How to develop a European identity

Academic Article

How to develop a European identity: Young people between their home country and their involvement in European matters

Abstract: The rapid enlargement of the EU, especially after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990, accompanied by the introductions of the single market and the euro embedded in a speedy process of globalisation, has led to the question of how (young) people in the EU member states could follow this cohesive political structure for the EU (Fligstein, Polyakova & Sandholtz 2012). As the economic crisis has revealed, these developments and the vast institutional and bureaucratic expansion of the EU has led some citizens to view this expansion as a threat – not only to their national identity but also to autonomy and self-determination. The euro crisis, which has not been settled even today, seems to reveal not only an economic-driven, but also a social and political based gap between national and European identities.

Introduction: National identity vs. European identity

The rapid enlargement of the EU, especially after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990, accompanied by the introductions of the single market and the euro embedded in a speedy process of globalisation, has led to the question of how (young) people in the EU member states could follow this cohesive political structure for the EU (Fligstein, Polyakova & Sandholtz 2012). As the economic crisis has revealed, these developments and the vast institutional and bureaucratic expansion of the EU has led some citizens to view this expansion as a threat – not only to their national identity but also to autonomy and self-determination. The euro crisis, which has not been settled even today, seems to reveal not only an economic-driven, but also a social and political based gap between national and European identities.

Especially for young people, the initial “projects” of founding the EU –respectively its predecessors– establishing peace and reconciliation between the European nations, seem to be granted forever. But history has no end, as Francis Fukuyama (1992) asserted in the first euphoria after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the question of a European identity as either contra or qua qua national identities becomes more and more important. Which position and opinions do young people display in this regard, as they are growing up in these ever- expanding European structures?

The European construct is historically rather young and stands in direct competition with the nation or region as objects of identification. General theories of integration and collective identity argue first and foremost that similarity and solidarity form the basis of an identification with a collectivity (Brubaker & Cooper 2000; Jenkins 2006), or that it serves to create a difference between members and non-members, and thus a boundary between who is included and who is excluded (Barth 1969; Jenkins 2006). However, it most often includes also a utility-based component, which is being manifested in material terms, for instance that citizens see advantages in the EU-membership of their country. As such, it is not about a physical entity or unity, but rather about expressing ones’ identification with something (Nissen 2004).

An important discussion, especially for political scientists, has been whether European identity is simply a larger version of national identity or whether it is something fundamentally new and different. European identity has often been discussed as opposed to national identity – and up to now, has lost against the still strongly prevailing national identification. If we take a look at Anthony Smith’s (1991) five dimensions of national identity, it becomes apparent that Europe has a hard task to compete with national identity:

  1. Historic territory, homeland: the EU is not a homeland as such. Historic territories are also connected with nation states, which emerged in the 19th century
  2. Common myths of origin and historical memories: Common myths of origins are mainly connected with tribes and later on with nation states. Though a European history is apparent, historical memories (e.g. First or Second World War) are mostly determined by the different roles of the nation states and not as a common European “fate”.
  3. A common, mass standardised culture: Primarily, culture is connected with a common language. Though American Pop Culture and Pop Art is increasingly influencing the daily mass culture of European societies, the specific languages and the respective national connotations remain the main reference points for young people,
  4. A common economy with territorial mobility for members: Since the 1980s the EU is a single market with territorial mobility for nearly all its citizens. But the Euro crisis has painfully demonstrated the imbalance of the economies of the Eurozone members (and moreover of all EU member states)
  5. Common legal rights and duties for all members: This field seems to be most likely capable of building up a European identity, as the EU acquis communautaire is a far-reaching legislation. But some governments of the 28 EU member states blame the EU Acquis for their own domestic failures (=mobilisation of negative feelings). This fosters the current antipathy of many people against the EU.

Diverse studies have shown that European integration has so far not superseded the nation states nor rendered them obsolete (Kohli 2000; TNS Opinion & Social 2011). So, the discussion should not be about wanting to substitute national identity with European identity. Rather, it has been shown that conflicting attachments are the rule. Accordingly, European identity “is not empirically opposed to national identity. It can and should be conceived as multi-level or multi-layered” (Kohli 2000: 126). Risse (2010) argues that having a European identity does not urge people to choose between national identity and Europe. He explains that just like national identities can be explained and conceptualised in both civic and ethnic types, so European identity could be understood in civic terms rather than in ethnic ones– where values like tolerance, peace and democracy serve as identity markers for Europeans.

