The European Union is at a crossroads in terms of deciding what it is to be. Most Europeans have an opinion, however there are two main groups: the Euro-federalists who believe that the European Union is an intermediary step in the evolution to a supranational European federal state, and the anti-federalists who believe the current economic union is the final stage of evolution for the European Union. (Grigoriadis, 2006). The question of Turkey’s accession to the European Union is at the crux of the debate. As many current EU member nations continue to struggle with immigration issues, racism, and religious intolerance of Muslims—specifically in England and France (Roskin, 2011), it is not surprising that the question of Turkey’s accession is bringing discussion of these social cleavages to a head. The outcome of the debate, while far from certain, will have lasting impacts in terms of what Europe will or will not become. Immigration to EU member nations is not likely to decrease with the increasing trend of climatic change and the forecast of over two-hundred million climate, or environmental, refugees by 2050. (Kolmannskog and Myrstad, 2009). A supranational United States of Europe may be better able to cope with the influx of immigrants and coordinate future disaster and relief efforts than the present European Union and may provide the impetus to bring the nation states together into a supranational federal state. But before that can happen, the people and nations of the European Union must answer questions about their own individual and national identities. To forge a supranational European identity, the people of the European Union nation states must embrace their cultural diversity. It is only then that they can make a decision about what they want Europe to be.

Embracing cultural diversity for the people of Europe will undoubtedly be a challenging undertaking for many reasons, not the least of which is each individual nation’s long nationalist history and struggles against both the Church and foreign oppressors along with internal class conflict. Present day France illustrates the issue with their current attempts to grapple with immigration. The “French republican ideal posits a single French identity without subgroups.” (Roskin, 2011, p. 159). And yet, subgroups exist. According to Roskin, immigration is not new. Between “1880 and 1960 some 7 million Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Poles and Russians were integrated into French Society. But starting in 1960, many Muslims arrived and fueled major racial tensions. Now numbering between 5 and 6 million, perhaps 9 percent of France’s population, are from former French colonies in West and North Africa—such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and Mali.” (Roskin, 2011, p. 157). Today, even second generation Muslims and Africans who were born in France still face difficulty in being considered French by the French because of their cultural differences and skin color. So they are discriminated against. (Roskin, 2011). If France cannot accept minorities in their own country and consider them French, what is the hope of the creation of a supranational state made up of not just France and its many minority populations, but all the member nations of the EU and all of the minority people that exist within each separate nation with their own cultures and belief systems? With the breakup of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia into smaller states based on ethnicity and culture, the trend might very well be that of the formation of smaller nation states rather than the creation of a far larger supranational one.

Another major challenge to the creation of a European identity and culture arises from the need to reconcile the differences among the myriad languages that exist in EU member nations, as language is an integral part of culture. Estonia is illustrative of the importance of a common language in a nation. After Estonia regained statehood in the post-Soviet era, Estonia discovered it had a problem regarding the status of a third of its citizens. During the Soviet era, many Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians immigrated to Estonia and lived in that country and raised families for decades. However, they retained their own cultural heritages and continued to speak Russian. Following the restoration of Estonia’s statehood, it was determined that Soviet annexation of Estonia was a violation of international law. As such, those who had immigrated to Estonia or were born of parents who had immigrated to Estonia during the Soviet era were declared non-citizens. Estonia took the stance that the laws concerning immigration to Estonia prior to the Soviet era were the only legal basis to rule on citizenship, and since these immigration steps had not been followed, claims of citizenship among the ethnic groups who had immigrated to Estonia were null and void. Post Soviet Estonia provided a remedy in terms of allowing residence for those ethnic groups within the country, but they had to go through the immigration process which included a waiting period of five years along with the adoption of Estonian culture and learning of the Estonian language. (Feldman, 2005). Language helps define cultural groups. Most nations designate an official language or languages. A supranational European federal state, if created today, would include dozens of official languages. But while this approach would not work for the people of Estonia, India, with its eighteen official languages (Roskin, 2011), may provide an example of how a supranational state with dozens of official languages could function. And if discussion ensued regarding standardization of the cultural elements and/or language proficiencies immigrants to any of the EU member nation states should demonstrate as minimum requirements for immigration to any of the EU member nations, then a framework of commonality could begin to be constructed from which a European identity might emerge.

