The European Project from a Psychological Perspective

_ Hans Alma, Professor of Cultural Psychology/Visiting Professor in Humanistic Studies, University of Humanistic Studies/Free University Brussels. Utrecht/Brussels, 11 December 2017.

Ever since World War Two, a dominant goal in Western European (and American) politics has been to realise a peaceful, thriving Europe that could withstand inner tensions and avoid the clashes that could lead to a new war. The way to realise this was through cooperation and unification. These can be thought of as strategies to cope with Europe’s diversity of civilisations.

A large part of European history concerns the clashes resulting from political, cultural and religious heterogeneity and the attempts to keep the peace despite these power conflicts. European leaders took steps to overcome the continent’s war-ridden past in the second part of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century. Yet, in the second decade of this century, the project of European integration and democratic development seems to have come to a halt. ‘Europe’ today is synonymous with ‘crisis’: financial crisis, political crisis, migration crisis, crisis of values. Books and articles are published with ominous titles like The End of Europe (Kirchick, 2017) or The Strange Death of Europe (Murray, 2017). In order to make sense of this development, we need to look at some of the important steps in the European project.

An important impetus was, of course, the Marshall Plan (1947) with which the United States tried to prevent both a new crisis that could lead to war and the rise of communism by reviving the European economy. The first formal steps in the integration of Europe were the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, followed by the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. Although these communities primarily united European countries in an economic sense, their goal was clearly to secure lasting peace. With vivid memory of the horrors of the world wars and the dominance of the Cold War between East and West, it was easy to argue for the urgency of a united and democratic Western Europe. The original members of the European Union (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, West Germany) were followed by new member states – especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – culminating in the Maastricht Treaty of 1993, which established the EU and the notion of European citizenship. Finally, the constitutional basis of the Union was strengthened through the Treaty of Lisbon (2009).

Throughout these steps, the focus was on economic and political integration, with landmarks such as the monetary union (2002) and the Schengen Area in which passport controls have been abolished. In implementing them, European leaders demonstrated their commitment to a ‘master narrative’ dedicated to human rights, peace and democratic values, as the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the entire European Union in 2012 acknowledged. By that time, however, cracks in the European project were already visible. Coming up with a constitutional framework for the EU had proved to be very difficult. Ratification by each member state of the agreed-upon Constitution was hindered in 2005 after voters in France and the Netherlands rejected. In 2007 the EU decided to abandon the constitution and simply amend existing treaties, resulting in the Lisbon Treaty, which went into effect in 2009. Even before the financial crisis of 2008, this process had demonstrated that there was already substantial resistance to the project of European integration within its member states. And subsequent developments, most significantly the 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, have made it clear that this resistance is growing.

These events have led to many discussions about the causes of this crisis and its relationship to the global financial crisis, the debt crisis in a number of member states, and the increase in immigration from outside the European Union. At this point, even if solutions to the EU’s major economic problems could be found, it is clear that they wouldn’t suffice to restore European citizens’ confidence in the master narrative that supported the project of integration. The rise of populism and nationalism, the unsatisfactory turnouts in European elections, and the emergence of autocratic leaders bear witness to a deepening crisis in democratic values. Religious issues are caught up in this crisis in complex ways. Western European secular societies claim to offer a neutral public space as an answer to religious diversity. However, critics argue that this neutrality with regard to worldviews is ultimately just a means of asserting (neo)liberal values (e.g., Ager and Ager, 2016; Williams, 2012; Wilson and Steger, 2013). Moreover, the retreat of religion that was predicted by secularisation theories hasn’t come about. Immigrant houses of worship, Islam and new religious movements are further diversifying the religious landscape of Europe. Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism are experienced as a serious threat to Europe’s democratic legacy.

In this article, I will focus on this European crisis of values. It is my contention that values have been neglected in the project of integration and that this partly explains the difficulty of sustaining a vision of European citizenship. The master narrative that was supposed to link economic and political decisions to humanist values like freedom, human dignity and tolerance has either remained too implicit or proved to be too thin provide a stable foundation for the European project (e.g., Kirchick, 2017). In their collection Re:Thinking Europe (2016), Yoeri Albrecht and Mathieu Segers claim that the fundamental question “What is Europe?” always gives rise to disquiet, because it remains unanswered. According to Albrecht, no new debate has been held on the utility of cooperation in Europe since the end of the cold war in 1989. Instead, all emphasis has been on a rationalist, bureaucratic approach (Albrecht, 2016, p.10). Now that the very idea of Europe has become controversial, it is time to rethink the project. “Countries, cultures, cities and political projects cannot advance unless the ideas that underlie them are developed, discussed, criticised, shared and supported.” (ibid., p.9; see also Segers, 2016) Albrecht sees an important role for “public intellectuals” in this development, specifically mentioning artists, writers and philosophers.

As much I endorse this appeal, I think we need more. We also must find a way to understand the psychological needs of people that are expected to experience themselves as ‘European citizens’. Even if public intellectuals discuss the idea and values of Europe, we cannot expect people to identify with these if their own needs, hopes, longings, fears and frustrations aren’t taken into account. According to the social psychologist Charles Rojzman, political, economic and social circumstances cannot be separated from the psychological circumstances that allow for – or fail to – a non-neurotic relationship to reality (cited in D’Ansembourg and Van Reybrouck, 2017, p.92). In agreement with this observation, I will propose a psychological perspective in my endeavour to re-think Europe.

