Abstract: Is there a link between students’ mobility, their attitudes towards Europe, and their identification as European? Data from our survey of French students and ERASMUS students studying in France indicate that a correlation does exist between ERASMUS participation and European identification. The data are also used to evaluate two possible explanations for mobile students’ relatively higher levels of European identification. The knowledge hypothesis suggests that the cause of European identification is a greater knowledge of the European Union while the socialisation hypothesis suggests that it is the result of more extensive interactions with other Europeans. We conclude with some reflections on democratic legitimacy in the European Union and the potential significance of ERASMUS students as vanguard European identifiers.
Is there such a thing as a ‘European’ identity, the way a French, Polish or Greek national identity could be said to exist? Could European identification become a widespread reality? What causes some people to readily identify as European while others do not?
Recent survey data indicate that a variable proportion of respondents sometimes feel or think of themselves as European, at least some of the time (European Commission 2004, 2005, 2006a, 2006b, 2007a, 2007b, 2010). Among Europeans, younger and highly educated people are more likely than older and less educated people to support European integration and identify as European (Dogan 1993, 1994; Howe 1995; Hix 1999: 147; Green 2007; Fligstein 2008; Eurobarometer 2008: 34). In this article, we focus on the European identification of ‘most likely identifiers’ – university students who, by nature, are young and well-educated – and we add another dimension, investigating whether mobile university students are more likely to identify as European than their counterparts who do not study outside their home country.
Foreign study sojourns have become increasingly common for university students, and the European Union (EU) plays a significant role in fostering university student mobility. Through the ERASMUS programme, European students have the opportunity to study for three to twelve months in another European country, and they receive a grant from the European Commission to defray the additional costs of doing so. Approximately 200,000 students per year study in ERASMUS programmes, and a cumulative total of over 2.5 million students have participated since the programme was launched in 1987 (European Commission 2010: 3-4).
We see ERASMUS students as likely European identifiers – even more so than other university students – for three reasons. First, their personal experience with one of the EU’s flagship programmes means they are likely to know somewhat more about the EU than many Europeans. Second, their sojourn abroad brings them into direct contact with other Europeans, creating an opportunity for new relationships. Either – or both – of these factors may directly impact mobile students’ European identity. Third, students who identify more strongly as European may be more likely to choose a European study sojourn than students who do not. If this is the case, we would expect to find European identifiers over represented among ERASMUS students.
To investigate whether there is, in fact, any meaningful connection between ERASMUS study and European identification, we designed and administered a survey to university students in Toulouse, France that investigated their perception of their national and European identities. The data presented below indicate that mobility is, in fact, correlated with European identity and attachment – at least among students in Toulouse.
We then used survey data to evaluate two hypotheses about why ERASMUS students are stronger European identifiers. The knowledge hypothesis associates ERASMUS students’ higher degree of European identification with a greater knowledge about the EU. In this view, the more students know about the EU, the more likely they are to identify as European. The socialisation hypothesis associates ERASMUS students’ higher degree of European identification with their greater degree of interaction with other Europeans who are not co-nationals. In this view, more cosmopolitan students (i.e., those who frequently travel outside their home country, speak foreign languages and interact routinely with other Europeans) are more likely to identify as European.
The theory of European identity
The question of whether Europeans can overcome their centuries-old differences and forge a new, common identity is the subject of debate, and one that draws heavily on literature about the historical emergence of national identities. There are certainly primordialists who argue that nation-states are the ‘natural’ repositories of affective identity and political loyalty, and that Europe lacks the necessary ‘ethno-historical’ roots and ‘pre-history’ that constitute the foundation of national identity (Smith 2000). In this view, Europeans lack the common ‘ethnicity’ to share a meaningful common identity. For example, Smith writes that ‘Europeans differ among themselves as much as from non-Europeans in respect of language, territory, law, religion and economic and political system – as well as in terms of ethnicity and culture’ (Smith 2000: 241).
There are certainly primordialists who argue that nation-states are the ‘natural’ repositories of affective identity and political loyalty, and that Europe lacks the necessary ‘ethno-historical’ roots and ‘pre-history’ that constitute the foundation of national identity.
