Complexities and challenges of ‘being European’

Being European has different meanings for different nations and for different groups of people within those nations. The IME research project aims to understand the complexities of these identities and their interactions. Its preliminary results have indicated differences in how nations embrace ‘being European’.

The IME project is exploring past, current and future European identities by collecting data from nine countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Turkey and the United Kingdom. These represent a range of ‘old’ and ‘newer’ EU Member States and candidate countries. To date, researchers have conducted literature reviews and interviewed representatives from national governments and from the European Commission Representations in each of the nine countries. The next phase of research will investigate views held by civil society actors and EU citizens.

In general, the researchers have found that EU representatives tended to have a low profile in building a European identity, counteracting the belief that a European identity is imposed by elites on indifferent masses. Similarly, the assumption of a constant confrontation between national identity and European identity appears to have little bearing as there is rarely a coherent national identity and, therefore, it is unlikely to be constantly in direct conflict with a European identity. Identities are much more pluralistic in nature. Below is a short summary of the findings in each country:

  • Turkey is often perceived as predominantly Muslim but it has a legacy of different cultures such as Turkic, Islamic, Christian, Orthodox, Byzantine and Arabic. Its national identity is not singular and it is further complicated by an urban-rural divide. After the 1999 Helsinki summit, Turkey’s Europeanization intensified but after accession talks started in 2005, there was a rise in ‘Euroscepticism’. Turkey’s higher education reform appears to be following two tracks in the country’s identity construction: a discourse about civilisation and religion, and a more universalist discourse promoting art and culture. Depending on how identities develop, Turkey could play an important bridging role between continents and between the Muslim and the non-Muslim world.
  • In Croatia, the national government is engaged with nurturing a national identity which is also pro-European and, in this respect, government agencies and EU representatives are working harmoniously. The Croatian national government is not opposed to Europeanization, however it does wish to preserve a traditional national identity and this is reflected in its education policy. Researchers suggest that Croatia still feels a sense of betrayal by Europe due to historical events dating back to the Middle Ages. This deep-seated sense of victimisation could be playing out in the interaction between national/European and modern/traditional identities.
  • Historically Finland’s national identity is influenced by its positive affiliation to the Nordic countries and its negative attitudes towards Russia. The integration of its European identity with its national identity was initially smooth as its national identity was centred on the welfare state. In the 1990s, it shifted to a more competitive national identity but in the new Millennium, Finland looks to be returning to the values of the welfare society while retaining the ideologies it historically shares with the EU, namely liberalism, democracy and capitalism.
  • Although historically France was one of the main driving forces in European integration, French politicians and intellectuals do not promote the EU as an important issue. This is reflected in education and media where few references are made to the global world and where national issues and identity are prevalent. France tends to consider itself as an influential nation in the EU yet its policies do not consider ‘Europe’ to be of primary importance. Programmes to construct a French identity are often in contrast with EU identity, with the latter focusing more on the future and the promotion of diversity.
  • Greece’s national and European identities are prone to conflict between attachment to tradition and the desire to pursue modernity. Its sense of European identity appears to be infused with the pressure to ‘catch up’ to actively participate in the West, which has led to some protest as this can be perceived as an imposition of market-orientated values by Europe. Representatives from the national government present European developments as desirable but they also want to boost national pride.
  • Bulgaria has recently joined the EU. Although its accession is viewed as the last step to modernity many are still uncertain about the 'Europeaness' of their identity. Bulgarians are enthusiastic Europeans but lack self-confidence. EU representatives are trying to increase the level of information regarding the EU, especially among young people and children. However, they operate more as an information service than pro-active agents of change. Although the national government’s conceptual goals coincide with those of the EU, it suffers from poor co-ordination between actual actions and projects. There appears to be slight dissatisfaction with the EU because citizens feel that membership has not fulfilled their expectations, which is reflected in a rise in nationalist parties.
  • Germany considers itself to be a core-European player. However, there exist different visions on what defines ‘being European’, which is rooted in the past, and different concepts of Europe, such as ‘Occident’, ‘Central Europe’ and ‘Western Europe’. Interestingly, in education policies there is an emphasis on multiculturalism but adult integration policy appears to be built around a European centre and a non-European periphery, consisting of migrants.
  • In Hungary there is a strong partnership and shared interest between national government and EU representatives. Nevertheless, there are contradictory messages about the meaning of ‘being European’. The literature review suggests that ‘new Europeanism’ (i.e. Europe as global player and more aligned with the United States) has triggered a lack of understanding about what ‘being European’ means. In education policy three messages were identified: liberal, liberal-conservative and traditional conservative.
  • It is accepted that the United Kingdom is a reluctant European member, but IME has revealed that, unlike many other countries, the UK does not regard Europe as a symbol of modernity. There still remains a sense that the UK is an exception and unique in its relationship with the EU and the literature review indicates that the UK tends not to examine its own sense of modernity. Current attempts to construct a British identity are heterogeneous although there are attempts to ‘re-nationalise’ Britishness (as seen in the ‘Governance of Britain’ green paper1) due to growing concern over multiculturalism.

Although there is variation between European identities, the IME project has started to uncover some commonalities. On a very broad level, there appear to be similarities between the ‘older’ EU countries and similarities between those who are more recent members. In both cases, ‘Europe’ is often equated with being progressive and modern, and EU membership is presented as a developmental goal. In Western European countries, there is a degree of indifference concerning the significance of European integration, in comparison with a country’s national policies which are perceived to be of primary importance. This has implications for enlargement and integration policy that will be further investigated in interviews with representatives from non-state actors, such as trade unions and ethnic minority groups, and representatives from the public who will be from a range of demographic and socio-economic backgrounds.


1 See:

IME – Identities and Modernities in Europe: European and national identity construction programmes, politics, culture, history and religion (duration: 1/5/2009 – 30/4/2012) is a Collaborative Research Project funded under the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 5 – The Citizen in the European Union.


Contact: Dr Atsuko Ichijo,