1. Psychological conditions for the European project of integration

“European brilliance stems from doubt, and from the hunger for knowledge and insight that accompanies it. . . It stems from culture and the art of politics. The day that Europe becomes lazy or complacent in such matters will be the day that catastrophe comes a step closer” (Segers, 2016, p.14). When he writes these words, Segers is well aware that Europe is “in the eye of the beholder”, and that, along with brilliance, there are many black pages in European history and self-understanding. Still, his view that doubt and the search for knowledge are major characteristics and also maybe strengths of Europe is shared by other authors. Vanheeswijck (2016) cites the French historian Paul Hazard who characterises European culture as a relentless search for truth – relentless because the truths that are found always prove to be unsatisfactory. A provisional European identity is built on incessant self-reflection.

Historians and philosophers may well understand the European quest for truth and its unwillingness to accept a definite identity (Vanheeswijck, 2016, p.8) as a major characteristic and strength, but they have little to say about the psychological needs and possibilities of the people who are supposed to identify with Europe in the process of integrating it. In discussions about the current crisis in Europe, surprisingly little is written about the psychological conditions for becoming a European citizen. Or perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us because ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ realities are studied in separate academic disciplines that hardly communicate with one another. Psychology is about inner reality and, therefore, supposedly about the individual, and even social psychology tends to be ignored in many political analyses (Borgida, Federico and Sullivan, 2009). To understand the complexity of Europe’s political predicament, however, we need to understand the psychological circumstances of the human beings that populate Europe. For this, we can turn to political psychology as an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of psychology and political science and to (social) psychologists who don’t eschew societal and political questions.

One of the topics political psychology concerns itself with is ‘citizen competence’ as it is implied in democratic theories. The editors of the collection The Political Psychology of Democratic Citizenship (2009), Eugene Borgida, Christopher Federico and John Sullivan choose five themes for their interdisciplinary approach to democratic citizenship: civic knowledge; persuasion processes and intervention processes in contemporary democracies; group identity; hate crimes and tolerance; technology and mass media. These themes, they argue, are central to the health of democratic societies. Although each of the themes offers an interesting perspective on psychological conditions for becoming a European citizen, I will restrict myself here to the question of group identity, as it is of pivotal importance for the questions raised in this paper.

As demonstrated by a large body of research, group identification is central to political behaviours and attitudes (Brewer, 2009). What does this mean for the European project, given that the EU consists of “pluralistic democratic states” with multiple overlapping group memberships (cf. Brewer, 2009), creating a context of cultural, political and religious diversity, not only between, but also within its member states? With regard to the people living in such states, Brewer distinguishes between citizenship as a “role identity defined by the rights and obligations associated with civic life and membership in a democratic polity” and national identification as “the sense of being an integral part of a single political community and in collective solidarity” (ibid., p.154/155). Citizenship – on the individual level – and national identification – on the collective level – can be mutually reinforcing, but do not need to be.

For Brewer, national identity relies on the human need to belong as a fundamental and extremely pervasive motivation. Yet, people also want to distinguish themselves from others and seek distinctive group identities within their nation and sometimes in opposition to it. According to optimal distinctiveness theory, national identity will be highest when inclusion needs are activated and national distinctiveness is salient. In order for this to happen, similarities within the in-group need to be emphasised, and differences between groups need to be accentuated (ibid., p.157). Brewer comes to the conclusion that “there is some inevitable tension between maintaining strong national identity on the one hand and the existence of heterogeneity and pluralism within the nation on the other (ibid., p.158). If this is the case for national identity, what hope can there be that people will acquire a European identity, other than when it is threatened by outsider countries or continents?

In order to produce a truly European citizen, there would have to be little or no friction between national identification and European identification. Political leaders would have to extend the sense of political community and collective solidarity from the national to the European level and then sustain positive interdependence between the different levels. Only then would it be possible for people to maintain “dual identities” (Brewer, 2009, p.158). According to Brewer, “our capacity for multiple social identities” can prevent polarisation and conflict. But this would require complex, cross-cutting patterns of social differentiation, subdividing a whole group into different subgroupings with partially overlapping memberships – e.g., a member is black AND a woman AND Muslim AND well educated AND works in the field of education.

This approach makes social categorisation more complex and reduces the magnitude of in-group-outgroup distinctions. Furthermore, the individual need for belonging becomes less dependent on identification with one social group. At the same time, group members are stimulated to look for a superordinate social identity. “One effect of multiple cross-cutting in-group memberships is to motivate individuals to seek a more inclusive in-group identity that incorporates or transcends their plural social identities” (ibid., p.164). Distinctive subgroup identities need not be eliminated, but active participation in different groups at the subgroup level should be stimulated.

Such active participation depends among other things on the saliency of different social categorisations, to prevent any one dimension of social differentiation, such as religion, from becoming dominant in the definition of collective identity. We see this single-category dominance happening with Muslims in many European countries in which a religiously inflected polarisation takes hold. In the aftermath of 9/11, people with an Islamic background were identified by others primarily in terms of their religion. Brewer makes clear that such processes hinder the development of inclusive multiple social identities. “In order for crossed categories to have psychological effects, two or more category distinctions must have functional significance within the same social context” (Brewer, 2009, p.167; italics in original).

