. What is now Spain consisted at the time of separate kingdoms with borders between them, with the only link being the marriage of their monarchs. Despite this, however, a common identity – shared, to a greater or lesser extent, by all citizens of mainland Spain – could be said to have been achieved as early as the reign of Philip II. And it was this Spain, as a unit, that established an empire.

So what about Europe? Charlemagne is usually seen as the pioneer who first set about building a European identity, and the key factors at play there are well known: Christianity – let’s forget the wars between Catholics and Protestants – as opposed to Islam; and geographical affinity. Language, however, is not one of those factors. And we Spaniards also have some experience when it comes to knowing how language unites and how it differentiates. Whatever happens, it will be a very long time before linguistic uniformity is achieved in Europe, if indeed it is ever achieved at all. And paradoxically, in the wake of the Brexit vote, the lingua franca in use is not the language of any EU Member State.
The paradoxical situation relating to the official EU languages shows that it would be absurd for the identity of European citizens to be boiled down to the question of EU membership. But on the other hand, political ties are important. The United States provides a very clear example here: the multi-ethnic nature of the country, whose people have so many different origins, means it is perhaps more diverse than Europe. But there is a strong identity which stems from belonging to a State which, although federal, is very close-knit. You can be Irish, Polish, Hispanic or Kenyan in the USA, as well as being, above all else, an American.

And staying with the Americas for a moment, the continents of North and South America show that we must take account of political, geographical, historical, linguistic and ethnic elements – to mention just a few of the determining factors – if we want to set about explaining identities. Being a US American is not the same as being a Mexican American. Feeling Mexican is probably closer to feeling Guatemalan, Chilean or Argentinean than feeling American or Canadian, for that matter. But the necessary nuances are there when it comes to placing this historical and cultural identity above geographical identity in delineating what we feel. Do indigenous people in rural Mexico who do not speak Spanish really feel Mexican? Do the Inuit really feel Canadian?

As we can see, identity emerges in a confused, abrupt and very uneven way. Let’s set aside the nationalist movements that seek to deny that they belong to a community associated with the State – Catalonia and Scotland are different examples within Europe and cannot be lumped together as one case. So although there are centrifugal forces in play, over and above this desire to divide there is a shared paradox, in that many of those in favour of a split from the UK or Spain not only claim to feel European but also say that they want to be European in practical terms connected with political integration. So we’re not only talking about feelings, here, but about passports as well.
So European identity is turning into an underlying seam of shared values, which, although they do not include language (as there are so many languages in Europe), clearly seem to be cultural and historical in nature. And the aim of this underlying seam of historical and cultural identity is to a large extent to bring to the fore a wide-ranging political identity. Theoretically, when we talk about Europe’s political identity as the combined identities of its citizens, we are talking about a concept that covers pretty much everything, ranging from little more than a forum for discussion among nation-states that have little success in setting up effective power structures (and even if the will is there, it is unlikely to happen), right through to a federal mega-State, the best example of which is the USA.

And there is an additional factor which is crucial for us to bear in mind: the manner in which this European identity can be threatened or enriched (please choose the word you prefer) by the presence of immigrants who bring other sets of values with them. This would still be a problem even if the terrorist attacks of which we are all aware had not happened, although they seem to have led to a more radicalised approach and mean that urgent solutions are required.

In Europe immigrants from other cultures and of other faiths have been received in very different ways. To take just two textbook examples, let’s look at what has happened in the UK and France. The UK has tried to integrate immigrants without them having to renounce their own cultural specificities. This is the more liberal, tolerant solution. France, on the other hand, has taken the principles of citizenship to be those which were established during the Enlightenment, and required people arriving from outside to abide by those principles and therefore to renounce their original values if need be. Neither of those two ways of addressing the integration of immigrants prevented the attacks, as we have seen, but that does imply that those attacks have weakened the British approach and given the French one a boost.

If this is the case, then there is a determining factor in European identity that has already been established: it is based on the achievement of the New Regime, the end of the aristocracy, but it has more in common with the French revolution than with American independence. This, in my opinion, is what most distinguishes the Europe of today from the model of the USA that some are keen to look to in this case. One of the most significant differences is that the American identity has already been established, whereas the European identity is – alas! – still a work in progress.



cela-conde-1_optCamilo José Cela Conde

Emeritus Professor at the University of the Balearic Islands

Visiting Professor at the University of California (Irvine)

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