By Elza Goffaux
How does it feel to be European? Has European identity ever existed? Is it still necessary? Do European states feel the need to cooperate with each other? We tried to answer these questions with the help of Sciences Po students.
Lately, we have been questioning the existence of a European identity that bonds European citizens as well as nations together. Firstly, the idea of citizenship itself is challenged as the participation rate in the European elections fell from approximatively 62% in 1979 to 50% last year. Similarly, we might think that the states lack political and economic cohesion, as illustrated by the Brexit, the economic inequalities between countries and the weak cooperation in the handling of migration inflows. These cracks have come to challenge the strength of the European identity.
Brexit made us aware of the consequences of being out of the European UnionSofie Højstrup , a Danish student
However, other trends depict a different situation. As a matter of fact, pro-EU sentiment has risen after Brexit, especially, according to an investigation by Le Monde, in France and Germany. Sofie Højstrup Overgaard, a Danish student, argues that “Brexit made us aware of the consequences of being out of the European Union”. Indeed, it highlighted the benefits of being a member and acted as a reminder that the peace achieved through the Union cannot be taken for granted. In that sense, Brexit shook EU citizens in their own identity, an identity that goes beyond the benefits of the Union.
It is an identity that is based on general values accepted by everyone, human valuesMarco Iarocci
This European identity is grounded in our shared values. To Marco Iarocci, from Italy, “It is an identity that is based on general values accepted by everyone, human values” like dignity and freedom. He argues that this identity is also “based on the legacy of the Enlightenment” and is characterised by the important place given to the welfare state. Maria Garriga Zamora adds that “being European is being progressive, tolerant, being modern, pro-change”. It is also having the will to “avoid any war”.
Being European is being progressive, tolerant, being modern, pro-changeMaria Garriga Zamora
Along with this historical process, a political construction also contributed to the creation of a European identity. This political construction has been built step by step, following the integration of different countries through time and the creation of institutions that aim to achieve global governance and represent EU citizens. This political construction of the European identity is characterised by symbols and a concrete will of the states to build a so-called identity.
In this sense, European identity cannot be seen as something static. It is an entity that evolves, is challenged and is still under construction by the states and their citizens. This is why we can say that European identity gains strength with time and through generations. As an example, Maria Garriga Zamora, from Catalonia, compares the conceptions of European identity of old and young people and argues that old people’s identities were already built by the time the Union was founded, whereas younger people were born in the EU, and constructed their identities within its framework. This gap is reflected in the Brexit voting patterns, as people under 25 mostly wanted to stay in the EU (73% of 18-24 y.o voters) whereas the majority of citizens above 65 voted “leave” (60% of 65+ y.o voters).
European identity is also built at a personal level in which European and national identities coexist. Thus, both identities cannot really be separated, as they are constructed together. This is what Sofie Højstrup Overgaard expresses: “I definitively feel more Danish than European but I’m starting to see how part of my Danish identity is actually founded on being European too”. Marco Iarocci also emphasizes this point: “I think that [both identities] should coexist, I don’t think one should surpass the other, European identity has different connotations” and he adds that “Europe is complete in itself with all its national differences”. Therefore, national identities and a supranational European identity do not oppose each other and are reflected in the motto “United in Diversity”.
if you democratise EU institutions, you give more power to the European parliament, the commission is directly elected by the parliament, we get a European constitution, then EU citizens will feel that they have a say in what happens in Europe, and this is how they will feel more EuropeanMarco Iarocci
A European identity rooted in consciousness as well as more representative institutions could be a solution to the distrust and to the lack of political cohesion between states. Maria Garriga Zamora argues that “young people have been disappointed by the European Union’s lack of communication in terms of refugee policy and helping each other out”. To strengthen our identity, she adds that “we should work on carrying out the policy and the action we want to see in the EU and what we want to be represented by” and ends saying that there is a “need to work on a more representative organ that would actually speak out for people”. Marco Iarocci stresses that “education, exchanges, studying Europe at school from a European standpoint” are ways to enhance the European identity. According to him, “if you democratise EU institutions, you give more power to the European parliament, the commission is directly elected by the parliament, we get a European constitution, then EU citizens will feel that they have a say in what happens in Europe, and this is how they will feel more European”. Therefore, European identity and European institutions have to evolve simultaneously. However, it is a matter of choice, and we need to choose to build stronger institutions, in order to enhance European identity.