What enables individual citizens to live with multiple social identities without seeking inclusion in one dominant subgroup? One factor Brewer mentions is tolerance for uncertainty, and it is to this that I will now turn my attention. My main reason for doing so is that becoming a European citizen is not a process that takes place in isolation, within the space of a relatively peaceful, democratic, and wealthy continent. On the contrary, we must take the dynamics of globalisation into account, particularly as reflected in the migrant crisis.

Dialogical self theory (DST), based on the work of the personality psychologist Hubert Hermans (Hermans and Gieser, 2012), pays close attention to globalisation processes, the growing uncertainty they bring, and the way in which they influence perceptions of self and identity. Hermans and Dimaggio (2007) point out that these processes have to be understood in terms of the tension between globalisation and localisation. They speak of two sociocultural trends that are closely intertwined: “(a) globalisation as boundary crossing leading to international and intercultural connectedness and exchange and (b) localisation as sets of customs or practices emerging from particular places, regions, or countries” (Hermans and Dimaggio, 2007, p.33).

Globalisation and localisation pose different and even opposing demands on the self. While the influence of these competing forces may result in a hybrid identity that successfully combines elements of global and local situations, that is not always the case. Although people with hybrid identities may be well adapted to the complexity of our world, for many of them this situation brings uncertainty or even identity confusion. Uncertainty need not be a negative experience: it may invite challenging explorations of the unknown, such as through travelling. However, the experience of uncertainty may also lead to an experience of insecurity or anxiety. This “ontological insecurity” (Giddens, 1991; Kinnvall, 2004) may motivate people to search for security and certainty in local niches.

Does this perspective help us understand what has been happening in Europe? It is often argued that globalisation has winners and losers (e.g., Williamson, 2002; De la Dehesa, 2005; Milanovic, 2012). This outcome is typically conceptualised in economic terms, but DST suggests that it also holds true with regard to identity strategies. People that are able to develop a hybrid identity in Hermans’ terms, or inclusive multiple social identities in Brewer’s terms, will adapt more easily and successfully to the challenges of a globalising world. It seems clear that people who have a stable social and economic position, who travel a lot, are well educated and speak several languages will more easily realise this ‘open-mindedness’.

The Dutch essayist Bas Heijne (2017) warns us that people with this outlook on life don’t even try to understand the anxieties and frustration of other Dutch citizens, who are drawn to populist parties and manifest what psychologists call “closed-mindedness” (Kruglanski, 2004). Taking their own comfort with the impact of globalisation for granted, these ‘elites’ find it hard to comprehend the unease experienced by many of their compatriots. Again, (political) psychology might prove useful in helping them to adopt a more empathetic stance.

In an account of self and identity that has clear similarities to DST, Catarina Kinnvall (2004) points out that experiences of existential uncertainty and anxiety lead to the reaffirmation of threatened self-identities. Nationalism and religion are attractive ‘identity-signifiers’ because they seem to rest on the solid ground of truth, thereby providing answers to those in need. Ontological insecurity and existential anxiety are never simply an individual matter: security discourses are framed by structural relations that “reflect the division and inequality of power between those involved and affected by the discourse” (Kinnvall, 2004, p.745). Kinnvall thus connects individual consequences of the globalisation processes to structural ones, with a focus on the power relations involved.

It is clear that winning or losing within the dynamics of globalisation is closely related to the relative power of one’s position in society. This plays an important role in people’s attitude towards the European project of integration. And political psychology helps to explain how identity strategies bear on the process. People not only fear for their economic or social position, they also fear a loss of social identity through depreciation and marginalisation.

Kinnvall argues that people actually need to construct a comforting story about the self and that identity constructions have strong emotional underpinnings. This brings us to the importance of narrative for a (political) psychological understanding of both national and European identity. Hammack and Pilecki (2012) introduce the concept of narrative engagement, referring to the idea “that members of a society engage with collective stories of what it means to inhabit a particular political entity, be it a nation-state, a resistance movement, or a political party” (p.77). Like Hermans and Kinnvall, they consider identity to be dialogical and rooted in collectively shared stories that people use to make sense of their lives. They emphasise, however, that the internalisation of a “master narrative” is not a given.

Narrative engagement is not neutral with regard to political and historical forces. Just like language itself, it is embedded within a context of power and domination. “The idea of narrative engagement, however, suggests that individuals navigate a polyphonic context in which multiple storylines circulate and compete for dominance and primacy in individual appropriation” (ibid., p.79; italics in original). What meaning the individual gives to this complex of stories has political significance, and is important for the idea of cross-cutting patterns of social differentiation that Brewer introduced (see above). Social categorisation can be seen as a narrative process in which the social categories we inhabit are discursively constructed, making use of collective storylines. Yet, this is a largely implicit process, in which some categorisations are experienced as more ‘natural’ than others.

According to Reicher and Hopkins (2001), this is what makes nationhood the predominant form of social organisation: it is viewed as a natural rather than a social fact (cf. Hammack and Pilecki, 2012, p.83). This is a crucial point when it comes to the question of European integration: whereas many citizens experience their national identity as ‘natural’, that is not the case for European identity, which is more of an ‘acquired taste’. When Hammack and Pilecki state that “politics is linked to the personal through the process of engagement with narratives about the nation and its imagined past” (ibid., p.84), they direct us to ask how narrative engagement can contribute to European identity politics.

