Sign Up

Today’s Asia and Europe’s Identity

What exactly is Europe’s identity in this new, globalized world?

April 6, 2015

Credit: Arrfoto

Europe’s response to its diminished position on the world stage and to the new economic competition it faces around the globe has been underwhelming. So has its response to the challenges all this implies for its own evolution.

No doubt, a solid response has been hobbled by the sheer complexity of the EU, which now has 28 member states (and will have well over 30 within the next twenty years or so).

The EU’s governance was basically designed for a community of less than half that size, and for a Union with far less disparity of wealth and development than is now the case.

The EU’s cumbersome and dysfunctional structure is made worse by the widespread though inchoate disaffection amongst its citizens. All too often, they want to be assured of a predictable continuity when no such thing is in fact possible.

And underlying all of this malaise is a fundamental uncertainty about identity. This identity crisis in Europe has been exacerbated by the rise of Asia.

Admiration for – and nervousness about – the extraordinary achievements of modern Asia has brought Europe’s own uncertainties about its place in the world into sharp relief.

Europeans are unsettled by the fear that the Asians will challenge and eventually overtake them. No longer is Asia just a limitless supply of hardworking cheap labor.

Europeans fear that Asian technical brilliance may overwhelm them in the very areas of strength they have prided themselves on.

Society versus the individual

All this risks nurturing a sense of inferiority and uncertainty about who we Europeans really are. Many of us are beguiled by, for example, Singaporean and Chinese intellectuals who argue that their societies are more socially integrated, less individualist, more long term in their orientation – and yes, more patriotic – than the selfish, short-termist societies of the Western democracies.

Many of Europe’s corporate leaders secretly – or indeed openly – agree with this Asian critique of their own societies. More generally, many Europeans accept much of its force.

And almost every European business with any significant international strategy intones a mantra that says “go east.” There is widespread respect, in short, for this Asian special path.

The new Asia

Not that this Asian special path is any less materialistic in its aspirations, judging by the shape of emerging middle class demand throughout the region. From McDonalds to Johnnie Walker, to Mercedes and Jaguar, to pop music and to branded fashion accessories, Asians’ appetite for the paraphernalia of Western life seems limitless.

As for the cultural authenticity and creativity that Asian societies with such long and rich traditions might have been expected to project, the truth is rather that there has been a wholesale rush towards kitsch and glitz.

In particular, what has been done to the ancient cities of Asia in the name of modern development is in many cases tragic. Future generations will surely curse all the destruction – the loss of so much of the old Beijing, for example, and comparable losses in so many of the big cities of the new Asia.

So we could well ask of Asia’s presumed special path: How real is it? And how durable, how deeply rooted in the cultural identity of its societies?

Indeed, it is perfectly clear that the leadership in more and more Asian societies is becoming anxious about the spiritual vacuum being created in the hell-bent-for-leather rush towards modernization.

But what about Europe? While some of the 21st century’s most important new challengers lay claim to their own new special path, Europeans agonize. What does Europe have to offer in this new, globalized world?

28 cultures?

Does Europe really consist of 28 different cultures, and therefore 28 different identities, each striving to make its own way in the global competition?

Or is there some level at which there are fundamental commonalities, shared by 28 different member states, which give them a common vision of their place in the world? Is there, in other words, a European identity?

It is easy to assume the answer is no. There are surely just too many differences – of language above all, but also in whole ways of life. No one could mistake a southern Italian town for a north German one, for example. The language, the appearance, the atmosphere, the style of living is so fundamentally different.

This variety is thrown into relief all the more clearly by the sharp contrast with the broad and bland similarity among American cities from one end of the country to the other – the physical manifestation of the famous American melting pot.

On the other hand, it could be argued there is indeed a European identity and that this very variety is itself a crucial element in that identity – that it is precisely that rich, colorful kaleidoscope, from the west coast of Ireland to the islands of Greece and from Malta to the northern Scandinavia and everything in between, which makes Europe what it is.

It is a variety which is not just geographic, but a rich social and cultural variety as well.

Is this real? Can it really be the basis of an identity? Doesn’t that collide head on with radically differing worldviews about the nature of society and the role of the state?

Individualism, social rationalism and discipline

To mention but three: The British are deeply imbued with an individualism and a skeptical empiricism inherited from Locke and Hume.

The French, on other hand, are rooted in a rationalism with a propensity for elitist social engineering, born of a tradition which goes back to Descartes, to the philosophes, to the French Revolution and to Napoleon.

And Germany? Wasn’t it always a complicated blend of duty and discipline, but also of metaphysics and romanticism – the land of all those poets and composers?

One thing is certain: the very idea of a common identity and a European special way stirs uneasiness. The British dislike grand schemes and have a longstanding fear of continental entanglements. The French dislike integrationist ambitions unless reflecting their own worldview and built on the premise of French leadership.

Meanwhile, Germany, whose size and centrality had always been such a risk to itself and to others, and which now finds that it is the center of a new Europe, winces at the very idea of leadership.

Is a European identity impossible?

Does that mean that, just looking at the case of the three largest European countries (quite apart from the others), there are such fundamental differences of worldview, and therefore of identity, that the formation of a coherent and meaningful European identity has no chance of success?

The answer surely has to be no. The Europeans have things in common which are not in the end overwhelmed by these differences, important though they undoubtedly are.

Even the British know they are different from the Americans, and in general Europeans have become more conscious of those transatlantic differences over the last five decades, after those first heady years of cultural Americanization after the war.

And no one could be under any illusion about the differences between the cultures of Europe and the cultures of Asia.

The facts of geography have resulted in common European interests. The tortuous course of European history has produced common values.

And the facts of both geography and history have led Europe to embark on common projects which have created new history and a new common future filled with both potential and risks.

Editor’s note: The above text is adapted from Reluctant Meister: How Germany’s Past is Shaping Its European Future by Stephen Green, Haus Publishing (December 15, 2014)


Many of Europe's corporate leaders secretly agree with the Asian critique of European societies.

Does Europe really consist of 28 different cultures, and therefore 28 different identities?

Geography and history have led Europe to embark on a new common future with potential and risks.