Moreover, a look at the anthropological approach to ‘hybridity’ shows that within social and cultural processes, changing opportunity structures can lead to new saliencies and new focal points of identity formation. Exploring situations of cultural overlap and interpenetration, anthropologists have described the appearance of mixed, fluctuating and inconsistent ‘hybrid’ identities (Hannerz 1992). In this sense, hybridity means that “contradictory meanings or logics of action linked to separate practices are recombined in new patterns in which the contradictory referents remain visible and powerful” (Kohli 2000: 131).

Therefore, we suggest having a look at institutional structures as a strong determinant of identity construction. The argument is made in economic sociology as well, where network theorists (e.g. Granovetter 1985) posit that feelings of community and trust need not pre-exist, but can also follow from institutionalised relations. In other words, it is not that the acceptance of a fundamental similarity and a consequential feeling of solidarity are determinants, but rather the theoretical fact that collective identities emerge as a consequence of intentional or unintentional social interactions (Fligstein et al. 2012). Thus, the question is how social interactions in the EU can be promoted in order to achieve a collective identity. Based on our empirical results we claim that more transparency within the institutional structures of the EU, and a much more defined and elaborated involvement of citizens into decision-making processes can achieve this feeling of collective identity – without wanting or needing to compete with subjective feelings of national identity.

In this context, the argument of different views and values of different actors and age groups is apparent: the post-war generation perceived the European Union primarily as a peace project and a “machine” to guarantee economic progress and social welfare in metric measurements (Streek 1998: 3 f; Eberwein, Tholen & Schuster 2002: 13 ff). Nowadays young people see at least the peace as granted in the EU (and in northern Europe economic progress and social welfare, as well)– despite the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the so-called current “Ukraine crisis”.

Fligstein et al. (2012) summarizes some studies’ evidence by saying that it is mostly professionals and owners of businesses that nowadays express European identity because “they engage in long-term social relationships with their counterparts […] and gather regularly to discuss matters of mutual interest” (Fligstein et al. 2012: 109 ff).

Accordingly, other groups, like young people who travel across borders, are also likely to be more European. It follows that people who lack these opportunities or the interest to interact with their counterparts across Europe do not display this kind of identification. Therefore, we can assume that promoting such institutional relations and opportunities for interaction could contribute to fostering European identity, particularly among young people.
But these institutional relations and opportunities for interaction, for which especially young people are in principle open, need a complement by an idea of political participation. And here young people, compared with previous generations in Europe, with their visions and practical forms of civic engagement, could influence a political EU in a way to establish a European identity. However, this is only possible if these different means of political participation by young people will be taken seriously by the current political actors. Or, putting it another way: Direct interaction and civic engagement in the local level –which is preferred by young people– could help to reverse the current alienation between the EU and its citizens only if young people are given influence in the political decision-making processes of the EU. Since any form of identification is a matter of socialization, these opportunities must be offered to the youth early on.

Currently, as we will learn from our empirical data below, young people have the feeling of having no say in the EU.

In the final discussion we will highlight possibilities how democratic deficits, producing social alienation and regressive forms of identification, could be overcome in the future.


The results reported in this paper are based on both, quantitative and qualitative data coming from the MYPLACE project, which was funded by the 7th EU framework. The empirical fieldwork was carried out in two socio-economically contrasting cities in northwestern Germany with 16 to 25 year old respondents.
The CAPIsurvey was conducted between autumn 2012 and spring 2013 and yielded 936 full interviews focusing on civic and political participation, social networks as well as knowledge and attitudes towards politics, German history, violence, extremism and human rights. The respondents were chosen randomly from a list coming from the public registration office.

In the end of the interview, the respondents were asked whether they were willing to participate in a qualitative follow-up interview within the upcoming weeks. Out of those respondents who agreed to be contacted again, a sample of 60 interviewees were interviewed. They were chosen with regard to an equal gender and age distribution. In the in-depth interviews, the same topics were covered as in the survey, however, with focus on the interviewees` interests and personal experiences. Additionally, there was a complete section added, asking for impressions and attitudes in respect to the European Union.