Yet the presumption that a shared identity can only emerge within a community that is ethnically and culturally homogenous as well as linguistically, territorially, legally, religiously, economically and politically integrated (ostensibly as the result of its shared history) runs counter to many of the more constructivist interpretations of national identity formation. In his classic piece, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?, Renan (1882 ), emphasises that the common memories on which national identities are based are inherently selective and that forgetting (the presumably divisive aspects of the past) is an important part of constructing the nation. For Renan and his followers, forgetting the differences that divide a national community and choosing to pursue a common future is what the process of nation-building is all about. Similarly, forgetting and overcoming national hostilities and war have always been at the heart of the European integration process, just as much as it has been about creating a European community with a common future.
There is also an empirical critique of the primordialist interpretation. As Hobsbawm points out, attempts to define nations in terms of their objective characteristics are doomed to failure for two reasons: not every group of people sharing a characteristic or set of characteristics conceives of itself as a nation, and not all members of a nation share all of the objective characteristics which supposedly define the nation (Hobsbawm 1990: 5-6). Common language, history, traditions, culture and territory do not always lead to a group’s conception of itself as a nation (Gellner 1983), nor is any self-conceptualised nation comprised entirely of members who share any or all of those attributes.
Rejecting the primordialist interpretation, and with it the view that European identity is an impossibility, others take the prospect more seriously (Laffan 1996; Shore 2000; Green 2007; Fligstein 2008). Following a more constructivist trend in scholarship of the emergence of national identities (Mosse 1975; Weber 1976; Colley 1994), this view of identity formation depicts (national) political identities not as products of a mythical, shared past, but as modern creations.
Many constructivist scholars look to contemporary macro-historical changes to explain why national identification emerged then as the dominant form of social identity. Although their specific emphases vary, many share the view that structural changes in social organisation gave rise to new, national, identities. In Anderson’s (1991) formulation, the decline of Catholic universalism created a space for differentiated cultural and linguistic communities to develop in Europe, a process pushed along by the political ambitions of centralising monarchs and the explosion of vernacular publishing that accompanied the Protestant reformation. Gellner (1983) sees the development of capitalist manufacturing economies as the fundamental precursor of nationalism. The urbanization that went along with industrialization brought together people from vastly different social backgrounds and created new linkages among people divorced from their historical settings. At the same time, the technological-economic imperatives of an industrialised economy gave rise to national forms of education which contributed to the standardisation of language, and by extension and over time, culture. Similarly, both Deutsch (1966) and Weber (1976) see technological change as central to the development of national forms of organisation; the explosion of communicative links among a given population – trains, postal service, roads and later telephones – are, for them, a key to nation-building.
This constructivist interpretation of political identities casts the prospects for an emergent European identity in an altogether different light. Historically, local identities gave way to national ones as a result of structural changes in the organisation of politics, the economy and society (helped along, perhaps, by centralising states and political elites whose interests were served by fostering patriotism). Since World War II, Europe has been the site of a number of significant changes including economic and, increasingly, political integration; the creation of supranational institutions; and a communications revolution. Given the scope of these changes, it would be surprising if European integration did not have some impact on Europeans’ political identities.
Historically, local identities gave way to national ones as a result of structural changes in the organisation of politics, the economy and society (helped along, perhaps, by centralising states and political elites whose interests were served by fostering patriotism).
Based on our reading of constructivist national identity literature, we did not presume that European identification would come at the expense of pre-existing national identities any more than emergent national identities obliterated pre-existing local ones. Describing the way that a developing British identity co-existed with strong Welsh, Scottish and English identities, Colley quips that, ‘Identities are not like hats. Human beings can and do put on several at a time’ (Colley 1992: 6). The emergence of a European identity, then, should not imply the end of French, Polish, Greek or any other national identity.
If one entertains the possibility that a common European identity could develop, the next question is who might form the early core of self-identifying ‘Europeans’? We know that, historically, students and highly educated elites were often vanguard carriers of national sentiments. Could ERASMUS alumni – who are not only highly educated, but also mobile and multilingual – form a vanguard of European-identifiers?
Our project investigates the relationship between the ERASMUS participation and European identity – a shared ‘we’ feeling that transcends, but does not necessarily replace, national identity. We hypothesized that European students who participated in ERASMUS programs to study in another EU member country (‘mobile students’) would tend to self-identify as more ‘European’ than students who did not participate in such programmes (‘non-mobile students’). To test this hypothesis, we designed a survey, administered it to mobile and non-mobile (French) students studying in Toulouse in the Spring of 2009, and compared the survey responses of the two groups.
