Ordinary citizens need to identify with Europe to ensure its long-term success

For the long term success of the European Union, it is essential that ordinary citizens identify with the 'European Project'. However, previous research into European identity has taken a 'top down' elitist perspective rather than a 'grass-roots' approach.

The three-year project EUROIDENTITIES (The Evolution of European Identity: Using biographical methods to study the development of European identity) was set up in 2008 to address this issue. It uses advanced methods of interviewing and analysis of the life-stories of a range of individuals such as transnational workers and farmers.

The project is coordinated at Queens University, Belfast, and includes seven partner teams from large and small nations - both original and accession states – Northern Ireland (UK), Wales (UK), Germany, Poland, Estonia, Bulgaria and Italy. Five groups of people have been interviewed whose life and work experiences could be expected to have sensitised them to issues around how their identity relates to Europe:

  • Transnational workers, from menial economic migrants through entrepreneurs to technological workers, who are either presently working in a country different from their country of origin, or whose careers have involved a significant amount of time abroad.
  • Adults who took part in cross-border educational exchange schemes, such as ERASMUS when younger, to assess whether educational mobility schemes can realise greater goals of promoting a permanent change in perspective and lasting integration across European national borders.
  • Farmers who have to act within a dense structure of regulations and continental markets, so that they have to incorporate ‘European thinking’ into their daily practices and have long traditions of dealing with European regulations and markets.
  • People involved in cultural activities both at high and popular levels, including active participants or spectators of activities that span European borders, and including workers in areas of outstanding natural beauty or traditional cross-border cultures, and scholars developing European school texts, especially history books.
  • Participants in civil society organisations which span countries or have a specific European or cross-border context, for example, ‘reconciliation’ groups of Polish and German people bridging the gap of World War II, conflict-resolution groups in Northern Ireland and environmental groups addressing cross-border or global ecological risks.

In-depth qualitative interviews and subsequent analysis with these groups investigates the relationship between regional, national and European identities and the key factors that could promote or discourage positive identification with ‘Europe’ and the European Community. Two additional groups have emerged during the course of the analysis that provide special insights into the factors that affect the development of an identification with ‘Europe’:

  • Interviewees who were born into families where the parents are of different nationalities have had to deal with their culturally mixed origins in a way that promotes a ‘cosmopolitan’ outlook towards Europe. Similarly, many of the interviewees themselves are in cross-border relationships that also drive them to confront their own identity.
  • Respondents who either originate from outside Europe as migrants or the children of migrants, along with those ‘native’ Europeans who have spent a significant portion of their lives elsewhere in the world also have a different perspective on the continent.

According to the researchers, there is an intimate connection between individual biographical identity and collective identity. By analysing people’s life stories, they can determine the extent to which Europe already functions as a common reference point or if it is still, as previous studies have asserted, absent as an imagined community.

For example, interviews with former educational exchange students showed the following findings that are relevant to policy in this area:

  • While institutions were generally effective at placing students, their reintegration into the educational programme of their ‘home’ institutions was not always so effective, sometimes with adverse effects on degree progress.
  • ‘Parental capital’, both in terms of economic resources and cultural background, was important both for the ability and inclination to take up an opportunity to study abroad and also for the experience’s lasting effect.
  • The international experience of Erasmus students was markedly different than that of foreign language students and students doing their whole degree abroad. There is a developing tendency for Erasmus students to find themselves in an Anglophone ‘Erasmus bubble’ where they interact with students from other parts of Europe but not with the host country.
  • There often was a direct link between forming a close romantic relationship with a student from another country and a genuine, lasting change of perspective.

From interviews with farmers the following findings emerged:

  • A large number of farmers perceive EU policy as geared towards large-scale farmers and discouraging and marginalising small-scale farmers. Additionally, the EU was seen as incapable of controlling the exploitation of the average farmer by ‘middle-men’ and large supermarket chains.
  • Subsidies were essential for the survival of many farmers located in the ‘old’ original nations of the EU, and farmers located in the accession states were catching up fast in their ability to manipulate the system.
  • EU financial schemes and policies are perceived as not adapted to the skills and competences of farmers, created and implemented without appreciation of the actual situation of the farmers themselves.
  • Nevertheless, although farmers have to follow EU-wide regulations, these are controlled locally and nationally, so they did not express particular problems with EU institutions. Instead, they expressed national and local disapproval and criticism. In fact, the EU was often seen as a counterweight to oppressive national systems of regulation.
  • The burden of time wasting administration drains professionalism from farmers.

Personal experiences, including the influence of parents and schools, and access to cultural and social capital, are highly relevant to the development of an identification with a ‘European social space’. The origins of European affiliations can be found in childhood experiences, through friendships, family contacts, shared experiences and emotions. For some, ‘Europe’ exists only in instrumental terms, as an environment for economic opportunities or short-term leisure; but, for others, there is a genuine ‘cosmopolitan impulse’ to seek out new experiences and contact with different cultures. People’s experiences in transgressing borders, and coming across cultural otherness, all contribute greatly to the development of individual and collective identities.

EUROIDENTITIES – The Evolution of European Identity: Using biographical methods to study the development of European identity (duration: 1/3/2008 – 28/2/2011) is a Collaborative Project (Small or medium-scale focused research project), funded under the 7th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 5 – The citizens in the European Union.

See: http://www.euroidentities.org/

Contact: Robert Miller, r.miller@qub.ac.uk; Markieta Domecka, m.domecka@qub.ac.uk