Does an ‘European culture’ or a ‘European identity’ actually exist?

The outcome of the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership has sent shockwaves across Europe. Among other impacts, it has prompted debates around the issues whether a “European culture” or a “European identity” actually exist or whether national identities still dominate.

It would be wrong, in my opinion, to write off the identification of various people with “Europe”. This identification has been the outcome of a long process, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, involving both the policies of the European Economic Community (EEC) and EU institutions and grassroots initiatives. Cross-border youth mobility since 1945 is a key example of the former: it was often developed by groups that were not formally linked to the EEC/EU. They still helped develop an attachment to “Europe” in several countries of the continent.

As political scientist Ronald Inglehart showed in the 1960s, the younger people were, and the more they travelled, the more likely they were to support an ever-closer political union in Europe. More recently, Erasmus exchange programmes have also helped develop forms of identification with Europe.

“The younger people were, and the more they travelled, the more likely they were to support an ever-closer political union in Europe.”

"Erasmus is not on year in your life but your life in one year" - Lisbon, 2017. / Flickr - Ithmus

Feeling “European”

Simultaneously, feeling “European” and subscribing to a national identity have been far from mutually exclusive. Numerous West Germans in the 1980s were passionate about a reunified Germany being part of a politically united Europe.

Attachment to “Europe” has also been a key component of regional nationalism in several European countries in the last three decades, such as the Scottish or the Catalan nationalism. A rallying cry for Scottish nationalists from the 1980s on has been “independence in Europe”, and it continues to be the case today. Indeed, for the 2019 European Parliament elections, the primary slogan of the centre-left Scottish National Party (SNP), currently in power, was “Scotland’s future belongs in Europe”.

Diverse agendas

What requires further attention is the significance attached to the notion of European identity. Diverse social and political groups have used it, ranging from the far left to the far right, and the meaning they attach varies. For the SNP, it is compatible with the EU membership of Scotland. The party combines the latter with an inclusive understanding of the Scottish nation, which is open to people who have been born elsewhere in the globe, but live in Scotland.

Speech by SNP leader and first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, on July 2, 2016. / YouTube

By contrast, Germany’s far-right AfD party (Alternative für Deutschland, Alternative for Germany) is critical of the EU, yet identifies with “Europe”, which it explicitly contrasts with Islam. A clear example is a one of the party’s posters for the elections that asked “Europeans” to vote for AfD so that the EU doesn’t become “Eurabia”.

Identification with Europe does exist, but it is a complex phenomenon, framed in several ways. and does not necessarily imply support for the EU. Similarly, European identities are not necessarily mutually exclusive with national identities. Finally, both the former and the latter identities may rest upon stereotypes against people regarded as “non-European”.🔷

The Conversation

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[This piece was originally published on The Conversation. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Dreamtime/Dmytro Tolmachov.)