‘Where do you come from?’ The impact of migration on European identity.

Author: Revd Darrell Jackson, Tutor in European Studies and Director, Nova Research Centre, Redcliffe College.


It is typically claimed that European identity is rooted in its Christian heritage, Enlightenment civilisation, and Modernity. Traditional definitions of the idea of Europe that identify our continent as the centre of civilisation, liberty and Christendom assume that all Europeans ascribe to those values, and that to be European you must ascribe to them. [1] In a recent conversation with a senior Roman Catholic cleric in Europe I was taken aback by his insistence that Europe’s experience of sixty years of peace, following the end of the Second World War, was something to be commended to other continents. In fact, he spoke of this as a gift to the wounded peoples of Africa. He and I were quite obviously reading different history books and watching different news stories. I also suspect that our evaluations of Constantine might have differed somewhat!

The concept of a European identity is notoriously slippery and the most optimistic of observers concedes that its development remains a project and a process. However, I happen to be convinced that Christians should care deeply about the development of a European identity. I believe this for no other reason than that it seems at times to have been too readily tied up with concepts of ‘Fortress Europe’. A European identity that is solely identified with the European Union, the Schengen Agreement, the free movement of peoples only within the internal market, or the tightening of external border controls, is an identity that deepens an ‘Us’/‘Other’ dichotomy. Europe’s historical and recent experience of nationalisms should be sufficient warning against the dangers of defining ourselves in opposition to who we are not.

All nationalisms tend to assume that members of the nation share certain essential commonalities. Many of these are mythological in character. A similar danger lurks in the corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg. Whether these are to be found in the comments of the same Roman Catholic interlocutor who stressed the importance of referring to Europe’s‘Christian roots’ or of the politician who speaks of Europe’s Enlightenment commitment to civilisation and individual liberty. These essentialist understandings of Europe fail to take into account our own shared history of ‘barbarism’, restriction of civil liberties, or of an earlier version of Europe founded in Greek’s classical version of democracy (which incidentally excluded women and slaves).

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