Toulouse is home to a large university population, with more than 100,000 students studying in approximately a dozen higher education institutions. Unlike Paris – home to France’s largest university student population – where the various universities have been geographically decentralised over a wide area, in Toulouse the universities are clustered in relatively close proximity to the city’s historical centre, which made it feasible to administer the survey across multiple institutions, thus increasing the representativeness of our sample. While the selection of universities and students did not conform to a rigorous random sampling methodology, respondents represent a wide range of academic specialties and, to the best of our knowledge, the targeted institutions and students have no particular bias that would affect the study’s conclusions.
The survey was offered in French and English, and contained questions about European identification, attachment to the EU, interest in other Europeans, multilingualism, knowledge about the EU and demographic information. We collected 90 responses, of which 63 yielded usable data for analysis. The following section summarises our findings.
How ‘European’ are ERASMUS students?
Our survey is not the first to interrogate Europeans about their identity(ies). The biannual Eurobarometer (EB) surveys administered by the European Commission periodically include questions about whether respondents identify as Europeans or feel attached to the EU. Over the years there have been three basic ‘identity’ questions posed to respondents, and for comparative purposes, we asked all three of our own survey respondents.
The first ‘identity’ question (ID 1) asked respondents how frequently they feel European, in addition to their self-reported nationality.
|ID 1Do you ever think of yourself as not only that nationality you entered previously, but also as European?
Does this happen to you…
When this question was posed in two recent EB surveys – from Autumn 2006 (EB 66) and Autumn 2005 (EB 64) – a small majority of respondents indicated that they ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ feel European in addition to their nationality. The EB data are reported in Table 1.
Table 1: EB data on frequency of European identification (%)
|Autumn 2006||Autumn 2005|
Source: European Commission 2006b: 112, 386; European Commission 2005: 45, 46, 355.
In response to the same question on our own survey, mobile and non-mobile university students both reported feeling European much more frequently than the general population of the EU, as indicated in the EB surveys. Whereas the two EB surveys reported that around 40 percent of the European population ‘never’ feels European, this number was only half as large among the university students polled in our survey, regardless of whether they had studied abroad or not. As Table 2 shows, among university students, mobile students reported identifying as European far more frequently than either non-mobile students or the general European population. Nearly half the ERASMUS students reported ‘often’ feeling European in addition to their nationality, compared with 20 percent of non-mobile students and 16 or 17 percent of the EB respondents.
Table 2: University student data on frequency of European identification (%)
Source: Authors’ survey.
A second ‘identity’ question (ID 2) asked respondents how attached they feel to various polities, ranging from their town or village all the way up to the European Union.
|ID 2Please indicate how attached you feel your city/town/village…
Please indicate how attached you feel to your country…
Please indicate how attached you feel to the European Union…
… very attached
… fairly attached
… not very attached
… not at all attached
This question was posed in three recent EB surveys, in Spring 2006 (EB 65), Spring 2007 (EB 67), and Autumn 2007 (EB 68). Respondents overwhelmingly indicated that they feel attached (i.e. reporting ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ attached) to their country and town, and around half the respondents also indicated that they feel attached to the EU. The percentage of EB respondents reporting that they feel attached to these entities are summarized in Table 3.
Table 3: EB data on attachment to various entities (%)
|Spring 2006||Spring 2007||Autumn 2007|
|To respondents’ city/town/village||86||86||87|
|To respondents’ country||90||91||91|
Source: European Commission 2006a: 70; European Commission 2007a: 84; European Commission 2007b: 67.
In our own survey, non-mobile university students’ responses approximated those of the general European public, as reported in the various EBs, but mobile students reported EU attachment at much higher levels. The percentage of our university respondents who reported feeling ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ attached to various levels are summarised in Table 4. Of particular interest is the much higher proportion of ERASMUS students who reported identifying with the EU – 74 percent – compared with around half of the non-mobile students and EB respondents.
Table 4: University student data on attachment to various entities (%)
|To respondents’ city/town/village||74||90|
|To respondents’ country||91||75|
Source: Authors’ survey.
A third EB ‘identity’ question (ID 3) asked respondents how they see their national and/or European identities developing in the near future.
|ID 3In the near future, do you see yourself as…
…only your nationality
…your nationality first and then European
…equally your nationality and European
…European first and then your nationality
In response to an EB survey from Autumn 2004 (EB 62), a majority of respondents indicated that they expect to feel dual identities, although national identity was expected to be stronger than European identity for most respondents.
