In 1861, the Italian statesman Massimo D’Azeglio declared that ‘having made Italy, we need to make the Italians’.
The same can be said of the European Union. Since the EU’s inception, it has sought an ambitious expansion and integration of economic, political and social realms. The EU, however, has failed in its attempts to establish a common European identity. Why?
Nationalism as an ideology emerged in the late 18th century and was based primarily on the conception of a world made up of exclusive nations, with this ideology continuing to permeate throughout contemporary political thought and inform present notions of identity and allegiance. As a result of this entrenched allegiance to national identity, citizens of the EU have been reluctant to commit to a European identity because they view it as incompatible with their national identity.
This objection over the competition of identities was typified by Margaret Thatcher’s rhetorical question to the House of Lords in 1993, ‘if there is a citizenship, you would all owe a duty of allegiance to the new Union … What will happen if the allegiance to the Union comes into conflict with allegiance to our own country?'
This fear was exacerbated by the Maastricht Treaty’s creation of EU citizenship, a notion that was vehemently at odds with the traditional conception of national allegiance and patriotism, as well as individual and state-level sovereignty. As long as this national identity remains prominent in individuals’ political psyche, the EU will find it impossible to form a unifying European identity because it evokes notions of ‘double loyalty’, leading people to feel as if either one or both loyalties have to be compromised.
This fear of trespassing on one’s national identity and political independence also impacts citizens’ views on state-level political independence and sovereignty, with fears that a European identity is the first steppingstone on the way to a federal European state. The economic, political and cultural integration that the EU has sought has led to fears that the EU is diluting national sovereignty, evoking strong individual and collective resistance.
This has led to the debate surrounding European identity to be framed as a zero-sum game, whereby the closer citizens get to a collective identity the greater damage is done to their national heritage and identity. This prevents citizens from accepting the notion of a European identity because national power and legitimacy are viewed as fundamental to statehood and individual rights and freedom, inducing citizens to retreat back into only considering themselves as having one national identity.
As a result, citizens who view themselves as exclusively holding their original nationality are far more likely to be Eurosceptic, as exclusive national identity is positively correlated to Euroscepticism. For example, those who identified exclusively as Belgian or exclusively as Flemish are more likely to oppose multi-level governance, with such opposition being projected to the EU as well.
It is also worth noting how crises have exacerbated the unity of the EU, and by extension, the united identity it could achieve. The Eurozone crisis fuelled debates and tensions over whether the EU undermined national sovereignty, self-determination and therefore identity. It is also arguable that the ongoing COVID-19 crisis further proves this, with Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission, declaring that the inability of the EU to unite behind collective action posed ‘a moral danger to the European Union’.
The inability for the EU to construct an identity is made more challenging by the negative associations many citizens have with different cultures. When issues of immigration or globalization are raised at the European level, sentiments of national identity are ‘activated’ within the population which trigger automatic negative associations with integration.
Is it reasonable or realistic to argue there is no such thing as a European identity? Of course not. Is it fair to say no Europeans are in favour of EU initiatives or integrative measures? Of course not. However, the reasons behind such support are not because of some European identity, but specific characteristics of individuals or communities.
Fundamental to an individual’s support for the EU is their occupational background, as those who come from a lower-skilled occupation are far more likely to be averse to the EU and its economic structures. The integrated labour market that the EU has sought to achieve through the Single Market has meant that lower-skilled jobs are under more threat. This increased job insecurity induces those from lower-skilled occupational backgrounds to be suspicious of further economic integration and be more unlikely to support the EU because of the impact it has had on their wages, working conditions and job security.
Conversely, the liberalised trade market means that those in high-skilled jobs can take advantage of the freedoms that an integrated European market yields, heightening their support for the EU. The UK serves as an example of this occupational divide, as the Office for National Statistics found that from 2010 to 2014, 164,000 immigrants with a higher-skilled occupational background arrived to the UK from the EU, with 169,000 arriving from outside the EU. However, for lower-skilled jobs, 277,000 immigrants arrived in the UK from within the EU, whereas only 64,000 arrived from outside the EU. It is not surprising, therefore, that a far higher proportion of those who voted to leave the EU in 2016 were from a lower-skilled occupational background.
An individual's level of education also matters. An investigation into the results from recent Eurobarometer surveys reveals that people with lower levels of education were ‘significantly more eurosceptical’ than those who were more highly educated. This has been evidenced in the Netherlands, for example, where a study found that those with lower levels of education had a 36% chance of voting to leave the EU in a hypothetical vote, whereas those with higher levels of education had a probability of 26% to vote to leave.
This was because those with lower levels of education were found to be more anxious about immigration, more politically cynical and more nationalistic, all beliefs that run contrary to EU support. This was also borne out by the Brexit referendum in 2016, wherein those with lower levels of education were markedly more likely to vote to leave the EU, with there also being significant overlap between those who had lower levels of education and those with high levels of job insecurity.
Therefore, it becomes clear that citizens of the EU are not united by a common European identity. A European identity has been elusive for the EU for many decades, and support for the institution has been primarily determined by factors other than a collective identity.
One can be in favour of the EU, its policies and its ambitions, however, to maintain the arguments that its citizens are united by a European identity is not only factually incorrect, it undermines the many things that the EU has united its citizens over.
Author: Nicholas Madsen
Nicholas is a scholar of international relations, specialising in Middle Eastern and European security and integration.