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Towards a European identity?

April 3, 2012

For proponents of European integration, the idea of creating a European identity that commands some degree of allegiance from citizens across the EU’s numerous member states has long been an alluring yet elusive goal. In the early days of the European integration project, some observers anticipated that a supranational identity would increase in salience as economic and political integration increased. The shift in authority from national capitals to Brussels would lead to increased interactions between elites from the different countries, and economic integration would herald in new cross-border ties between businesspeople and ordinary consumers. To paraphrase Benedict Anderson, this would create an “imagined community” of people who viewed themselves primarily as European, and who looked to the institutions of the European Union, rather than their national representatives, to make the collective decisions most important to them.

Suffice it to say that this optimistic scenario has not come to pass. To be sure, economic and even political integration has continued apace, with successive treaties, a common currency, an increasingly powerful and assertive European Parliament, and a Court of Justice with the power to overturn national legislation. However, the changes in the realm of identity have not kept pace. The Eurobarometer survey series has asked respondents questions about their primary locus of identity going back two decades. In specific, it asks respondents whether they identify themselves by their nationality only, by their nationality primarily but also as Europeans, primarily as Europeans but also by their nationality, or as Europeans only. As the graph (Source: European Commission) below demonstrates, there have not been any notable changes in the last 20 years, despite the transformative changes that have occurred in the realms of European integration during that time. Within the past couple of years, there has been a slight uptick in national sentiments, likely a result of the economic crises that have gripped the Euro zone.

The figures indicate that national identity remains paramount for most people, even after the adoption of a common currency and the ease in travel restrictions following the Schengen Agreement. Consistently less than 5% identify themselves as European only, and less than 10% as European and their nationality. The number that identifies themselves by their nationality only consistently hovers above 40%. However, there have been an equally large number of people who identify themselves primarily by their nationality but who say their European identity is sometimes important.

For the most ardent supporters of European integration, these figures represent a dismal truth, and they would like increase the numbers of citizens who at the very least view their European identity as being of equal importance to their nationality. Speaking of the need for the EU to more actively cultivate a European identity, Klaus Welle, the German secretary general of the European Parliament, recently argued: “If we want to build a lasting union of solidarity we also need to invest in European identity. We need to understand history as European history and not just as compilation of national histories.” As the article linked to above points out, any serious effort to cultivate a European identity would likely involve more active involvement in national education systems, an area in which the European Union does not have much say and a step that would be politically sensitive.

The sense of gloom felt by Europeanists in the current climate of Brussels-bashing, Euroskepticism, and electoral success of nationalist parties contrasts with an optimistic article published in The New York Times seven years ago. The article, “Quietly sprouting: A European identity,” profiled a new generation of young people who had traveled and studied abroad, spoke multiple languages, and considered themselves European. The article focused primarily on the Erasmus educational exchange program, which had enabled 1.2 million students (as of 2005) to study in foreign countries over the past 20 years.

So was the article overly optimistic? Do we simply need to wait another ten years before this new pro-European zeal among the younger generation manifests itself in a more visible and influential fashion? Without downplaying the genuinely transformative effect of this program, as well as the increase in cross-border travel and communication in recent years, the evidence suggests that Europeanization is still an elite-level phenomenon. Yes, it is true that many participants of the Erasmus and other programs will have radically different identity notions from their parents who did not have such opportunities. But 1.2 million, while a large number, is a drop in the bucket of the EU’s total population. Reviewing (subscription required) the literature in the March 2012 issue of Journal of Common Market Studies, Neil Fligstein, Alina Polyakova, and Wayne Sandholtz draw a profile of the typical European-firster:

Who are the Europeans and how many are there? Evidence suggests that Europeans come from the highest socio-economic groups in society. These include the owners of businesses, managers, professionals and other white-collar workers. They are involved in various aspects of business and government, travel frequently in Europe and sometimes live in other European countries for a period of time…They engage in long-term social relationships with their counterparts who either work for their firm, or are their suppliers, customers or, in the case of people who work for governments, their colleagues in other governments. They speak second or third languages for work…Young people who travel across borders for schooling, tourism and jobs (often for a few years after college) are also likely to be more European. Educated people who share common interests with other educated people around Europe, such as similar professions, interests in charitable organizations or social and cultural activities such as opera or art, will be interested in travel and social interaction with people in other societies. Finally, people with higher income will travel more and participate in the diverse cultural life across Europe. They will have the money to spend time enjoying the good life in other places.

As long as this remains a relatively small group of people, there is no reason to expect that most people will shift their primary locus of identity from their country or region to a Europe that may be little more than an abstraction to them. The pro-Europeanists should be pleased, however, with the fact that so many people claim to have some European identity, even if their sense of European-ness is secondary to nationality.

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