Table 5: EB data on future identification as national and European (%)
|Firstly nationality, then European||48|
|Equally nationality and European||7|
|First European then nationality||4|
Source: European Commission 2004: 97.
In the Eurobarometer survey, 59 percent of the respondents indicated that, in the near future, they expected to hold some degree of European identity in addition to their national identity, and another 3 percent reported they expected to identifying only as Europeans, and not as nationals. In other words, 62 percent of respondents predicted feeling European to some extent in the near future. As expected, this European identity does not seem likely to replace national identity for the vast majority of respondents, but is expected to coexist alongside respondents’ national identity.
In our survey, ERASMUS students reported they were likely to identify as European more readily than non-mobile students, and that both groups of university students expected to identify as European more readily than the general European public. In comparison with the 62 percent of the general EU population that predicted feeling European to some extent – as reported in EB 62 – 75 percent of non-mobile university students and 91 percent of ERASMUS university students predicted that, in the near future, they would feel some degree of European identity.
Table 6: University student data on future identification as national and European (%)
|Firstly nationality, then European||58||45|
|Equally nationality and European||26||30|
|First European then nationality||7||0|
Source: Authors’ survey.
As was the case for the EB respondents, this European identity does not appear likely to replace national identity for our university student respondents, but rather is predicted to coexist alongside respondents’ national identity. In other words, the growing sense of European identification does not seem to come at the expense of national identification.
Our hypothesis about student mobility correlating with a greater sense of European identity appears to be borne out by the results to the survey’s three ‘identity’ questions. For each question, ERASMUS students, as a group, reported the most ‘European’ responses. We can see this clearly if we look at the snapshot of each group that emerges from their responses.
A large majority of ERASMUS students – 84 percent – reported thinking of themselves as European in addition to their nationality and of those, more than half reported thinking of themselves as European ‘often’ (ID 1). Three-quarters of ERASMUS students reported feeling attached to the EU (ID 2). And 91 percent of them reported seeing themselves as European as well as their nationality in the near future (ID 3). Clearly European identification is highly prevalent among the ERASMUS respondents.
A large majority of ERASMUS students – 84 percent – reported thinking of themselves as European in addition to their nationality and of those, more than half reported thinking of themselves as European ‘often’.
For comparison, 80 percent of non-mobile students reported that they think of themselves as European in addition to their nationality, although only one-quarter of those reported doing so ‘often’ (ID 1), a much smaller proportion than among the ERASMUS respondents. Nearly half – 45 percent – of non-mobile students reported feeling ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ attached to the EU (ID 2). And 75 percent of them reported seeing themselves as European as well as their nationality in the near future (ID 3).
As described above, the reported extent of mobile students’ European identification and attachment to the EU is notably greater than that of non-mobile students, and both groups of students reported a greater extent of European identification and attachment to the EU than did the general European public, as reported in various EB surveys. These findings are summarised in Table 7 below.
Table 7: Comparison of survey and EB responses to identity questions
|ERASMUS students||Non-ERASMUS students||General EU population*|
|% who think of themselves as European (ID 1)||84%||80%||55%*|
|% who feel attached to EU (ID 2)||74%||45%||51%*|
|% who see themselves as European (ID 3)||91%||75%||62%|
* Percentages given represent the average of the relevant EB survey data discussed above.
Mechanisms of European identity formation: Two hypotheses
While ERASMUS students reported identifying as European more readily than other university students – and than the general European public – there remains the question of why this is the case. As previously suggested, it is possible that European identifiers among the university student population are more likely to seek out foreign study experience and thus are over represented among ERASMUS students. While we cannot dismiss this possibility on the basis of current data, we suggest two possible alternate explanations for ERASMUS students’ relatively higher levels of European identification and EU attachment. We include data from our survey to illustrate the plausibility of each one, but given the size of our dataset, we have not attempted to rigorously test either hypothesis.
One possible explanation is that ERASMUS students identify more readily as European because they know more about the project of European integration and the EU. We refer to this as the knowledge hypothesis. A second possible explanation for ERASMUS students’ higher degree of European identification is that they experience a greater degree of interaction with other Europeans who are not co-nationals. According to this socialisation hypothesis, more cosmopolitan students who frequently travel outside their home country, speak foreign languages and interact routinely with other Europeans are more likely to identify as European. In this view, ERASMUS students’ mobility is itself a cause of their European identification.
