European Union flag with lots of people and confusing arrows pointing in different directions.
Confused Identity

National identity in Europe today is confused. EU supporters have not succeeded in creating a convincing pan-European identity to replace their counterparts in the member states. Is there a solution?

In addition to changing the formal requirements for citizenship, European countries need to shift their popular understandings of national identity away from those based on ethnicity. In the early 2000s, a German academic of Syrian origin named Bassam Tibi proposed Leitkultur, ‘leading culture’, as the basis for German national identity. Leitkultur was defined in liberal Enlightenment terms as belief in quality and democratic values.

Yet his proposal was attacked from the left for suggesting that those values were superior to other cultural values; in so doing the left gave unwitting comfort not just to Islamists, but also to the right that still believed in ethnic identity.

Germany needs something precisely like Leitkultur, a normative change that would permit a Turk to speak of him- or herself as German. This is beginning to happen, but slowly. Down the road, something like a pan-European identity may someday emerge. Perhaps this needs to happen outside the cumbersome and bureaucratic decision-making structures that constitute the contemporary EU.

Europeans have created a remarkable civilisation of which they should be proud, one that can encompass people from other cultures even as it remains aware of the distinctiveness of its own.

Compared to Europe, the United States has been far more welcoming of immigrants because it developed a creedal identity early on, based on its long history of immigration. Compared to Europeans, Americans have been proud of their naturalised citizens and typically make a great deal out of the naturalisation ceremony, with colour guards and hopeful speeches by local politicians.

As the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset used to point out, in the United States one can be accused of being ‘un-American’ in a way that once could not be said to be ‘un-Danish’ or ‘un-Japanese’. Americanism constituted a set of beliefs and a way of life, not an ethnicity; one can deviate from the former but not the latter. The creedal national identity that emerged in the wake of the American Civil War today needs to be strongly reemphasised and defended from attacks by both the left and the right.

A Country’s Creedal Identity

On the left, identity politics has sought to undermine the legitimacy of the American national story by emphasising victimisation, insinuating in some cases that racism, gender discrimination, and other forms of systematic exclusion are somehow intrinsic to the country’s DNA. All these things have been and continue to be features of American society, and they need to be confronted in the present.

Once a country has defined a proper creedal identity that is open to the de facto diversity of modern societies, the nature of controversies over immigration will inevitably have to change.

But a progressive narrative can also be told about the overcoming of barriers and the ever-broadening circles of people whose dignity the country has recognised, based on its founding principles. This narrative was part of the ‘new birth of freedom’ envisioned by Abraham Lincoln, and one that Americans celebrate on the holiday he created, Thanksgiving.

While the United States has benefited from diversity, it cannot build its national identity around diversity as such. Identity has to be related to substantive ideas such as constitutionalism, rule of law, and human equality. Americans respect these ideas; the country is justified in excluding from citizenship those who reject them.

Once a country has defined a proper creedal identity that is open to the de facto diversity of modern societies, the nature of controversies over immigration will inevitably have to change.

In both Europe and the United States, that debate is currently polarised between a right that seeks to cut off immigration altogether and would like to send current immigrants back to their countries of origin and a left that asserts a virtually unlimited obligation on the part of liberal democracies to accept migrants.

The real focus should instead be on strategies for better assimilating immigrants to a country’s creedal identity. Well-assimilated immigrants bring a healthy diversity to any society, and the benefits of immigration can be fully realised.


Illustration of people in a ship on the sea.
Identity has to be related to substantive ideas such as constitutionalism, rule of law, and human equality, illustration: Malte Mueller / fStop via picture alliance

Integration or Assimilation?

Many countries have in place policies that actively impede integration, such as the Dutch system of pillarisation. Britain and a number of other European countries provide public funding for Muslim schools, just as they support Christian and Jewish schools. To some extent this simply reflects the geographical concentration of immigrant communities and was done in the name of equal treatment.

If assimilation is the goal, however, this whole structure should be replaced by a system of common schools teaching a standardised curriculum. As in the Netherlands, it is a reach to think that this would be politically feasible, yet that is the kind of approach that would be needed were countries to take integration seriously.