Citizenship is an issue that will delay European Union or a supranational European State sovereignty as well as sovereignty is still a function of nation states and the assignment of which creates state legitimacy. Feldman explains: “citizenship remains firmly in the competence of EU member states. Relinquishing this prerogative would deprive the state of the legitimacy to speak in the name of the nation for which it exists. This legitimacy depends upon the state’s ability to control the distinction between ‘national’ and ‘non-national.’ International migrants—justly or unjustly—intrude upon the intimate relationship between the citizen and the nation state. Even if they are welcome, immigrants always leave the state vulnerable to the charge that it is failing to prioritize its own nationals. Second, and closely related, within this logical frame immigrants constitute an inherent national security risk insofar as they wedge themselves between the nation and the state…national security is no longer conceived only in explicit military terms but rather in vaguer, softer ‘cultural’ terms.” (Feldman, 2005, pp. 214-215). Perhaps this is one of the reasons why immigrants are really unwelcome in France and why second generation immigrants still have difficulty assimilating into French culture. Immigrants, whether the attribution is fair or not or accurate or not, threaten existing national cultures. To get beyond this perception or reality, nations must embrace the diversity within their national culture along with the distinctiveness that immigrants bring with them. Historically, embracing the pluralism of the societies within Europe has been a characteristic of all Europeans and may be a key component of a truly European identity.

“All Europeans are proud to hail from a part of the world where Montaigne and Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Cervantes, Mozart and Goethe were all born, and to adhere to the social and political principles commonly referred to as human rights….Shortly after the First World War, the poet and essayist Paul Valery thus propounded an interpretation that enjoyed a certain influence. I call European, Valery argued, those peoples who over the course of their history have let themselves be shaped by three major influences, those symbolized by Rome, Jerusalem, and Athens. From Rome comes the empire, with the organized power of a state, law and political institutions, and citizenship. From Jerusalem, or rather from Christianity, Europeans inherited subjective morality, self examination, and universal justice. Finally, Athens gave Europe the love of knowledge and of rational argumentation, the ideal of harmony, and the idea of humans as the measure of all things. Valery concluded that whoever claimed this threefold heritage could justly be considered as Europeans.” (Todorov and Bracher, 2008, pp. 3-4).

Further, Todorov and Bracher argue that the “unity of European culture resides in its manner of handling the different regional, national, religious, and cultural identities that comprise it by granting them a new status and taking advantage of this very plurality. The cultural identity of Europe does not lead to wiping out particular cultures and local memories. It consists not in a list of proper names nor in a repertory of general ideals, but in the adoption of one common attitude in the face of diversity.” (Todorov and Bracher, 2008, p. 7). Similarly, the thirteen newly independent states that composed the United States under the Articles of Confederation adopted a common attitude of the need for stronger federal control or uniformity in the face of the diversity of laws, policies and approaches to various issues and quickly determined that the Articles of Confederation were not adequate to meet the needs of the young nation. The United States, however, was a fairly cultural homogenous group at the time, if no longer, and the United States may be beginning to experience some of the fragmentation and conflict from increasing cultural diversity that the EU nation states have been wrestling with for centuries on their own continent. Nevertheless, if the EU member states were to unite together to work towards a common goal or to solve a common problem, the framework could be established to forge a supranational identity among Europeans. But what issue would be large enough to motivate all EU member nations and their people to come together and work on a common issue? It might very well be mass migration from displaced peoples due to climatic change.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that ‘there is very high confidence that the net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming’. Climate change has impacts on the environment. The number of recorded natural disasters has doubled from approximately 200 to over 400 per year over the past two decades. Nine out of ten could be climate-related, and this may be the new normal. The overwhelming evidence of human induced climate change has renewed the interest in, and relevance of, the environmental displacement debate. Disasters and gradual degradation can serve as a direct cause of displacement, or as an indirect cause of displacement through conflicts over scarce resources or response measures such as biofuel-projects. As a result of climate change, as many as 200 million people can be displaced by 2050 according to Norman Meyers, British environmentalist and biodiversity expert. While one may question the precision and validity of such estimates and caution against the determinism in the dominating discourse on climate change and displacement, there can be no doubt that the impact of climate change on the environment and displacement is likely to be of such a serious nature that it demands urgent action by the international community.” (Kolmannskog and Myrstad, 2009, pp. 313-314).

