Nigel Warburton



monograph · Do Europeans Exist?


Choosing to be European

Nigel Warburton


Each of us has many potential identities, some overlapping, some discrete, many compatible without contradiction. At one level I choose to be, with Diogenes the Cynic, a citizen of no state, but of the world, the cosmos: a cosmopolitan. This is a choice, not a given, and one that cannot be taken away from me by a referendum or any political act. My passport won’t ever read ‘citizen of the world’, but as a matter of self-identity I remain a cosmopolitan, however any bureaucrat chooses to pigeonhole me. At the same time, I can see myself as a philosopher, a writer, a freelancer, red-haired, left-handed, Kentish, from Bexley, English, British, white, middle-aged, and yes, European, depending on context. There are many other aspects of myself I can chose to foreground too. I can give these different features different emphasis in my self-image, and vary the nuances of this self-portrait in relation to whoever is in front of me. I can be cosmopolitan in spirit and European by choice; I could also have chosen to be anti-cosmopolitan, English through-and-through with no emotional ties to Europe, or, as I might say, narrow-minded and insular. At a football match I might want to emphasize my Englishness; while discussing a referendum, I might want to stress that I am European. I can choose to end my world of concern with my immediate family and friends, or perhaps at the arbitrary border of my county or town. Many do this. They may tell themselves that this is not a choice but a fixed feature of who they are; they’re wrong about this and are guilty of a kind of Bad Faith, a denial of responisibility.

Hierocles, the second century Stoic philosopher, described the human predicament in terms of concentric circles: at the centre is a circle representing the individual, then a circle which stands for immediate family, then one for the local community, one for the area, one for the nation, and then one for the whole of humanity. Hierocles’ aim was to make us think of those in the outer circle as equally worthy of our concern as those within the inner one, to draw that outer circle closer to us, to make it fall within the realm of what matters to us. Despite the claims of effective altruists and committed universalists, there may well be rational grounds for giving greater weight to local concerns – care of the self, care of the family, and those who are near to us geographically. We are psychologically predisposed to be most affected by those genetically, emotionally, and physically close to us. We can have the most human effect on those we can literally touch. Yet, the dangers of narrowness of vision can be profound, and decisions taken without concern for circles beyond our country’s can have long-lasting effects.

So we chose our self-identity, and we shift our emphases over the course of a day and over the course of a lifetime. We don’t have a completely free choice here, of course: I can choose to identify with humanity, or even with all animals, or all sentient beings, but if I chose to self-identify as a piece of granite, I’ve simply made a mistake about what I am. There are facts, givens, and these are harder to change or choose (despite the best efforts of some European politicians to determine what is to count as history). I can’t straightforwardly decide to be a Cockney, because I wasn’t born within the sound of Bow Bells. I can’t choose to be black, because my skin is white. I can’t choose to be Lancastrian, any more than to be Asian. I can attempt honorary status in some of these classes, or I could adopt features of those who are squarely within those categories; but that is different.

We can for the most part sculpt our self-identities only within a range set by fact. How others choose to identify us is even less within our control. I may choose to see myself as English in the narrowest sense, and believe that I present as English, while others, perhaps might persist in thinking of me as European. I can protest at this, but that might not change very much. My compatriots may want to see me as quintessentially English; whereas I might want to self-identify as affiliated with continental Europe, perhaps because of family genealogy (in my case maternal relatives emigrated from Switzerland in the early Twentieth Century), or simply because I identify with values that I consider European, in contrast with English values.

In short, identity comes from a combination of three features: my own choices about what I wish to foreground about myself; other people’s choices about how they see me; and a bundle of facts about myself and my history that I can’t change (though I can change my attitude to those facts).‘European’ as an identity, exists for me as a choice, as a projection made by others, and as a fact of origin (or possibly adoption).

What it means to be European, and whether choosing that identity genuinely draws in one of Hierocles’ concentric circles towards the centre, is a collective choice, and collective choices involve co-operation and interaction. The collective choice about the meaning of ‘European’ involves an on-going conversation that draws on facts of history, and moral and political choices, and, to some extent, how those who are beyond Europe see the matter. This conversation should aim to articulate what ‘European’ means, to bring half-recognized features of European values into fuller consciousness, and perhaps to some degree to invent those values: within Europe’s history there are traditions of liberal democracy, but also of fascism, and xenophobia. Collective decisions, conscious or otherwise, will foreground different aspects of what it means to be European in the Twenty First Century. More formal collective decisions will also determine whether some of us remain European in a bureaucratic sense. Yet, whatever the outcome of negotiations, no one can take from us the free choice to self-identify as European in spirit nor completely exclude us from the conversation about what that means.

Jean-Paul Sartre famously declared that we are alone without excuse in a world without pre-existing values. I’d rather see us as together without excuse in a world of many competing values. The choices we each make about individual identity, including as European, aren’t simple lifestyle choices. They’re moral choices about our relations to the rest of humanity, and in particular to those people who live in reasonably close proximity to us. They’re choices about our ‘in’ and ‘out’ group with far-reaching consequences. How we see ourselves as individual social beings, and how we see ourselves as members of groups, will shape what we become. How nations and regions self-identity, can make the difference between peace and war. Our individual choices of identity may be put under pressure by collective decision-making, but that does not mean that our European identity can be entirely taken away by political action. As a UK national I will probably soon lose my EU passport and my European Human Rights, and these will be real and significant losses. But being European is ultimately a state of mind, a possibility opened up to me by recent history, a personal choice, not something that any treaty could revoke.

Nigel Warburton

Philosopher, writer, podcaster

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