Concluding this section, we can see that the relentless quest for truth and unwillingness to settle on one fixed identity may be comfortable for some Europeans – typically well educated and economically secure ones – who have developed a hybrid social identity with an open mind, actively participating in a variety of social categories in which they meet with people from different backgrounds. But many people – typically those who have less economic, social, and cultural power – lack this capacity. For them, globalisation comes with ontological insecurity and existential anxiety, contributing to closed-mindedness and the reaffirmation of threatened self-identities. Nationality is an important identity-signifier to these people; it feels natural for them to engage with national stories.

What hope can there be for this less secure Europeans to be fully committed to European citizenship? Can the condition, mentioned earlier, in which little or no friction exists between national identification and European identification be realised for them as well as the elites who are already comfortable with hybrid identity? Can political leaders find a way to extend the sense of political community and collective solidarity from the national to the European level? Can Europe become an “imagined community” (Anderson, 1983) with which most of its inhabitants narratively engage, prioritising European storylines before subgroup identifications? I believe that the notion of narrative engagement can prove helpful here.

2. The mistaken idea of secularity as neutrality

Hammack and Pilecki (2012) conclude from the work of Anderson, Giddens and Kinnvall et. al., that individuals respond to the threat of identity uncertainty with story-making about events, whether ones they experienced themselves or ones that are collectively imagined. Narratives provide social coherence, speaking to a fundamental human need for collective meaning and solidarity. Hammack and Pilecki speak of the principle of meaning in solidarity. Narrative engagement can be seen as a process of dialogic encounter with some community of shared practice. It is never a neutral encounter: it is saturated with affect and it is about “morality tales”, “stories that speak to individual and collective perceptions of an ideal social reality” (Hammack and Pilecki, 2012, p.93).

Vandevoordt, Clycq and Verschraegen (forthcoming) argue that the concept of social imaginaries has particular heuristic value because it places emphasis on the creative, interpretative capacities of individuals and groups within a context of cultural complexity. For them, social imaginaries have a moral orientation at their core, one that fits together with the idea of narrative engagement that links collective storylines to individual sense-making, and to shared ideals about society.

According to Charles Taylor, a social imaginary can be summarised as “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations” (Taylor, 2004, p.23). In a social imaginary, our sense of how things usually are is interwoven with an idea of how they ought to be and with our capacity to recognise ideal cases. “And beyond the ideal stands some notion of a moral or metaphysical order, in the context of which the norms and ideals make sense” (Taylor, 2007, p.172).

Social imaginaries always imply an orientation towards what we consider to be a good, just community, towards “the values we hold most precious” (Goodman, 2014, p.2). They represent the spaces in which those values are embedded, guiding our daily practices and the stories we tell about them.

The concept of social imaginaries is closely connected to both ‘images’ and ‘imagination’. Social imaginaries are not reflected in explicit discursive statements or social theories. Instead, working largely in implicit ways, they come to expression within daily practices, jokes, rituals, images, and narratives. According to Taylor, they are driven by a deep longing for a meaningful and valuable life, rooted in bodily experiences (see also Alexander, 2013). This longing inspires people to make images of the ‘good life’ (seen for example in stories of paradise), with the help of their imagination.

Imagination is a social process: it allows us to take in the perspective of other people, and it is inspired by collective understanding of what is good and valuable in our social context. Such imaginaries can crystallise into a more or less coherent (religious) worldview. From a psychological perspective, worldviews have a cognitive function as a meaning frame that helps people to make sense of their lives (Van der Lans, 1992; Alma and Smaling, 2010).[1]

In the history of Europe, religious worldviews have been an important source of conflict and war. Partly in response to this violent past, secular states developed out of attempts to cope with the diversity of worldviews as a potential source of conflict, by making a more or less strict separation between church and state. Important modern thinkers in the tradition of liberalism, like Rawls and Habermas, argue that states should be neutral with respect to moral, spiritual and metaphysical convictions. Only this neutrality can guarantee respect for plurality and individual rights, a society in which each moral perspective has the same right to exist in a public space that is organised according to neutral laws and regulations. This line of thought is the bedrock of many secular societies. Political philosopher Michael Sandel (2005), however, argues that such neutrality is neither possible nor desirable.

Every organisation of society rests on a moral assumption that should not be overlooked and taken for granted. Excluding these moral choices from public debate can even be dangerous. This is the argument central to Bas Heijne’s book Staat van Nederland (State of the Netherlands, 2017). He outlines the Dutch situation in a world that is deeply conflictual because of increasing political and ideological controversies. Strangely, though, a thorough public debate about these controversies and about the deepest values Dutch society aspires to realise has failed to happen. Following Sandel, Heijne mentions two causes. In the first place, a broadly accepted faith in the market prevents people from thinking about their society in moral terms. Agreement about moral values is unnecessary when the common good is defined in terms of market forces.

In the second place, there is a deep fear that people won’t be able to agree on questions of the good life, thereby burdening public debate with profound discord that cannot be managed. Bearing this in mind, it feels safer to exclude ethical and spiritual convictions from the political arena and focus on pragmatic and technocratic solutions to practical problems. However, this approach to governance is not sufficient for creating a sense of social coherence and community. It doesn’t meet people’s wish for a social life with meaning and value, a wish that can find undesirable means of expression in moralism, fundamentalism or sensationalism. According to Sandel, people withdraw into their own convictions and subgroups when there is no public discussion about moral and spiritual ideals. This leads to indifference towards other positions and perspectives, or even to intolerance and exclusion.

