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EU Identity

Kyle JamesMarch 23, 2007

Europeans are both citizens of their own countries, and citizens of a European supranational union, the EU. Which do they feel a real part of? Surveys show increasing numbers feel allegiance to both.

What binds Europeans together?Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

European lives can be so transnational, it's enough to make your head spin. But for many born in a member state of the EU, crossing borders for work, love or just for the adventure of it all is a simple, and very realizable fact of life.

One might be born in Great Britain, but living in Brussels while working for a German company. Or a Swede might have moved to Edinburgh to go to university, started his career in Copenhagen, then moved to Germany with his wife. As internal borders have become more porous for EU citizens, many are now comfortable living in countries other than those in which they were born.

Still, although he might often be seen eating frites at his favorite Brussels restaurant, the Briton might still feel very British and the Swede Swedish, although he himself gobbles down more Currywurst from Berlin street vendors than herring in Stockholm.

EU Flagge Symbolbild Kommission in Brüssel
EU citizens have the flag in common, but anything else?Image: AP

A "European" identity has not replaced national identities among EU citizens, although open borders and changing demographics are slowly forging an identity that goes beyond a merely national one.

"While the cultural formed identities are largely national ones, there is a European identity that is beginning to emerge," said Monika Mokre, deputy director of the Vienna-based Institute for European Integration Research.

Changing attitudes

Data gathered by the European Union appear to confirm that. A 2004 survey by Eurobarometer found 42 percent of the population over the age of 18 said they felt themselves to be solely nationals of their own countries, while 58 percent indicated that they felt some European identification.

The same survey conducted in 1996 found that the numbers feeling at least some amount of "European-ness" along with their national identity were lower at each age group.

BdT Internet-Adresse eu
Younger people tend to think in more European and international termsImage: dpa - Bildfunk

At one end of the scale in the 2004 survey was Luxembourg, where 17 percent of persons interviewed felt themselves to be solely European. At the other end was newer member Hungary, where almost two-thirds (64 percent) of those asked said they felt only Hungarian. Germany fell somewhere in the middle.

Age also plays a role. The older the respondents, the more they consider themselves as only citizens of their own countries. The younger the person, the more likely they are to see their themselves now or in the near future as citizens of their own country and, at the same time, European citizens.

"Young people tend to look beyond their own borders more than older people do," said Mokre. "This has partly to do with better communication methods, such as the Internet."

Historical hurdles

Forging an EU identity has been a slow process, and experts say it could be decades before the strong European identity becomes anchored in large swaths of the populace.

There are historical reasons for that, according to Markus Hadler, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Graz in Austria. For many centuries in Europe, the nation state was the main reference point. The EU's founding was a move made by politicians to guarantee peace and promote economic development in a Europe that had been torn apart by war. It was not a grass-roots effort, nor a particularly exciting or dramatic one.

Bildgalerie 50 Jahre Römische Verträge Bild 17 EU Erweiterung 1. Mai 2004
Some worried enlargement would dilute EU identityImage: AP

"Europe lacks a founding myth, like other countries," he said. "Everybody knows about the Boston Tea Party, but there's nothing similar in Europe. Tea parties in Brussels are very different."

But in much political science literature, identity with a political system is regarded as necessary for its long-term stability and legitimacy. The identification leads the citizen to act as a community member and reflects an emotional attachment to the system.

That identification is important, experts say, since it acts as a stepping stone in the ongoing integration process and could help "uphold" the process in times of crisis.

"If we want a democratic EU, identity is important," said Mokre. "It's necessary that citizens in the end stand together with this new kind of governing form."

Which identity?

Identity can be a fuzzy thing, however, and although more EU citizens are feeling somewhat "European" these days, it is not all together clear just exactly what it is they are feeling. Cultural differences in Europe are so pronounced that it is unlikely a Portuguese farmer just outside Porto is going to think he has much in common with the Polish plumber near the border to Belarus.

BDT Bayern auf dem Maibaum
Bavarian or European?Image: AP

But an EU identity is based and will likely further develop along a broad range of political and social attitudes and values that are separate from those cultural characteristics by which people define themselves, according to several experts.

Those values could be a strong belief in democracy and human rights, a certain amount of social fairness, the separation of church and state, and a fairly widespread view on the role of government, according to Katinka Barysch of the Center for European Reform.

"For example, a kind of social system you have in the United States where millions of people are without health insurance would be unacceptable to most Europeans," she said.

Some feared that the debacle with the EU Constitution, which France and the Netherlands rejected in referenda, and the enlargement of the bloc from 15 to 25 states in 2004 and then to 27 states in 2007, would set back the formation of a common identity. Many of the newer member countries have very different cultural and political backgrounds than older states and the constitution rejection appeared to some to put the entire EU project in question.

"At least in these cases, there was a real debate going on about Europe," said Mokre. "Having a European identity doesn't mean you have to think everything about the EU is just fantastic."