Evidence for the knowledge hypothesis
If the knowledge hypothesis is correct, we should expect to find that students who report a greater knowledge about the EU also identify more readily as European. In the survey, we asked ERASMUS and non-mobile students to assess their own level of knowledge about the EU using a scale from 1 (know nothing at all) to 10 (know a great deal). For analytical purposes, we interpret numerical scores of 1-5 as low-level knowledge of the EU; scores of 6-8 as medium-level knowledge, and scores of 9 or 10 as high-level knowledge of the EU. Table 8 summarises our findings.
Table 8: Survey respondents’ self-reported knowledge of the EU
Source: Authors’ survey.
We find that ERASMUS students reported greater level of knowledge of the EU than did non-mobile students. A majority of the non-mobile students clustered in the category of low-level knowledge, whereas the majority of ERASMUS students clustered in the category of medium-level knowledge. In the category representing high-level knowledge about the EU, the proportion of ERASMUS students is nearly double the proportion of non-mobile students.
In subsequent survey questions asking students to report their level of knowledge about specific aspects of the EU (its history and development; its institutions; its specific policies; the single market; and the euro), this same basic distribution was repeated: a majority of ERASMUS students reported medium-level knowledge while most non-mobile students reported low-level knowledge.
The finding that ERASMUS students reported both higher levels of European identification as well as a greater knowledge of European integration and the EU is consistent with the knowledge hypothesis. Of course, respondents’ self-assessments are inherent subjective and we have no way of knowing from this data if ERASMUS students actually know more about the EU than do non-mobile students. We know only that they reported a greater level of knowledge. For the knowledge hypothesis to be more rigorously tested, a future study would need to measure respondents’ knowledge in an objective manner.
Evidence for the socialization hypothesis
Several scholars have suggested that the ERASMUS experience itself – studying in another European country, often in another language, and interacting with foreign nationals – contributes to ERASMUS students’ identification as European (Fligstein 2008: 180-87; Green 2007: 47-48). The assumption contained in the socialisation hypothesis is that the ERASMUS experience makes its participants less ‘national’ and more ‘cosmopolitan’, and that cosmopolitanism is linked with European identification. If the socialization hypothesis is correct, then we would expect students with more extensive interactions with other Europeans – not simply their co-nationals – to identify more readily as European.
A rigorous examination of the cosmopolitanism of ERASMUS and non-mobile students would require, among other things, objective assessment of students’ family background, foreign travel experience, and contact with foreigners both at home and abroad. This is clearly beyond the scope of the present analysis, but we can use data from the survey to illuminate one of the central assumptions of the socialisation hypothesis: namely, that the ERASMUS experience itself is a cosmopolitan one.
Cosmopolitanism is difficult to measure, but as approximate indicators we sought to establish whether or not ERASMUS participants did indeed spent their time in the host country speaking a non-native language (or languages) and interacting with students who were not their co-nationals (or, conversely, whether they reverted to their native language outside of class and spent time mainly with other students from their home country).
Our survey asked students two questions about the social aspects of their ERASMUS experience: with whom they socialised and in what language.
|While participating in your ERASMUS programme(s), outside of the classroom, do you (or did you) primarily speak… …your native language?
…the language of the country where you are (were) studying?
|While participating in your ERASMUS programme(s) do you (or did you) primarily socialise with… …students who are of your same nationality?
…students from the country where you are (were) studying?
…students from many different national backgrounds?
Only a minority of ERASMUS students reported socialising primarily with co-nationals or reverting to their native language outside the classroom during their ERASMUS sojourn. Instead, students most commonly reported that, outside of class, they primarily continued to speak the language of the country where they studied and they primarily socialised with students from a mix of nationalities.
Table 9: Indicators of ‘cosmopolitanism’ for ERASMUS students
|While abroad, primarily socialised with…||While abroad, primarily spoke…|
|…own nationality||19%||…native language||33%|
|…host country nationality||2%||…host country language||54%|
|…many nationalities||79%||…another language||14%|
Whether we call them ‘cosmopolitan’ or something else, on the basis of the data from our survey it’s difficult to depict the ERASMUS students’ behaviour in their host country as insular. On the contrary, the picture that emerges is one of multinational groups of students socialising primarily in foreign languages. This is consistent with the socialisation hypothesis, which holds that ERASMUS students’ higher level of European identification is associated with their cosmopolitanism.