Parallel to these empirical steps, ethnographic research was done over the course of two years with two groups of active young people. The ethnographic case studies included two different kinds of engagement forms: The first group comprised young football fans that formed an informal but state-sponsored Anti-discrimination group (AntiDis group). The second group consisted of young apprentices who were formally engaged in the official Trade Union of their company (IGM group).

While in most studies, especially the Eurobarometer, European identity is first and foremost attained by asking for one’s belonging to a region, town/locality, nation, Europe, and world, this study relates to young people’s general opinions about the EU and their attachment to Europe as such. We believe that this is an effective method to ask for identification, since direct questions concerning identity often appear to be too abstract, while questions about attitudes and opinions reveal broader associations and identifications.



In the survey the respondents were asked to evaluate their interest in diverse political topics on an 11-point scale. Among these, the European Union was also mentioned. Table 1 gives the mean values for the respondents` interest in each political dimension. It is obvious that the interest in the European Union is – compared to other, in national politics discussed issues – rather modest. Only LGBT rights and detailed local issues are less interesting for the respondents than the EU.

Table 1: Interest in the EU and other political topics

To what extent are you personally interested in …? N Missing values Mean value Standard deviation
Immigration 932 4 6.69 2.18
LGBT rights 932 4 5.41 3.03
The economy 934 2 6.16 2.45
National security 931 5 6.34 2.56
The environment 935 1 7.37 2.11
The European Union 932 4 5.95 2.35
General employment prospects 929 7 7.28 2.22
Housing 934 2 6.22 2.85
Local issues 934 2 5.64 2.,8
Women’s rights 933 3 6.71 2.69


Similarly, the expressed level of trust towards the European Commission is on medium position compared to the other institutions named in the questionnaire (see table 2). However, when excluding banks, the media and religious institutions and considering directly political acting institutions only, the European Commission is not trusted well by our respondents. Only political parties have an even lower mean level of trust.

Table 2: Trust in the European Commission and other institutions

How much do you trust each of the following institutions and organisations? N Missing values Mean value Standard deviation
The courts 929 7 7.08 2.10
The police 936 0 6.67 2.34
The head of government  (PM) 929 7 5.64 2.38
The media (national press and TV) 934 2 4.39 2.22
Banks 930 6 4.55 2.55
The United Nations 889 47 5.62 2.13
The European Commission 830 106 5.57 1.88
Parliament 896 40 5.87 1.96
Amnesty International 706 230 6.63 2.04
The army 918 18 6.01 2.44
Greenpeace 899 37 6.41 2.32
Religious institutions 912 24 4.01 2.85
Political parties 931 5 4.65 1.99

When crossing these results in the two tables depicted with groups containing respondents who expressed a high level of national pride and those who did not, no significant differences appear. This indicates that national pride does not interfere with interest in the EU or trust in European institutions. Thus, a national identity might co-exist with a European identity.

Interestingly, 102 respondents (11 per cent) answered with “Don`t Know” when they were asked to evaluate their trust in the European Commission. This could indicate that it is not clear to young people what European institutions like the European Commission actually do, and whether they can be trusted or not. To further explore what the EU and its institutions mean to our respondents, the results coming from the qualitative work packages are presented below.


As a part of the in-depth follow-up interviews, the respondents were asked to describe what they personally associate with the EU. From this point of view, no interviewee reported any personal disadvantages he/she experienced because of Germany`s EU membership. On the contrary, the majority of our interviewees valued the freedom of travel and the common currency:

“[…] Imagine if the European Union broke up, everyone would have their own currency again, closed borders again, no one, especially no one of my generation, could imagine how that would be. I just had it when we drove to Denmark that we were inspected by the border control. Usually, it would not occur to me to stop there.” (Baltasar)
This emphasizes again the altered understanding of the EU by the different generations: Today’s youth emphasize more the “practical” advantages of the EU (travelling without border controls and without changing national currencies, more job opportunities because of the EU single labour market (despite some exceptions) etc. ) than young people in the 1950s and 1960s, whose main concerns were more idealistic in unifying Europe.

Some interviewees also saw EU membership as an opportunity to study or work abroad. In this context economic advantages were also mentioned as arising from consumer goods being sold more cheaply because taxes were not applied.

