Who are the Europeans and how does this matter for politics?



The European Union has produced a remarkable set of agreements to guide the political interactions of countries across Europe in the past 50 years. These agreements have produced collective rules governing market transactions of all varieties, created a single currency, established a rule of law that includes a European court, and promoted increased interactions for people who live within the boundaries of Europe. Moreover, the EU has expanded from 6 to 27 countries. The endpoint of the European Union has been left intentionally vague and can be encapsulated by the ambiguous phrase “towards an ever closer union”.

Much of the political criticism of the EU has focused on its lack of transparency in its procedures and its accountability to a larger democratic public (Baun, 1996; Dinan, 2002; McCormick, 2002). Many of the Europe’s citizens have little knowledge about the workings of the EU (Gabel, 1998). This lack of “connectedness” to the EU by ordinary citizens has caused scholars to try and understand why a European identity (equivalent to a “national” identity), a European “civil society”, and a European politics have been so slow to emerge (Laffan, et. al. 2000). The main focus of these efforts is to wonder why after 50 years of the integration project, there is so little evidence of public attitudes that reflect more feelings of solidarity across Europe. Even amongst those who work in Brussels, there are mixed feelings about being European (Hooghe, 2005; Beyer, 2005).

I argue that the literature has so far failed to understand how it is that some people across Europe are likely to adopt a European identity and some are not. I propose that the main source of such an identity is the opportunity to positively interact with people from other European countries with whom one has a basis for solidarity on a regular basis. Since this opportunity is restricted to a certain part of the population, it follows that not everyone in Europe is likely to adopt a European identity. Moreover, the people who have this opportunity tend to be the most privileged strata of society: managers, professionals, white collar workers, educated people, and young people. This paper provides evidence that it is precisely these groups who tend to think of themselves as Europeans, speak second languages, report having traveled to another member state in the past 12 months, and who have joined European wide organizations.

This unevenness of interaction with others in Europe has produced a counter effect. Those who have not benefited from travel and the psychic and financial rewards one gets by learning about and interacting with people from other countries have been less favorable towards the European project (see Holmes, 2000 for a discussion of how some of these people have viewed what it means to be a “European” through the “Le Pen effect”). I will show that substantial numbers of people in Europe sometimes think of themselves as Europeans, but there remains a large group, somewhere around 45%, who are wedded to their national identity. This suggests several key dynamics for politics.

First, national political parties have responded to the pro European position of middle and upper middle class citizens by opting for a pro-European platform over time. I show that center left/center right parties in England, France, and Germany have all converged on a pro-European political agenda. This reflects their desire to not alienate core groups for whom European integration has been a good thing. In this way, the “Europeans” (i.e. middle and upper middle class people in each of the member states) have had an important effect on national politics. But, parties on the far left and far right are full of people for whom Europe has not been a good thing. Right wing parties worry about Europe undermining the nation and they thrive on nationalist sentiment. Left wing parties view the economic integration wrought by the single market as globalization and hence a capitalist plot to undermine the welfare state.

Second, the way that particular political issues have played out across Europe depends on how the situational Europeans (i.e. those who sometimes think of themselves as Europeans) come to favor or not favor a European solution to a particular political problem. Frequently, such groups examine these issues from the point of view of their own interest and of the nation. They work to pressure their governments to respond to their interests and to undermine a broader possibility for European cooperation. But, if those who sometimes think of themselves as Europeans recognize that a particular political issue should be resolved at the European level, they will support more European cooperation.

The paper has the following structure. First, I consider the issue of how to think about European identity. I suggest a set of hypotheses about who is most likely to think of themselves as Europeans. Next, I provide data that is consistent with the hypotheses. I then show how the main political parties in the largest countries have sought out these voters by taking pro-European positions. In the conclusion, I discuss the issue of the “shallowness” of European identity and the problem this presents for the EU going forward.