From the perspective on social imaginaries outlined above, the idea that the public space can be neutral is mistaken. It imposes constraints on critical reflection about the (neoliberal) values that guide political choices and banishes moral and spiritual reflection to the private sphere. The language and stories that accompany such reflection and perspectives on worldviews are not allowed to play a role in the public debate. But this is only one part of a broader process. Institutionalised (religious) worldviews with moral, existential, and spiritual expressiveness no longer belong to the lives of many Western citizens. This doesn’t mean that the deep-seated longing for a meaningful and valuable life has disappeared, but rather that people tend to express it in highly individualised ways. For many of them, it is hard to find a language to share their experiences and convictions in this regard with others; they find no support for such sharing in their social lives.

Beliefs and worldviews are hardly popular topics of conversation. This is another impediment to public debate about visions of what is meaningful, and for shared imaginaries of the good life that can guide us in social practices. In the meantime, as we have seen, the organisation of secular societies is far from neutral with respect to worldviews, but is dominated by a belief in market forces that manifests itself in all domains of life, even in healthcare and education, thereby subverting a sense of community and the potential to find meaning in solidarity.

If we analyse the European project from the perspective outlined in this section, it becomes clear that Europe has a serious problem when it comes to narrative engagement, finding meaning in solidarity, and paying proper heed to social imaginaries. Many politicians that operate on both the national and European level hardly seem to care. Their trust in market forces, their fear for ideological controversy, and their reliance on pragmatic and technocratic solutions to problems blind them to the huge gap between European politics as they practice it and the need that the continent’s inhabitants have to find meaning in solidarity. A vital democratic Europe with which people are able to narratively engage cannot allow itself the barren and polarised public debate on worldviews that currently takes place. In the next section, I will argue that Europe needs a worldview pluralism relying on discussions about the good life, one that can sustain a psychologically inspiring sense of European citizenship.

3. The necessity of worldview pluralism

Hammack and Pilecki emphasise that “individuals navigate a polyphonic context in which multiple storylines circulate and compete for dominance and primacy in individual appropriation” (Hammack and Pilecki, 2012, p.79; italics in original). This holds especially true in the context of Europe, with its cultural and religious diversity, and with its horrendous past of dominant stories. European history has witnessed the devastating consequences of totalitarian ideologies. What hope can there be for social imaginaries that feed the European project of integration and democratic development in inspiring ways capable of competing with the appeal of populism? In this section, I will explore the possibilities of a convincing pluralism that allows for narrative engagement characterised by dialogue and perspective-taking.

According to Sandel (2005) it is possible for politics to draw inspiration from moral and spiritual ideals and still allow for plurality with regard to these sources. A pluralistic society can shape dialogue about the moral and religious convictions citizens bring with them in public life. Without such a dialogue, it will not be possible to achieve solidarity and community in pluralistic times. Democracy in the context of a globalising world means that a wide variety of often conflicting visions of the good confront one another. Constructively coping with this diversity is one of the huge challenges of our times. Sandel argues that pluralism is one of the possible answers to this modern challenge. In this regard, pluralism differs from pragmatic answers to moral and religious disagreements, which often take the form of compromise for the sake of keeping the peace and are, as a consequence, ultimately rooted in indifference for the deepest values of the other.

Worldview pluralism is about taking seriously the diversity of forms that orientations in the ethical, existential and spiritual domains can take. ‘Taking seriously’ implies a readiness to open up conflict about these matters. According to the political philosopher Chantal Mouffe (2013), every identification with a vision of the good constitutes a “we” that separates itself from a “them”. While this need not result in conflict, the chances for conflict grow when our identity and way of life seem to be brought up for discussion by others.

Pluralism is about coping constructively with such strife-ridden situations. Mouffe argues for an “agonistic model” of democracy that concerns itself with shared interests and involves more than rational reasoning in its dedication to the values people aspire to realise. Agonistic democracy is not free of struggle and opponents but abandons hostility. The basic values of democracy are respected by all, even if they are interpreted in different ways. It is recognised that all participants have the right to fight for their own interpretation. In fact, Mouffe supports the plea of Heijne and Sandel for the lively exchange of ideological contrasts.

An agonistic conception of democracy challenges us to create dialogical environments that do not necessarily target harmonious consensus, but rather heighten the quality of democratic involvement even when confronted with difficult confrontations. Hostility will not magically disappear but can be explored within dialogical environments where the irrational and passionate assumptions that underlie it can possibly be readjusted (cf. Suransky and Alma, 2017).

Agonistic democracy seems to offer a promising framework for the process of European integration. It would ask for dialogue at several political levels (regional, national, European) involving many subgroups in which citizens participate. I will now turn to some psychological views on dialogue, to explore whether this is a sound road to travel from a psychological point of view. Dialogical self theory (DST), as I discussed earlier, sees dialogue not as a conflict-free area of polite exchange, but as “travelling into uncertainty” where participants are willing not only to exchange ideas but also to change them (Hermans and Dimaggio, 2007). In their relations to others, people may construct a common dialogical space in which participants can influence each other and actively contribute to each other’s points of view. I would like to add, however, that this trip into uncertainty is both most urgent and most difficult when our social imaginaries and ‘morality tales’ are at stake.

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (2012) warns us not to be overly optimistic about our empathic capacity when it comes to these sensitive areas. Our thinking is confirmatory rather than exploratory in most cases. The reasoning powers of individuals are mostly used to support the position they already hold. At the same time, however, he argues that people are heterogeneous with regard to their moral foundations. They can find what others value most deeply within their own moral makeup, even though the morality tales they have culturally acquired do not pay much attention to these values or even disapprove of them.

