How European Do you Feel?

How European Do you Feel?

The Psychology of European Identity
Dr Michael Bruter and Dr Sarah Harrison, ECREP Project, Department of Government, LSE

In Collaboration with Opinium Research

At a time when Europeans are asked – for the first time to such a large extent – to show solidarity with each other if they are to survive one of the most difficult economic and social periods since the end of the second world war, stories of sceptic people, risks of collapse of the whole European project, and extremist temptation are everywhere on our breakfast tables and tv screens as we discover the day’s news. Yet, nobody has ever conducted a real in-depth study to understand how “European” people really feel, how they differ, how they really perceive the European Union, what they think of European citizenship and its future, let alone how the psychology of Europeans has evolved through these times of acute crisis.

Those are some of the questions that our team has explored since 2009, and today, we would like to give you some insight into some of our key results, dispelling myths and over-simplifications, and painting a picture of Brits and of Europeans, which might be more complex and more subtle than what many might expect.

In this report, we highlight (1) a brief panorama of Europeans’ identity, (2) a few paradoxes about the evolution of Britons’ European identity between 2009 and 2012, and (3) some findings about what Europe ‘looks like’ in the eyes of the British public.

The Project

From 2009 to 2012, in collaboration with Opinium Research, the London School of Economics conducted the largest-ever project aimed at assessing the state of European identity and the psychology of citizens’ identity across the European Union. This ambitious project supported by a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and conducted by the team of the ECREP/INMIVO project supported by the European Research Council (ERC) comprises:

  • A mass survey of over 30,000 citizens conducted for the 2009 European Parliament Elections in all 27 Member States of the European Union;
  • Panel studies allowing us to track the European identity and support for EU citizenship over a three year period in the UK and 1 ½ year in seven other countries;
  • An impressionist portrait of the European Union in the eyes of the British public, asked to describe what the European Union would be if it were a colour, an animal, a painting, a human quality, etc;
  • Some elite and citizens’ interviews in 6 countries.

The project has been conducted by Dr Michael Bruter and Dr Sarah Harrison in collaboration with the whole Opinium Research team, including James Endersby, Paul Crooke, Kathleen Deighan, and previously Sarah McKinnon, Matthew Webster, and Dan Foreman. Opinium has sponsored the third wave of the UK questionnaire as well as the ‘EU perceptions’ questionnaire used as the third part of this project.

A Brief Panorama Of European Identity

Based on our mass survey, let us first explore some of the general trends that relate to Europeans’ identity.

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.

We also find that 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, not against it: 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.

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.

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).

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.

Causes And Consequences Of European Identity

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). 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.

The only exceptions are education and age: Education and age also matter. The younger and the more educated a citizen, the more European they tend to feel, and the more civically European in particular. By contrast, income, gender, and social class have very little impact on European identity.

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.

Has The Crisis Stopped It All?

From reading comments in part of the British media and from some politicians, the so called ‘Euro crisis’ could mark the beginning of the end for the Euro and even for the European Union itself, at least in its political dimension. For the first time, we can compare these ‘hunches’ to actual data as we followed the levels of European identity of a representative sample of British citizens over a three year period, reinterviewing the exact same citizens at three different time points in June 2009, August 2010, and April 2011.

In actual fact, and even though the British public has undoubtedly been the single most exposed to extremely Eurosceptic comments from the press during that period, empirical results are far more nuanced than expected. First, the dominant finding is that levels of European identity are effectively very stable over time. Average European identity levels went a little bit up between 2009 and 2010 before slightly weakening between 2010 and 2012. Altogether, on a 10 point scale, average levels of European identity have only reduced by 0.2 over the whole period.

Even more interestingly, however, this evolution has been very divergent across age groups. While respondents aged 45 and above have seen their levels of European identity decline further than average, the European identity of younger citizens – those aged between 18 and 45 – has in fact gone up during the period, both in terms of general and civic European identity.

This confirms an essential finding about the European identity of the British public. Beyond rather meaningless averages, there is a tale of two publics, one fiercely non-European, and one of the largest proportion of highly ‘Europeanised’ people in the whole of Europe. What we learn here, is that beyond education, age is a crucial determinant of which side of the public people fall in.

