What is Europe? This apparently simple question can be answered by listing the countries that belong to Europe. If you want to nuance the issue, you can talk about the European Union, the Eurozone, and other similar economic or political communities that in some way define Europe. But scratch the surface of the question and it’s suddenly not so easy to answer: what characterizes Europe, or a European? What is typically European? These questions are of central importance to Europe on a symbolic level.

In the book Signifying Europe, Johan Fornäs, Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Södertörn University, describes how European identity is culturally constructed and how it is expressed on various symbolic levels. The book offers a systematic overview of many key symbols, such as the European flag, the European anthem, Europe Day, and the euro.

Questions of identity are becoming more and more important as Europe undergoes radical changes – leading to a need to re-identify the meaning of Europe. Johan Fornäs has discovered that there are some main tendencies in the narratives about Europe and how Europe is identified.

“One such narrative is the one about Europe as selected and elevated: Europe as the cradle of civilization, where ideas of freedom of expression and human rights originated,” he says. “Other narratives emphasize diversity, openness, and the internal equality among Europe’s various parts.”

Attempts at symbolically expressing the combination of such mutually contradictory identifications can be discerned in the symmetrical EU flag, for example. It can be interpreted as closed and homogeneous but also as a common field of action, depending on whether you see the center of Europe as empty or open.

Another example that Johan Fornäs has delved into is the euro. Coins and bills represent not only economic values but are also symbolic tokens of cultural identity in geopolitical communities. Johan Fornäs calls them “minimalist mass media.”

The euro was launched in 2002 to bolster the vision of European identity. The bills have been adorned with images of windows, doors, and bridges – an expression of a spirit of openness, cooperation, and communication with the surrounding world. This fits in with a long tradition where, for better or worse, Europe is associated with a strong will to communicate with others, from crusades and colonialism to voyages of discovery and the universalist projects of the Enlightenment. The nationally oriented reverse sides provide scope for pluralism and difference, in accordance with the motto “united in diversity.”

In that perspective the current euro crisis is also about identity. What is European community and identity, when one of its most central symbols, euro collaboration, is threatening to collapse? The fact that one of most crisis-stricken countries, Greece, is moreover regarded as the place where European civilization originated lends the crisis an extra symbolic charge, says Johan Fornäs.

The book is published by Intellect Press. Johan Fornäs’ research continues with a new project, starting in 2012 with funding from the Baltic Foundation: “Narratives of Europe. Perspectives from its North-East Periphery”.

Contact Johan Fornäs: e-mail: johan.fornas@sh.se; Mobile: +46 (0)703-402242