When considering Germany`s role within the European Union, it came to the fore that the respondents were above all aware of the (perhaps too great) responsibility Germany has within this federation. They even attributed this to Germany`s unique historical heritage when referring to World War II:

“Yes, Germany has committed itself to the other nations after World War II, helps them, but neglects its own nation. Instead of doing a bit more for Germany, they pump billions to Greece.” (Marvin)

Aside from the economic disadvantages, follow-up interviewees also referred to Germany’s international reputation as both scapegoat for the Euro crisis and, at the same time, its ‘big spender’, its financier, its grandee.

Another striking result from the in-depth interviews is that about a quarter of the interviewees said that they knew nothing about EU politics and thus, did not understand it because it was too difficult to grasp the various positions of the involved partners, or were not interested in EU politics at all. Here a lack of transparency becomes obvious with respect to EU politics. In the follow-up interviews as well as in the ethnographic case studies, the most often focused upon aspect of the European Union is the economy, which is also vividly discussed in the German media. However, the ethnographic case studies demonstrate that this topic can be interpreted differently.

Even though both ethnographic cases use the same forms of argument when referring to the EU, their general approach and perception of the union differs. The AntiDis AG with its clearly left-oriented ideology has rather negative opinions about the EU and its capitalistic tendency. The IGM Youth members refer in more positive ways to the EU and Germany’s strong economic role in it, which is perceived as important and helpful. Both groups see first and foremost the economic features of the union. The economic situation is perceived as unfair and burdensome. For instance, most of the interviewees from the informal group criticize the currency because it has raised prices while salaries have stayed more or less as they were before the introduction of the Euro. They stress that particularly in the poorer countries like Romania or Bulgaria it is the citizens or small businessmen who are economically disadvantaged by the strict EU regulations. In other words, the EU is associated with inequality among the member states, especially when referring to the financial crisis and its results.

Particularly the protests against austerity measures in Greece at the time of the interviews were put forward in the interviews as an obvious dilemma of the EU. Respondents from both groups display ‘tit-for-tat’ arguments when talking about the social and cultural defects that occur for the countries that are affected by the financial crisis. But even though they are aware of Germany’s strong role within the EU they complain that “they [the respective poor countries] should clean up their own financial situation. The money goes abroad and we are not sure if we will ever see it again” (AntiDis, Tom). Respondents from the latter group had similar arguments, for instance saying that “[…] support is good, but Germany always pays the most. Doesn’t matter which country, Greece, Spain, Cyprus – Germany pays the most even though its own citizens don’t agree with it” (IGM, Sebastian).

As the last comment shows, the economic situation of the EU is described only as a result of a far more striking problem of the EU: the lack of transparency and of having a say. In both groups, young people consider the general institutional organization and bureaucracy as rather messy and ill-conceived, as the following respondent explained:
“[…] especially in countries with a weak currency […] the citizens are the losers, because they lose their job[s] and they cannot stand that economic competition […] I think the EU should [have thought this over] before they started such an alliance.” (AntiDis, Simon)

A similar attitude appears also in the IGM Youth group. Young people cannot understand how obvious indications and symptoms for a weak financial situation could have been overseen:

“Actually the EU is partly a little bit careless. If it functioned well, then such a thing like [what happened] with Greece would not have happened. Then somebody would have noticed earlier these tendencies. Well, the principle is good, but it is still not mature.” (IGM, Danny)

Under these conditions, they display a low identification with the EU because for them the economic factor is still not consolidated with the preferable political factor, stating that “the problem is that [even] though the EU is a monetary union, it is not yet a political union” (IGM, Andree). Young people wish for a more transparent political structure within the EU and its member states, as this could offer them opportunities to participate with a valuable success. The strong dominance of capitalism is perceived as hindering and disconcerting because it appears uncontrollable – uncontrollable for politicians and for youth as excluded citizens. With this regard, in both interviewed groups, respondents displayed a rather distant relation towards the EU . They are more familiar with current national political and social topics, especially if these relate to right-wing extremism, discrimination of migrants, and general social inequality. The EU, however, is described as a weak political union that is driven by uncontrollable economic forces rather than by the will of its citizens.