Because immigration is such a heated issue in EU nations, and since those that are likely to be displaced will come from developing countries and coastal areas subject to sea level rise, Europe will be an attractive destination to the displaced because of its first world status and its many access points to the displaced from Turkey in the East to Spain in the South. (Kolmannskog and Myrstad, 2009). Therefore, Europe must determine a policy of how to absorb an influx of at least tens of millions of people in the coming decades, if not more, perhaps through the institution of a preemptive migration scheme.

“The ‘Pacific Access Category’ of the Government of New Zealand, which is an immigration scheme for the population of pacific islands threatened by rising sea level, offers opportunities for ‘would be’ environmentally displaced persons. Each year a fixed number of people are granted work and permanent resident permits. People living in the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea were in 2008 preparing to evacuate their homes for Bougainville as a result of changing climatic conditions.” (Kolmannskog and Myrstad, 2009, p. 325). But even with a preemptive migration scheme in place, on a far larger scale than what has been initiated for the people of Papua New Guinea by New Zealand, national security is now perceived in cultural terms. How do you overcome the feeling that your national security is at risk in terms of having your culture overrun or eliminated? If EU member nations are concerned about immigration at all, and they are, certainly fragmented approaches to immigration issues by EU member nations may become a source of conflict as lax and uncoordinated responses to displacement issues by individual EU member nations may cause issues in other member nations because of the ease of travel within the EU. Clearly, a proactive approach and coordination among all EU member nations is not only desirable, but required if the EU member nations are to control their borders and avoid being overrun; and yet, the current EU is not in a position to coordinate efforts as it has yet to evolve into a supranational state, or even a political one.

“Finally, the European countries and the EU should also be proactive in raising and seeking to address humanitarian concerns, including displacement, in the ongoing global climate change negotiations…a comprehensive EU approach to climate change and environmental displacement [is needed]. External measures such as supporting adaptation are crucial since most of the displaced persons in the world today and in the near future are of course outside EU borders.” (Kolmannskog and Myrstad, 2009, pp. 315-316).

It might just be possible that the need to address displacement and climatic change issues might be the lynchpin issue EU member nations need to define their collective identity and to rally around the creation of a supranational Euro-federal state. There are examples within Europe where cultural revolutions have taken place that have led to multi-nation state cooperation, specifically in terms of the pollution of the Elbe River.

During the Cold War period, the Elbe River became one of the most polluted in Europe. While this was recognized by the Czech and East German governments, there was little cooperation on the issue between Czechoslovakia, East Germany and West Germany. But the cultural revolution following the end of the Cold War eliminated the barriers necessary for environmental action, remediation and restoration of the Elbe River. As the Czech Republic also sought accession to the EU, it had a further incentive to cooperate with Germany. “Without the economic, political and cultural revolution of 1989, the Elbe water regime would have been difficult, if not impossible to achieve. While there was no substantial cooperation between 1949 and 1989, the post Cold War period has seen the rapid development of a comprehensive water regime. The subsequent process of progressive regional integration in the context of EU enlargement has provided an enabling environment and facilitated the development of ‘issue-linkage’ strategies. (Lindemann, 2008, p. 136).

The context of EU enlargement and issue linkage may be the deciding factor in the Turkish accession debate. “Turkey’s Islamic religious and cultural identity can, for example, be viewed as a reason to either accept or reject Turkey’s EU membership application. This mirrors the lack of consensus on how to deal with religion in the debate over a common European identity. Advocates of multiculturalism and supranationalism, who argue that the EU identity should be based on liberal democratic values and cultural diversity, firmly support Turkey’s membership….The admission of a Muslim country into the European Union would constitute the most effective guarantee of its secular, inclusive, and multicultural character and provide a powerful example for the rest of the world….On the other hand, Turkey’s Islamic character becomes the most powerful argument against the country’s membership, especially for many European conservatives who focus on the religious and cultural aspects of European identity. In their view, further European integration is possible only if the European Union forges an identity based on its Judeo-Christian religious and Greco-Roman political heritage. As Turkey lacks this heritage it is unsuitable for EU membership.” (Grigoriadis, 2006, p. 152).

