Europeans in the Mirror?

Europeans in the Mirror?

Michael Bruter and Sarah Harrison
Department of Government, LSE

In June 2009, in collaboration with survey institute Opinium, we conducted the largest-ever project aimed at assessing the state of European identity across the European Union. In addition to elite and popular interviews, in the week that followed the 2009 European Parliament elections, we conducted a survey of 30,000 respondents across all 27 Member States of the European Union which allowed us to understand how ‘European’ citizens feel on the whole, why some people feel more European than others, what feeling European means to people across countries and contexts, and what is the impact of European identity on political attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour.

In the next few paragraphs, I propose to briefly highlight some of our key findings:

On the whole, across Europe, European identity is much stronger than what anyone seems to think – and further strengthening now: On a 10-point scale, the level of self-perceived general European identity of the average EU citizen is 7.09. Even in the Europe’s most Eurosceptic countries, a majority of citizens feel European. For instance, in the UK, 55.2% of Britons and 68% of Northern Irishmen have an identity score of 5 out of 10 or above.

European identity is made of different components: We distinguish between people who feel ‘civically’ European (that is, who see the European Union as a relevant political system defining their rights, duties, and interests as citizens) and people who feel ‘culturally’ European (that is, people who feel closer to fellow Europeans than to non-European). On the whole, civic identity is stronger than cultural identity in most countries (respective scores of 7.15/10 and 6.05/10 respectively), but cultural identity is still very specific to Europe and is not found in similar ways on other continents.

European identity goes hand in hand with national and sub-national identities: Popular thought has it that Europe goes ‘against’ national (and regional/local) identities. In fact, it is exactly the contrary which is true. People who feel more Danish, more Catalan, or more Londoner are also likely to feel more European and not the other way round.

European identity hides both more and less contrast across European countries than many would suspect: In a way, overall levels of European identity are not as vastly different across countries as one would suspect. For instance, even in Eurosceptic countries such as Denmark, the UK, or Sweden, a majority of citizens clearly feel European. On the other hand, what feeling European ‘means’ to people can vary quite a lot. A few countries/regions have overall high levels of European identity (Italy, Wallonia, Spain, France, Hungary, Estonia, etc), some have overall low levels of European identity (UK, Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, Latvia), some have a mostly civic identity (Germany, Ireland, Czech Republic, Greece, etc) and some a predominantly cultural identity (Poland, Flanders, Lithuania).

The more citizens criticise the EU, the more they favour further increased EU citizenship rights: We know how critical citizens are of certain EU policies. Yet, our findings show that there is overwhelming support for current aspects of EU citizenship, and equally high demand for a furthering of EU citizens rights. For instance, 89% of citizens approve the rights for all Europeans to live anywhere they want in the European Union, 85.6% are happy for foreign EU citizens to vote in local elections in their country and 87.8% are happy with the borderless environment created by the Schengen agreements. Similarly, when it comes to possible future extensions of EU citizenship rights, 88.6% of citizens would recommend that new treaties be adopted by EU-wide referenda, and 84.4% would support a direct election of the EU president by citizens.

Predictors of European identity are more ‘cultural’ than ‘social’: Citizens feel far more European when they ‘experience’ Europe (travel, study or live abroad, have family abroad, speak foreign languages). Education and age also matter. By contrast, income, gender, and social class have very little impact on European identity. Left and Centrist voters tend to feel more ‘civically’ European than right wing voters. In short, what people think is more tightly related to their European identity than who they are.

European identity is highly projective: Even the people who feel least European tend to think that their children and grandchildren will feel far more European than them. Well over 90% of Europeans remain persuaded that their children and grand-children will feel more European than them. Overall, European identity is still seen as in the making, progressing, and evolving. ‘Europeanness’ is still perceived as part of our ‘future’ even more than our present.

European identity has an impact on many aspects of citizens’ political attitudes and behaviour: whether you vote or not and for whom, whether you are extremist or not, xenophobic or not, how you judge your political institutions and how they can be improved, all these elements are affected by European identity while they are not affected by (a close but very different concept) support for European integration. European identity matters because it has an impact both on how we read the political strengths and weaknesses of our current societies, and how we formulate our hopes (or, sometimes, lack of hope) for their improvement.