Nevertheless, there is an obvious potential of strengthening a European identity. The European state community is largely considered as a very good idea because of its solidarity and unity. The respondents have positive opinions about their experience with, for instance, the Euro as the single currency and the freedom of movement. In cases where their direct life and worlds are affected by the stated advantages of the EU, they indeed talk about an evolving ‘We-feeling’ and of being united Europeans. This comes to the fore in Richard’s case, who relates to his company’s cooperation with and recruitment of Spanish workers:

“It is very important to have such a We-feeling. There are a lot of opponents [to the EU and the austerity measures] but I am looking forward to the Spanish people who will come here. I have some Spanish people in my family. I find that cool.” (IGM, Richard)

This example shows clearly that young people need to be directly involved in European projects and measures in order to develop a kind of European identity. The positive basis for this identity is obviously given, but it needs to be promoted by concrete measures on local level. Otherwise, the perception of a too uncoordinated, bureaucratic and disunited Europe will persist.


Our empirical findings confirm Fligstein et al.`s (2012) understanding of a collective identity as a consequence of social interactions of (young) people, shaped by a kind of “hybridity“ (Hannerz 1992). This means that (young) people express their European identity as a multi-level identity, which does not compete with their national/regional identities, but rather adjusts to different situations and discourses (Kohli 2000). Putting this in other words: Young people display interest and abstract European identification mainly on the basis of a daily experience, with all its contradictory and often changing aspects. This might come to the fore in direct social interactions, but also within public discourse about current processes within the EU. Thus, young people’s identification process with the European Union could be supported by enhancing reports on the EU in the media, integrating young people in decision-making processes (e.g. by referendum on specific decisions affecting young people’s everyday lives) and conveying international exchange programmes.

The current shape of the EU is experienced as a more or less solely economic entity. Or putting it more rigorously: “As a result, following Maastricht, the process of European integration controlled by the national states became the means for European capitalism to escape from the state regulation” (Streek 1998: 5). Insofar, the shape of the EU and consequently the European identity remains fragile, because it lacks the political-democratic note desired by young people. Moreover, this fragility is intensified by the very different economic and social conditions of young people in Europe – on the one hand, the bad situation of young people in South Europe with its dramatically high unemployment rates, one the other hand, the generally good prospects of youngsters in Northern Europe (including Germany). In this sense, European identity is not offered the possibilities to become more stable because to young people it appears as a “political football”, misused by powerful economic actors. Young people in Germany criticize this, and they express their unease by claiming a political EU. This can be indicated as a positive, future oriented approach. But “political union” in the sense of how young people use it, primarily means to implement the different forms of civic engagement favoured by young people into the representative democracy with its party-oriented decision-making procedures. However, this seems to be particularly challenging for the European Union because young people’s preferences for specific forms of civic engagement depend on underlying youth cultures, which differ across the EU member states.

Here the question arises, whether the current state of the EU would be able to fulfil these demands and dreams of young people. Considering the history of building the EU after the terrible wars in Europe in the first half of the last century, the project of a “European unification” was and must have been primarily a project of the elite, in order to implement and to organise this process from the very beginning. But now, around 60 years after the Treaty of Rome, things have changed: On the one hand, the EU’s policy, its institutions and regulations have permanently grown into social spheres and determine more and more the everyday life of (young) people without giving them a real chance to co-determine directly these policies. On the other hand, and as a result of observing these changes, the demands of young people in particular for a direct political participation in the EU’s affairs have considerably increased. In the future, the EU needs to successfully integrate European issues into the daily life of young people insofar as the political commitment of young people should not only be treated as a “lip service” by the European elites, but should be taken seriously as the real political participation of young people (including a more democratic legitimacy of important European institutions, such as the EU Commission and the European Central Bank). In sum, despite reforms in some of the existing EU institutions, it seems recommendable to implement elements of direct democracy, such as polls on basic issues of the EU in order to achieve a European Union which is more attractive for young people. In order to convey the sincere character of such referendum, its results should be binding for the European Commission as well as the Council of Ministers. On the one hand, this would force the politicians to launch more transparency into EU politics. On the other hand it would encourage (young) people not to complain about European matters, but to argue with the political elites in a matter-of-fact and effective way. If the implementations of these processes were successful, it could contribute considerably to shape a European identity of young people (in addition to national and regional identities) in a more sustainable way.


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Article by Britta Busse, Alexandra Hashem-Wangler & Jochen Tholen.