This “moral multiplicity” allows for what Gergen (2009) calls transformative dialogue, defined as “forms of dialogue that attempt to cross the boundaries of meaning, that locate fissures in the taken-for-granted realities of the disputants, that restore the potentials for multi-being, and most importantly, that enable participants to generate a new and more promising domain of shared meaning” (Gergen, 2009, p.193). In a transformative dialogue, the focus will not be on the content of a dispute so much as the process of relational coordination. One of the “arts of coordination” Gergen sketches is the appreciative exploration of behaviour and viewpoints of the other that we cannot understand. Conflict is used as a stimulus to explore the ways in which certain positions that defy our understanding are adequate to a tradition or form of life.

Transformative dialogue, based on the concept of appreciative inquiry, seems to be of added value to the ‘agonistic’ dialogues that target ideological contents and democratic values. To support this agonistic model of democracy, process-oriented arts of coordination need to be developed in order to enable people to enter into dialogue about highly sensitive issues regarding their group identification and social identity. Transformative dialogue may support people in developing the inclusive multiple social identities that will allow for active participation in different levels and groupings of social organisation.

In applying these insights to the question of developing European citizenship, we cannot afford to treat dialogue as a rather ahistorical and apolitical abstraction. As we have seen, Kinnvall (2004) stresses the importance of structural relations reflecting inequality of power between participants in the dialogue. Dialogue is not an ‘innocent’ tool for creating harmony but a political activity that may improve the quality of confrontations. We cannot expect people to ‘naturally’ assume their role and be competent in this aspect of European citizenship.

4. Engaging with worldview pluralism: Moral imagination

The capacity to engage in agonistic and transformative dialogues is indispensable when it comes to developing European citizenship. But we cannot assume that people will be able to do this without proper training. An important component of this capacity that needs to be cultivated carefully closely related to the concept of social imaginaries: moral imagination.

One of the assumptions behind the concept of social imaginaries is that people are driven by a deep longing for a meaningful and valuable life, one that stimulates them to imagine the “good life”. Thomas Alexander (2013) asserts that imagination plays a key role in morality. Building on the thinking of the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, he describes imagination as “the ability to see the actual in light of the possible” (2013, p.9).

A similar view can be found in John Paul Lederach’s book Moral Imagination, in the field of international peace-building. He defines moral imagination as “the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist” (2005, p.29). I would like to add that moral imagination always involves images of the good within a specific cultural context, transformative action to realise these images, and reflection upon and evaluation of the results.

For all of the authors mentioned, imagination is not a free-floating phantasy, but is firmly rooted in a past and present that hold possibilities for experience and action. Dewey distinguishes between two related types of imagination: a) taking the perspective of others (empathy)[2] and b) creatively tapping a situation’s possibilities (cf. Fesmire, 2003). Imagination is based on an attentive perception of what is going on in the actual situation, helped by an understanding that is rooted in past experiences and knowledge acquired through cultural transmission. This allows for mental experimenting with the perspectives that are thus brought to the perceived situation, resulting in the anticipation of new possibilities for action. For Dewey, imagination is not complete without action that brings about change, a change that should be critically reflected upon and corrected if necessary through a new cycle of the imaginative process.

As we have seen, social practices of change are highly complicated in pluralistic environments. Giving examples from his experience with peace-building, Lederach stresses the importance of the moral imagination in complicated situations, noting that it is “built on a quality of interaction with reality that respects complexity and refuses to fall into forced containers of dualism and either-or categories” (2005, p.36). Moral imagination is infused with curiosity about how seemingly contradictory social energies can be held together in a greater whole. I believe that this curiosity is necessary to further the European project of integration.

Curiosity and pluralism mutually influence each other: being curious about others makes it easier to empathise with their morality tales; and the diversity of perspectives that characterises a pluralistic approach stimulates curious inquiry, self-reflection and creativity. “Communities need a pluralistic orientation to maintain their imaginative creativity and self-interpretation” (Alexander, 2013, p.155). A community that realises this would be a true democracy from Dewey’s perspective, one that places high demands on the education of vision and imagination.

This brings us to the important question of the training of moral imagination. In his book, The Work of the Imagination (2000) Harris studies the development of the imagination, understood by him as the consideration of alternatives to reality. He argues that imagination is a cognitive capacity that is gradually strengthened in the course of development, one that is critical for making causal and moral judgments about an actual outcome. Harris argues that pretend play is one of the earliest and most obvious indices of children’s imagination. It emerges in the second year of life when the child has already gained a limited but functional understanding of the way the world works.

Pretend play “offers a way to imagine, explore and talk about possibilities inherent in reality” (Harris, 2000, p.8). Where pretend play develops into role play, temporarily acting out the part of someone else, the capacity to place oneself imaginatively in another’s experiential world is trained. Children that have a lot of practice in role-playing have greater social capabilities than children that do not, in the sense that they are more insightful about mental states. Children vary in the extent to which they engage in role play; this depends on variation in opportunities and encouragement, but also on inclination. There seem to be early and stable endogenous differences in the disposition toward simulation and role play. Nevertheless, training is possible. For example, children who have been trained in sociodramatic play prove to be more adroit at understanding the mental states of others.