We do not have sufficient data to test whether the knowledge hypothesis or the socialisation hypothesis better explains ERASMUS students’ European identification; we offer them only as possible explanations. Whether one hypothesis or the other is correct – or whether both together help to explain the finding that ERASMUS students identify more readily as European – we expected to find that ERASMUS participation was likely to raise students’ interest in other European countries, Europeans, and the EU. Three questions on the survey asked students to indicate whether or not this was true.
|As a result of studying in another country through the ERASMUS programme, have you become more interested in other European countries?
As a result of studying in another country through the ERASMUS programme, have you become more interested in other European people and cultures?
As a result of studying in another country through the ERASMUS programme, have you become more interested in the European Union?
…to a great extent
…to some extent
…not at all
What we found is that while the degree of increased interest varied, for the vast majority of students surveyed, ERASMUS participation has led to a greater interest in other Europeans, European countries, and the EU. These findings are summarized in Table 10.
Table 10: Effect of Erasmus study on students’ European interests
|As a result of ERASMUS, are you more interested in…||to a great extent||to some extent||slightly||not at all|
|… other European countries||40%||47%||12%||2%|
|…other European people and cultures||51%||40%||7%||2%|
|… the EU||28%||33%||23%||16%|
We construe responses of ‘to a great extent’ and ‘to some extent’ to mean ERASMUS participation had a significant impact on students’ interest in various aspects of Europe. By this metric, 87 percent of ERASMUS students reported becoming significantly more interested in other European people and cultures as a result of ERASMUS study. Similarly, 91 percent reported that their ERASMUS experience made them significantly more interested in other European countries. Finally, 61 percent of ERASMUS participants reported that the experience made them significantly more interested in the EU. While further investigation is required to examine the relationship between ERASMUS participation and students’ attitudes toward various aspects of Europe, the data suggest that student mobility plays an important role.
Identity and democratic legitimacy in the EU
Among our survey respondents, ERASMUS participation clearly appears to be correlated with a sense of Europeanism. Compared with non-mobile students and with the general European public, the ERASMUS students in this study identified more readily as European, felt more attached to the EU, and knew more about European integration. And significantly, they overwhelmingly reported that their experience of student mobility made them more interested in European countries, people and cultures, and in the EU.
This pattern of Europeanism stands in marked contrast with a growing backlash against the EU among many Europeans. In 1991, 2001, 2005 and 2008, voters rejected EU treaties in national referenda, and since the late 1990s, protestors (sometimes tens of thousands of them) have been a regular feature at biannual summits of EU leaders.
This popular backlash against the EU represents an important new challenge for European integration. For decades, integrationists were unconcerned about how Europeans understood themselves – as French, as European – since European integration was itself pushed along by elite efforts, with minimal public input. Indeed, observers assumed that there existed a tacit reservoir of support for the integration project among the underlying population. Lindberg and Scheingold (1970) referred to this as a ‘permissive consensus’ in favour of European integration. But as EU politics have increasingly come to affect the areas of national politics that citizens care about – including employment, the environment, security, and defence – the public has begun to scrutinize the EU more actively and to register discontentment at certain developments. Indeed, it has become difficult to imagine that such a ‘permissive consensus’ exists at all.
What can be done to restore – or create? – the ‘permissive consensus’ upon which any legitimate political edifice must rest? One populist argument is to renationalise politics, to strip the EU of all but its most minimal functions. Heard most often from nationalist right-wing parties, this position is generally rejected by mainstream politicians and others who emphasise the enormous costs of unravelling nearly six decades of integration. A second argument, and the one that has received the most attention from EU scholars, is to reform the EU institutions to create clearer lines of democratic accountability to EU citizens. Common proposals include direct election of the EU Commission and strengthening the democratically-elected European Parliament.
Certainly institutional reform has been a pressing issue for the EU in recent years, but the extent to which institutional reform can in fact quell public discontent is limited. As long as citizens understand European politics in purely national terms, as an ‘us-them’ trade off, EU institutions will be hampered by conflicting national interests, even if the institutions are made more democratically accountable. Increasingly, the argument is being made (Decker 2002; Suleiman 2003) that what is really necessary to resolve the EU’s public accountability dilemma is the development of a transnational ‘we’ mentality, where Europeans think of themselves as one demos (people) rather than as 27 separate demoi. Only then can supranational political institutions function democratically – that is, represent the will of the demos.
