Affective identity and the EU

One of my twitter correspondents – Purple Revolution – has come back to me several times ony postings about making the EU work (e.g. last week’s). PR’s argument is that since the Union lacks any affective identification (i.e. people don’t identify themselves as Europeans), it cannot work as a democracy.

Twitter is – as my students will happily tell you – is not a good place to have that sort of discussion, so I thought I’d throw down a fall points here, without the character limit.

Let’s take a different example. I live in Surrey and have done for a decade. I live here because of my work and general life circumstances. However, I do not identify myself as a Surrey-ian (Surrey-ite? Surreyer?) at all.

Despite this, I accept that there is a need for a mechanism of local government, which happens to be the exciting mix of Surrey County Council and Guildford Borough Council. I live vote in the elections for both of these, even if I couldn’t tell you the names of my representatives or of the Councils’ leaderships. I pay local taxation, respect local ordinances and generally live within the system set out for me by others. My lack of affective belonging is neither here nor there.

This is analogous to the European Union, except that the EU doesn’t levy taxes on me. And remember that Surrey’s Councils have much more impact on my life than the EU does.

Just as I didn’t choose to be part of the EU, so I didn’t choose to be part of Surrey. Or Tower Hamlets, where I was born (and for which I also have no affective belonging).  As you will guess, I don’t have any problem with that.

Much as I would like to claim ownership of this model of constitutional democracy, I can’t, since it was Juergen Habermas‘ idea. Essentially, all democratic models require some aspect of constitutionality, in the sense that they need to be bounded, with clear relationships between rulers and ruled, as well as with mechanisms for representation within – and amendment of – the system.

I can agree with PR’s idea in as much as the lack of deep affective identification does make things more difficult, but they certainly don’t make them impossible. All political units are constructions, ‘imagined communities’ in Anderson’s phrase, in that we don’t actually share very much with our compatriots. Anderson approached this in a critical way, stressing the artifice of the ‘nation’, but I take it in a softer line, of recognising that just as nations are constructed, so too can be other political units, at various levels of operation (from local to global).  People are masters of their destiny and we make the world around us: if we can recognise that, then we might be able to work towards a more functional and legitimate political system.