It is not self-evident that perspective-taking in the playful manner described by Harris is retained in later life, and people vary considerably in this regard. According to the psychoanalyst Ernest Schachtel (1984), people’s perception and experience get “conventionalised” as they grow older. They stick to the familiar and the socially accepted, sometimes even to the point of not being able anymore to see unexplored aspects or surprising facets. Schachtel mentions a variety of phenomena that are able to confront and break through our habitual patterns and thus encourage what he calls world-openness. Along with works of art and religious images, he mentions jokes, playful activities, bodily sensations, and dreams: all have the power to help us at something from different angles and combine perspectives in an unexpected way. Martha Nussbaum (1990, 1995) also stresses the moral implications of this type of perspective-taking, emphasising the importance of literary works for training people in moral judgement.

Nussbaum argues that “an ethics of impartial respect for human dignity will fail to engage real human beings unless they are made capable of entering imaginatively into the lives of distant others and to have emotions related to that participation” (1995, p. xvi). She makes a plea for the cultivation of the imagination as an essential bridge to social justice. Focusing on the novel, she goes on to explain that it expresses a normative sense of life with implications for both private and public thought. Literature has this power because it focuses on the possible, on human aspirations, “inviting its readers to wonder about themselves” (ibid., p.5). The novel brings a general idea of human flourishing to bear on concrete situations, which either enable or impede the aspirations of a community. According to Nussbaum, the novel embodies a certain sort of moral or political vision that is democratic, compassionate, committed to complexity, choice and qualitative differences (ibid., p.36). She concludes that “the literary imagination is an essential part of both the theory and the practice of citizenship” (ibid., p.52).

It may seem strange to promote novel-reading as a way to develop European citizenship. What Nussbaum’s argument underscores, however, is the importance of the arts in a more general sense for public life and politics. I believe this holds for both popular and ‘high’ art: for (pop) music, film, novels, poetry, video art, painting, performance etc. Far from being luxury products that can easily be dispensed with as superfluous, the arts continue to be a pillar of democratic society. Europe has a broad and diverse legacy in this regard, one which can be a source of understanding, inspiration and reflection in the process of European integration. As Nussbaum puts it, the arts are not “idle”: they help participants to acknowledge the world they live in, to make choices more reflectively, and to open up new possibilities with respect to the good of others (cf. Nussbaum, 1995, p. 31). Moreover, they do so in a way which gives pleasure. This is an important facet of a political process like European integration, which is often so tough and tedious.

In this section, I have related the process of developing European citizenship to the idea of moral imagination, which involves both empathy and creativity in its orientation towards visions and realisations of what is considered to be good. It allows people to take the perspective of others, to relate past insights to aspirations for the future, and to look beyond the borders of the present situation to the potential of social change. From the perspective of Lederach (2005), it touches the “art and soul” of social change in a way that can never be realised by intellectual and technical problem solving alone. It relates directly to the challenge for citizens to develop both a national and a European identity: “It is built on a capacity to imagine that it is possible to hold multiple realities and worldviews simultaneously as parts of a greater whole without losing one’s identity and viewpoint and without needing to impose or force one’s view on the other” (Lederach, 2005, p.62). We have seen that it is possible to train the capacity for moral imagination in ‘playful’ manners, both for children and adults.

5. Conclusions and considerations for politics and public policy

The ‘master narrative’ relating economic and political decisions to humanist values like freedom, human dignity and tolerance has remained too implicit or proved to be too thin a layer on which to base the European project. The emphasis in European politics since the founding of the EU has been on a rationalist, bureaucratic and technocratic approach. Against this background, I have suggested that we need to understand the psychological needs of people that are expected to experience themselves as ‘European citizens’. People will only be able to identify with Europe if their needs, hopes, longings, fears and frustrations are taken into account.

Political psychology recognises group identification and national identity as one element of ‘citizen competence’. We have seen that developing the goal of establishing a strong European identity is in inevitable tension with the existence of heterogeneity and plurality across the continent. It is helpful when people actively participate in different, partly overlapping subgroups and develop inclusive multiple social identities. This asks for tolerance of uncertainty, especially in a globalising world in which different views on what constitutes a good (social) life compete.

It must not be taken for granted that people develop inclusive multiple social identities; for many, the challenges of globalisation processes create feelings of insecurity and existential anxiety leading to closed rather than open-mindedness. People look for comforting stories they can identify with, and some find these in religious fundamentalism and nationalism. Collective stories, however, always need to be appropriated by the individual in a process of narrative engagement. This allows for personal agency and creates possibilities for change. In what way can narrative engagement contribute to European identity politics, considering the fact that for many people it feels less natural to engage with European stories than with national ones?

To answer this question, I have discussed the European crisis of values in terms of a narrative engagement with ‘social imaginaries’ that have moral and spiritual orientation at their core. Social imaginaries are driven by a deep longing for a meaningful and valuable life, one which people imagine in culturally specific ways. They can crystallise into a more or less coherent (religious) worldview. Secular states claim to be neutral with regard to worldviews, allowing for religious diversity in the private sphere. As I have emphasised, however, this hinders public debate about inevitable moral assumptions and is therefore dangerous for the process of community-building.

Due to broader processes of secularisation, people lack the language necessary for a public debate about visions on what is meaningful and for shared imaginaries of the good life that can guide them in social practices. But we need such a public debate to engage citizens in the process of European integration. That is why I have argued that it should take place in the context of worldview pluralism, based on a ‘moral imagination’ that can give input to a psychologically inspiring sense of European citizenship.