Grigoriadis explains the crux of the debate regarding Turkish accession to the EU: “Turkey’s EU membership debate also has been a proxy for debates on what the European Union is or should become. Differing approaches to prospective Turkish membership highlight divergent visions of the present and future of the European Union project. Supporters and opponents of Turkey’s EU membership also have been internally divided, basing their position on different grounds. As different definitions of European identity and visions of Europe coexist, the same arguments may be used for and against Turkey’s EU membership, thus making the picture even more complex. (Grigoriadis, 2006, p. 152).

However, with the issue of climatic change displacement and potential mass migration on the horizon, the sticking points over Turkey seem to be almost insignificant in light of what the EU may not be able to control. Thus an issue linkage may exist or the time may be ripe for a comprehensive policy to address future mass migration along with the need to come to terms with and define a European identity that reflects the multicultural characteristics and pluralism of the people who reside within the EU member nations, if only to avoid chaos by controlling the flow of immigration and migration should Meyers’ projections of the numbers of climatic displaced persons prove accurate. As the debate over Turkish accession takes place in the context of discussions of larger issues and trends affecting the EU member nations and the world it may become easier to reconcile the differences of the two main groups on opposite sides on the question of a supranationalist Euro-federalist state.

The question Europeans must answer is: “what does it mean to be European?” Turkey’s accession to the EU is the crucible where that all-important answer might be forged. Perhaps the reason that a United States of Europe has not yet evolved might be that individuals and nations really haven’t thought about the question, let alone spent the time and effort to propose a credible answer. As individual nations, the EU member states are looking inward to their own affairs and needs first, perhaps without considering the larger picture and benefits of what a supranational Euro-federal state might provide for all Europeans. Certainly, in terms of addressing global issues, a supranational state would be more influential speaking for all of Europe than a myriad of smaller voices advocating individual positions on their own. But to forge a supranational European identity, the people of the European Union nation states must embrace their cultural diversity. Perhaps then they wouldn’t have to make a decision about what they want Europe to be, for by working together to iron out these issues, their actions will bring their vision of a European identity, and a United Europe into being.

As Americans, we might begin to ask ourselves the same questions as to what it means to be American and citizens of the United States. Our society is becoming increasingly diverse. As immigrants arrive at our borders, whether legally or illegally, they bring their own cultures and languages with them. Additionally, the United States will not be immune to the pressures to provide a haven for the world’s climatically displaced. The United States is already severely divided along many social cleavages. Not to oversimplify, but the blue state/red state divide is illustrative of the many types of issues that divide America. The United States has been able to stay together as a nation, however. But as we approach 250 years of existence as a nation in 2026 and deal with greater natural disasters than even 2011 has inflicted and the struggle with increasing immigration and cultural diversity, what national will will keep us united as a nation? Will increasing diversity fracture this nation the way European nations have splintered over ethnic lines? Or will our diversity finally be regarded as a true strength not just in principle and provide the glue that holds the United States together? What transpires in the European Union and the implications of those events are worthy of American attention and thought as we continually define who and what we want to be as a people and as a nation.

Thanks for reading.

Feldman, G. (2005). Essential crises: A performative approach to migrants, minorities, and the European nation-state. Anthropological Quarterly, 78 (1), 213-246.

Grigoriadis, I. N. (2006). Turkey’s accession to the European Union: Debating the most difficult enlargement ever. SAIS Review, 26 (1), 147-160.

Kolmannskog, V. and Myrstad, F. (2009). Environmental Displacement in European Asylum Law. European Journal of Migration and Law, 1 (1), 313-326.

Lindemann, S. (2008). Understanding water regime formation–a research framework with lessons from Europe. Global Environmental Politics, 8 (4), 117-140.

Roskin, M. (2011). Countries and concepts: Politics, geography, culture (Eleventh ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson: Longman.

Todorov, T. and Bracher, N. (2008). European Identity. South Central Review, 25 (3), 3-15.

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