The sort of European identification we have observed among mobile students is certainly not sufficient – in itself – to remedy the EU’s democratic deficit. After all, less than 1 percent of the EU population has ever participated in an ERASMUS programme. But might it not presage the emergence of a broader European identity? We take seriously the insight from constructivist literature on identify formation that structural changes in the organization of society impact the political identities people hold. We believe that the institutionalisation of a new political reality in the European Union has the potential to change the way that people think about their identities. If a new Europe is being built, it is no surprise that its construction precedes the widespread existence of ‘Europeans’.
Historically, people’s consciousness of themselves as members of a larger – national – entity lagged well behind the construction of that entity. In the wake of the Risorgimento which united Italy, one Italian nationalist proclaimed, ‘We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians’ (quoted in Hobsbawm 1983: 44). And despite relatively early territorial consolidation in France, large pockets of the country remained so isolated that it was not until the late nineteenth century advent of railroads, mass education, and conscription that their inhabitants interacted regularly and learned what it was to be French (Weber 1976).
Surely the process of European integration is not simply a repeat of historical state- and nation-building processes, but understanding these historical processes helps to illuminate the emergence of European identity today. As Marks and McAdams (1996: 254) write, ‘The current process of European integration offers social scientists any number of fascinating topics for study. But among the most interesting to us concerns the potential of the process to set in motion the same broad transformation in governance structures and attendant organisational forms that we now associate with the rise of the modern state.’ We hold that – in the long run – European integration stands to transform not just political institutions, but political identities as well.
Who might be the first ‘Europeans’? Like others (Fligstein 2008; Green 2007), we believe that early adopters of European identity will be found among groups that share certain traits – knowledge about the new Europe, mobility, multilingualism – that allow them to benefit from the new Europe being created. Our survey was an attempt to investigate just one such group, to test whether students who participate in the EU’s official university study abroad programme – and who often receive EU funds to do so – conform to our expectations and identify themselves as more ‘European’ than non-mobile students.
Although the limited sample size means that the conclusions we present here are tentative, our initial hypotheses were borne out by the data. The survey results indicate that ERASMUS students identify as European, not only more readily than the general European population, but also more readily than other, non-mobile, university students. With current data limitations, we cannot dismiss the possibility that European identifiers are predisposed to foreign study, leading to a high concentration among ERASMUS students, but we also suggest two alternate explanations, in which ERASMUS study plays a formative role in European identity construction.
Who might be the first ‘Europeans’? Like others, we believe that early adopters of European identity will be found among groups that share certain traits – knowledge about the new Europe, mobility, multilingualism – that allow them to benefit from the new Europe being created.
There are several logical extensions of this project that call for further research. A future study that is both larger (to allow for formal statistical analysis) and more multinational would help to validate the correlation between mobility and European identity that is indicated in this study. Such a study could also help to tease out the relative significance of knowledge and socialisation in European identification or, alternatively, establish whether European identification predates ERASMUS participation. Finally, future studies might investigate other groups with a stake in the new Europe – Eurocrats in Brussels whose career identities are based in EU institutions, business directors whose market, thanks to European integration, is now all of Europe – for evidence of a vanguard European identity.
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In addition to those emphasising structural change, other constructivists emphasize the political and symbolic manipulation that created national identities (Hobsbawm 1992; Hobsbawm & Ranger 1992). In this ‘instrumentalist’ perspective, national identity was fostered through the conscious and purposeful actions of political elites. In short, nationalists created nations, not the other way around.
Respondents were invited from five Toulouse universities – Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP), le Mirail, Université Paul Sabatier, Université Toulouse 1 Sciences Sociales (UT1), and Institut de Science et de Théologie des Religions (ISTR).
We limited our analysis to EU citizens and thus eliminated responses from students who reported nationality of a non-EU country or who failed to report their nationality. In the absence of precise data about the survey response rate, we cannot quantify the effect of any potential bias resulting from the self-selection of students who, having received an invitation to complete the survey, actually chose to respond. To reduce the likelihood of systematic bias – e.g., responses only from the most pro-European or anti-European students – survey solicitations described the survey in only very general terms.
Commission-funded Eurobarometer surveys have been conducted since 1973. In general, the surveys query approximately 1,000 respondents per Member State in face-to-face interviews, and reports are published twice per year.
Neither the EB nor our own survey posed these options as mutually exclusive choices; respondents were asked simply to indicate their level of attachment to each level.Tags: Academic