In France, the problem is somewhat different. The French concept of republican citizenship, like its American counterpart, is creedal, built around the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity coming out of the French Revolution. The 1905 law on laïcité formally separates church and state and makes impossible the kinds of publicly funded religious schools operating in Britain or the Netherlands.

The French problem is threefold.

  • First, whatever French law says, a lot of discrimination in French society remains, which holds back opportunities from immigrants.
  • Second, the French economy has been under-performing for years, leading to overall unemployment rates that are twice those of neighbouring Germany. For France’s immigrant youth, the numbers are reaching 35 percent, compared to 25 for French youth as a whole.One important thing that France needs to do to integrate immigrants is to get them jobs and increase their hope for a better future, for instance by liberalising the labour market, as Emmanuel Macron has sought to do.
  • Finally, the very idea of French national identity and French culture has been under attack as Islamophobic; assimilation itself is not politically acceptable to many on the left. Defence of republican ideals of universal citizenship should not be left to parties like the National Front.

In the United States, an assimilation agenda begins with public education. The teaching of basic civics has been in long-term decline in the United States, not just for immigrants but for native-born Americans, and this needs to be reversed.

Like Europe, the United States too has policies that impede assimilation, such as the thirteen or so different languages taught in the New York City public school system. Bi- and multilingual programmes have been marketed as ways of speeding the acquisition of the English language by non-native speakers. But it has developed a constituency of its own, with the educational bureaucracy defending its prerogatives regardless of actual outcomes for English acquisition.

Assimilation of immigrants may require even more active measures. In recent decades, courts in the United States and other developed democracies have gradually eroded the distinction between citizen and noncitizen. Non-citizens enjoy many legal rights, such as the right to due legal process, freedom of speech, association and religion, and the right to use public services such as education.

Like Europe, the United States too has policies that impede assimilation […].

Noncitizens also share duties with citizens: they are expected to obey the law and must pay taxes, though only citizens are liable for jury duty in the United States.

The distinction between noncitizens who are documented and those who are not is sharper, since the latter are liable to deportation, but even the undocumented possess due process rights. The only major right that is conveyed solely by citizenship the right to vote; in addition, citizens can enter and exit the country freely and can expect support from their government when travelling abroad. Small as they are, it is important to hold on to these distinctions.

Universal Basic Rights in a National Community

Black and white: A hand throws a ballot paper into a ballot box.
The right to vote gives individuals a share of state power, photo: Element5 Digital via unsplash

Basic human rights are universal, but full enjoyment of rights actively enforced by state power is a reward for membership in a national community and acceptance of that community’s rules. The right to vote is particularly important, since it gives individuals a share of state power.

As a human being, I may have an abstract right to citizenship and political representation, but as an American citizen I would not expect to be able to vote in Italy or Ghana, even if I lived in one of those countries. Contemporary liberal democracies do not demand a lot in return for state protection of their citizens‘ rights, and in particular the right to vote.

The sense of national community might be strengthened by a universal requirement for national service. Such a mandate would underline the fact that citizenship requires commitment and sacrifice to maintain.


One could do it by serving either in the military or in a civilian capacity. This requirement is actually articulated in the American naturalisation oath, which enjoins willingness to bear arms on behalf of the country, or to work in a civilian service as required by law. If such service was correctly structured, it would force young people to work together with others from very different social classes, regions, races and ethnicities, just as military service does today.

And like all forms of shared sacrifice, it would be a powerful way of integrating newcomers into the national culture. National service would be a contemporary form of classical republicanism, a form of democracy that encouraged virtue and public-spiritedness rather than simply leaving citizens alone to pursue their private lives. A policy focus on assimilation also means that levels of immigration and rates of change become important, for both Europe and the United States.

The text is based on Francis Fukuyama‘s book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2018.

About the Author
Portrait of Francis Fukuyama
Francis Fukuyama
Professor of political science at Stanford University, California

Francis Fukuyama is a professor of political science at Stanford University, where he directs the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. In his 1989 essay "The End of History?" he described liberal democracy as the culmination of social evolution. In May 2022, his new book "Liberalism and its Discontents" was published, which deals with the threat to liberalism. One of the most important political theorists in the USA, Fukuyama chairs the editorial board of American Purpose.
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