Constructively coping with the confrontation between often conflicting visions of the good is one of the huge challenges of our times. A convincing pluralism allows for a narrative engagement of citizens characterised by dialogue and perspective-taking. It is the core of an agonistic model of democracy which is not free of struggle and opponents but abandons hostility. Next to a lively exchange of ideological contrasts, agonistic democracy also builds on ‘transformative dialogue’: process-oriented arts of coordination that allow people to take a reflective stance towards their own social imaginaries, with the possibility of change. This is only possible when people develop a moral imagination involving both empathy and creativity.

Moral imagination is described as the ability to see the actual in light of the possible, meaning that they are oriented towards a) images of the good in a specific cultural context, b) transformative action to realise these, and c) reflection on and evaluation of the results. I have argued that this ability can be trained both in children (through practices of role-playing) and in adults (with important help from the arts). To cultivate the moral imagination, we need both popular and high arts to serve as a pillar of European democracy.

Inclusive social identification, tolerance for uncertainty, narrative engagement, worldview pluralism, and moral imagination are all building blocks for developing European citizenship in the context of a European project oriented towards the realisation of democratic values. How can European politics and public policy contribute to forming these building blocks and putting them in place within a Europe where people from a wide range of backgrounds can feel equally at home? In this paper, I have formulated some conditions and conducive factors. Now I will shortly repeat them and add some comments:

– To be able to speak of European citizenship, one condition would be that there is no or little friction between national identification and European identification. That is, political leaders should extend the sense of political community and collective solidarity from the national to the European level. This cannot be taken for granted. In the pursuit of voters, politicians often blame ‘Brussels’ for measures that are in conflict with national concerns. This is highly disadvantageous for developing a European citizenship, based on identification with the European project as one that transcends national interests and allows for more inclusive social identities.

– People’s capacity for inclusive multiple social identities can prevent polarisation and conflict. Distinctive subgroup identities need not be eliminated, but public policy should stimulate active participation in different groups at the subgroup level. It should definitely not lock citizens in one exclusive category like ethnicity or religion. This often happens e.g., with regard to Islam, with destructive consequences for processes of integration both on national and European levels.

– Politicians and policymakers will need to counter polarisation processes by building on trust and realism, allowing citizens to develop a tolerance for uncertainty. Both discourses built on fear, hate, and frustration and overly optimistic discourses about safety and control are counterproductive in this regard.

– An agonistic model of democracy seems to be promising for the process of European integration. It asks for dialogue about what Europe aspires to in terms of ideals and values, at several political levels (regional, national, European) involving many subgroups in which citizens participate.

– To support the agonistic model of democracy, process-oriented arts of coordination need to be developed to enable people to enter into dialogue about highly sensitive issues regarding their group identification and social identity. Regional, national and international initiatives in civil society for stimulating ‘dialogues of civilisations’ should be recognised and supported by authorities at all relevant levels.

– The focus of this article is on what Lederach calls “a relationship-centric approach to constructive social change” (2005, p. 77). In his practices of peace-building, much depends on the art of weaving relational webs that keep sets of people in creative interaction. I think the project of European integration can learn from his experience. We can’t expect everyone to participate; what is needed is “social yeast”. “The principle of yeast is this: a few strategically connected people have greater potential for creating the social growth of an idea or process than large numbers of people who think alike” (ibid., p.92). The important point is to bring together people that are not like-minded or like-situated, but who have the capacity to make changes beyond their numbers.

– Education plays an important role. Education of children and youth should pay specific attention to developing their capacity for perspective-taking. A strong focus on competitiveness may be counterproductive in this regard. Children should be given many opportunities to take the perspectives of others e.g., through role-playing, and cultural education – both involving participating in creative practices and learning about Europe’s cultural legacy – should acquire an important place in the curricula of European countries at all levels of education.

– Education should pay a lot of attention to social imaginaries and worldview pluralism. Again, we can learn from Lederach’s experience with peace-building: “The moral imagination suggests that education and training are incomplete in any of the fields related to social change if they do not build early and continually the space to explore the meaning of things, the horizons toward which to journey, and the nature of the journey itself” (2005, p.176).

– European culture should be strengthened through active (inter)national support of the arts and through projects for cooperation of European artists, museums, orchestras etc. The arena of culture is both the breeding ground and playground for the moral imagination that is so desperately needed in the development of European citizenship. The arts contribute to the expression, self-reflectivity and creativity that foster an imaginative community life.

In 2005, John Paul Lederach wrote that, “the turning point of human history in this decade (…) lies with the capacity of the human community to generate and sustain the one thing uniquely gifted to our species, but which we have only on rare occasions understood or mobilised: our moral imagination” (p.23, italics in original). We are a decade further now, and I think his urgent plea still holds. It perfectly captures the message this paper hopes to convey.


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[1] See Smart, 1989, for other dimensions of worldviews.

[2] According to the philosopher Greene “imagination is what, above all, makes empathy possible” (1995, p.3), because imagination is the cognitive capacity that permits us to give credence to alternative possibilities. It allows us to break with what we take for granted and to enter into the alien world of another person, to discover how it looks and feels from the vantage point of that other. We need not approve or appreciate it, but we grasp it as a human possibility. We learn to look at things “as if they could be otherwise” (ibid., p.19); we break with what is supposedly fixed and finished from our personal point of view.


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