The Face Of Europe – A Tale Of Two Stories

This distinction between ‘core Europeans’ and people who feel absolutely out, as well as the severe conflict of generations that this distinction betrays is confirmed by our analysis of the spontaneous images of Europe that British citizens associate with the European Union and its symbols (such as its flag). We asked half of our respondents what are the first three words that come to their minds when they think of the word European, and the other half when we show them a European flag. Then all respondents were asked the same about the words ‘European Union. The results are quite striking and pictorially represented (using real word counts) in the word cloud below.

Perhaps most surprising of all is the relative absence of very negative references. A few people mention references to a ‘con’, greed, or indeed some more aggressive vocabulary, but they can be counted on the fingers of a single hand. The only – presumably negative – references that are slightly more prominent are to immigrants, the EU as something foreign, and the EU as bureaucratic but these references remain rare (references to the bureaucratic character of the EU and that to corruption each account for 0.7% of total first words, references to immigrant make up 1.1% of the total).

By contrast, while very positive references are also relatively rare, the dominant association is with elements of unity (Union – not including European Union -, unity, united, community, etc) or references to the EU as a political system (Euro, no borders, elections, European flag, citizens, etc). References to union or unity make up 12.4% of the first answers spontaneously offered by citizens, references to the Euro for 5.2%, and references to European elections and borderless travel to just over 2% of the total each.

The striking conclusion we derive from these spontaneous associations is that one way or another, the European Union has progressively made it into the daily lives of British people and that references to this daily reality of the EU are far more present in people’s minds than questions about the more abstract merits or flaws of the European project.

After asking respondents for the spontaneous images they associate with the European Union, however, we asked them to ‘paint the portrait’ of what the EU is in their eyes. To capture this ‘vision of Europe’, we asked a representative sample of British people a number of questions relating to the images – colours, animals, drinks, paintings, or flowers for example – that they associate with the European Union.

There again, the most impressive finding of all perhaps is that there seems to be a very clear split between younger and older voters, with 45 the sort of ‘turning point’ between those who see the European Union as a grim and greedy animal and those who see it as an ambitious and progressive force.

Let us start by what is common to most Brits: if the European Union was a flower, it would be a spring daisy, if it was a musical genre, that would be classical music or opera, and if the EU was a colour, it would be blue, like its flag. It seems, however, that the similarities stop there and that many young citizens think of this as a hopeful sky blue while many older people are telling us that if anything the EU is making them feel blue instead.

Indeed, what is the picture of the EU painted by younger voters? If the EU was a wild animal, it would be a lion, if it was a painting, it would be Matisse’s La Danse, and if it was a drink, it would be a cosy glass of wine or a cosmopolitan cup of coffee. Not only that but if the EU was a quality, it would be intelligence.

Contrast that with the perceptions of older British voters. For them, if the EU was a human flaw, it would be stupidity, if it was a drink, it would be a boring glass of still water, and if it was a wild animal, far from the proud and powerful lion, it would be an elephant! If the EU was a painting, it would be Picasso’s torturous Guernica. As for knowing which of the seven deadly sins the EU would be, it would predictably be greed for older voters while for younger ones it would be pride.

The Authors

Dr Michael Bruter is a specialist of electoral psychology, elections, public opinion, political identities, social science research methods, political participation, and extreme right politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He directs ECREP and is Senior Lecturer in European political science. His latest books include Encyclopaedia of European Elections (2007, with Yves Déloye) and Citizens of Europe? The emergence of a mass European identity (2005), as well as Tomorrow’s Leaders? (2009) on young people’s democratic participation, Mapping the Extreme right Ideology (2011, with Sarah Harrison), and From the Engine Room – Methods and Approaches in the Social Sciences (forthcoming, with Martin Lodge), and Asia in the Eyes of Europe (forthcoming, with Natalia Chaban et al.). He has also published numerous articles in leading political science journals, received over twenty external grants totaling over € 2 million as sole principal investigator or principal investigator in the past three years from the European Research Council, the European Commission, the ESRC, Leverhulme Trust. He has conducted several large comparative surveys on European identity, political participation, and democratic satisfaction, and projects using focus group, panel studies, and experiments.

Dr Sarah Harrison is a specialist of electoral psychology, extreme right politics, party politics, public opinion, and European politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is a Research Officer at ECREP and has authored or co-authored two books, and several articles in leading political science journals and book chapters. At only 29, Sarah has already received half a dozen prestigious awards from the ESRC, NESTA, etc. Sarah’s research mixes the use of mass surveys, text analysis, and in depth interviews of citizens and politicians alike and has been widely recognised as some cutting edge innovative and creative work in British political science by several recent awards.