Does the European Union need to become a community?

Analysts of European integration often contend that the European Union must build not only institutions but also an identity. Assuming that the Union cannot get by on (at any rate uncertain) popular perceptions that it is economically beneficial, they argue that only a shared sense of belonging to an overarching European communal unit could help Europeans develop the trust and commitments a democratic polity needs.   Accordingly, difficulties in the European integration process – the present EMU crisis included – are often interpreted in part as a symptom of Europe’s alleged “identity deficit” and “community deficit.”

In an article in the Journal of Common Market Studies I take issue with this claim.  I scrutinize two propositions on which the postulated link between communal identity and European polity-building is often seen to hinge: the proposition (1) that communal identifications inspire affectively charged, non-instrumental commitments to an overarching democratic polity and to its defining values and institutions and (2) that a communal identity engenders transnational trust in that these commitments are indeed shared.  These claims are plausible to the extent that any democratic polity needs non-instrumental commitments as well as trust, and that communal identifications can encourage both.  Even so, in several deductive steps I try to show that this does not preclude the possibility of such perceptions and motivations emerging through interrelated processes that do not presuppose a sense of overarching European communal belonging. These include the gradual externalization of domestic democratic norms and practices to the EU level, the incorporation of the resulting supranational democratic attachments back into existing national identifications and the accumulation of transnational political trust driven by the practice of supranational democracy itself.  Through far from inevitable, such an outcome is conceivable in that it is theoretically coherent and has limited empirical analogies and precedents.

Deducing that under certain conditions supranational democracy is possible even without an overarching communal identity leads to a cautiously optimistic conclusion for the EU.  It implies that the options for the Union’s democratic development are broader and the chances of its success greater than many theorists suggest. Even if their European “identity deficit” refuses to narrow, Europeans could choose to build a democratic polity around it.


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