On an Evolution of European Identity


In times of global challenges and crises such as the pandemic and global warming due to climate change, globally coordinated, successful political action is an urgent necessity. The world wars of the 20th century and subsequent globalization have contributed significantly to the evolution of the UN and EU. Even though accelerated globalization has also had negative political and socio-economic effects, leading to a rise in nationalism and right-wing populism across the globe in the last decades, there seems to be real pressure to further develop transnational, global agencies, because ultimately global crises can only be solved in a genuinely global way.  This will be taken as a central premise of the following.

How can European cohesion, solidarity—and thus also functionality—be increased so that the EU can better solve urgent problems? In the last year, the EU has again proven not to be flexible enough or fast enough in times of crisis. The pandemic has shown that in life-or-death situations, EU members reflexively prefer to operate on their own in ways that are not necessarily rational.  In accord with this, we will take it as an assumption that for all the emphasis on (usually technocratic) rationality, the emotions, motivations, and attitudes of the people themselves also always play a essential role in political processes.

Science and philosophy are therefore increasingly studying the “politics of emotions” (Feeling Political – How Institutions Have Templated Emotions in Modern Politics: https://www.mpib-berlin.mpg.de/research/history-of-emotions/feeling-political) and “political emotions” (Nussbaum 2015) Even a new interdisciplinary approach has recently emerged: the “Visceral Politics” (https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rstb.2020.0142), which particularly investigates emotions of European citizens (https://interactingminds.au.dk/news/enkelt/artikel/the-transformation-of-a-european-sense-of-solidarity-visceral-politics-and-social-belonging-in-a/). In the future this research will give answers to such important questions as: How do the official (often not sufficiently legitimized) top-down framings of the EU resonate at an emotional level with its citizens? Do such framings adequately address the concerns, fears, and hopes of EU citizens? Are they able to counteract resentment and populism? Are there promising strategies and even utopian narratives that could lead to the evolution of Europe as a transnational model and a European identity as a futuristic identity-model?

Political narratives and symbols seem to be very important for political transformations, because they can be extremely effective on a formative level, since they act on the level of quick, affective responses. Proper European narratives and symbols might be able to complement slow, technocratic rationality in a scientific and therefore controlled way. There are some examples in world history of more or less controlled and therefore comparatively peaceful political changes (most prominent the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) where narratively embedded emotions and motivations always played a fundamental role. Hannah Arendt pursued this in depth (Arendt, 1963) and demonstrated that consolidations of new political communities or spaces were very often initiated by the emotions of citizens (e.g. by compassion, outrage, and anger but also by what Arendt called amor mundi). The citizens involved in these events engaged in a (transformative) way to protect their rights or just to put a codification of these rights on the agenda—and thus first and foremost brought them into the world. With the invention of a proper European narrative, such participatory processes could also happen at the European level.

There are already indications that citizens can affectively identify with the EU: The European General Data Protection Regulation, for example, had Europe-wide civic resonance, and this despite the fact that it was formulated in a very abstract and technocratic (top-down) way. European civil society followed a slow process and formed a counter-power to the massive lobbing by the U.S. tech giants. So, citizens support the idea, and since it is probably unique in the world, it has become a distinguishing feature of Europe—a small but quite real mark of the emergence of the European identity.

In fact, the prominent evolutionary anthropologist, Michael Tomasello, has proposed the Interdependence Hypothesis (Tomasello, 2016), by means of which the emergence of collective identities, such as the European one, can be considered to be possible. Tomasello's research can be seamlessly translated into the new approach of “Visceral Politics”, because he is investigating  policy-relevant emotions, such as fairness, resentment, and outrage. And perhaps such an “evolutionary narration”  is a good idea for the invention of a new, proper EU-vision or EU-narrative?

This hypothesis consists in the empirical, evolutionary proof that human beings as an ultra-social species can solve their existential problems only through a special and expanded kind of cooperation (Tomasello, 2016). While there are many animals that live socially and develop primitive cultures, but it is the distinguishing feature of the human species that it has invented a special kind of cooperation, which Tomasello also calls the morality of fairness. According to this hypothesis, centripetal mechanisms (i.e. in-group cooperation) are always stronger than centrifugal (i.e. in-group defection) ones, but this has always been limited to certain cultural groups, which always formed through a process of in-out-grouping up until the present. “In-grouping” means that members of a specific group, e.g. the Germans, behave cooperatively only toward their compatriots, but not toward other nationalities or cultures (Towards other cultures and nationalities they behave either neutrally (non-cooperatively) or even hostilely. A strengthening of such atavistic tendencies can be observed in the popularity ratings of the AfD, the representative nationalist party in Germany. But according to Interdependence Hypothesis, such in-grouping evolves in the direction of larger groups, i.e. in the direction of a universalization. Thus the EU only represents a particular evolutionary step in the direction of cosmopolitanism. Since Tomasello thinks that there is nothing that can stop the increase in the size of in-groups (he at least has not found an evolutionary stop-rule for this evolutionary process),  the emergence of a new, more transnational and transcultural identity is not out of the question. That means that political cultural identity-formations are not limited to nation-states and other smaller local formations, but are in fact transnationally extensible.

An important indicator of such processes of new political and social identity-formation are particular levels of cohesion (Tomasello says “interdependence”) and solidarity (Tomasello says “cooperation”). In the light of this hypothesis related to the Europe, the “EU Cohesion Monitor” shows that European cohesion and solidarity—although varying in degree in different places in the EU as well as changing in time based on on the present crisis—remains broadly stable, despite all the pronouncements of doom and gloom from public opinion in the media. This seems to support the idea of an extension of the interdependence hypothesis to the next, more global, European, level.

If it is indeed true that cultural evolution can continue more globally, then thought must be given to what progressive instruments there already are or first have to be invented for this purpose. What might be the most promising political and social narratives for further Europeanization? For example, can enforceable European fundamental rights—for example, those proposed by Ferdinand von Schirach (https://www.jeder-mensch.eu/informationen/?lang=en)—form an efficient constitutional narrative? The history of the United States, for example, shows that such rights seem to be necessary for the consolidation of a new political confederation and identity. Brave thoughts and actions are needed here, from both bottom-up and top-down perspectives.


Ahmed, S. (2014), The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh University Press.

Arendt, H. (1994), Über die Revolution (On Revolution, New York, 1963), dt. Ausgabe 1965, Piper, München.

Boddice, R. (2018), The History of Emotions, Manchester University Press.

Christiano, T. (1996), The Rule of the Many: Fundamental Issues in Democratic Theory, Westview Press.

Gould, C. (1988), Rethinking Democracy: Freedom and Social Cooperation in Politics, Economics and Society, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Eriksen, E. (2014), The Normativity of the European Union, Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Maiese,M., Hanna, R.  (2019), The Mind-Body Politic, Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Nussbaum, M. (2015), Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice, Harvard University Press.

Schirach, F. (2021), Jeder Mensch. Für neue Grundrechte in Europa, Luchterhand Literaturvrlag.

Spiegel, I., Tomasello, M. (2015), Evolutionäre Anthropologie: Kooperation im Wir-Modus, In: Handbuch Philosophie und Ethik, UTB, Stuttgart.

Spiegel, I. (2015), Zivilgesellschaft: Die Macht der Bürger, In: Handbuch Philosophie und Ethik, UTB, Stuttgart.

Tomasello, M. (2016), A Natural History of Human Morality, Harvard University Press.