Do the British feel European? After Britain’s June 23 referendum on membership in the European Union, there was no shortage of incisive commentary interpreting the country’s Leave vote in light of attitudes toward immigration, economic inequality, globalization and democracy.
Yet there was far less discussion of questions that arguably were central to people’s votes. How do people think and feel about Europe? Do they tend to identify more with Europe or their own country? Finally, what do their beliefs say about their sense of European identity, which has often been thought of as a key cultural foundation for the idea of a European community?
Polls demonstrated that voters who stated the importance of their specifically English identity overwhelmingly voted to leave the E.U. But the question of European identity is more interesting than simply pitting British identity vs. the E.U., with Europe as the inevitable loser.
Many people across the E.U. have felt attached to Europe for decades — but without necessarily seeing it as core to their sense of self. Such attachments have been adequate to keep the European project going in the past, but may have reached a limit. The eurozone’s troubles, migrant crises and Brexit are all proving a serious challenge to the E.U.’s unique post-national identity.
Shared identity is a key ingredient for successful politics
Culture matters in all things political. Political systems hang together better if they are made up of people who feel that they all belong to the same deep-knit political community. Such communities are rooted in shared forms of identity and culture that we don’t necessarily think about actively, but that are crucially important. Though we may assume our national identity is something primordial that begins at birth, in fact we form our cultural ties through ordinary social interactions like learning one’s history at school, supporting the national sports team or singing the national anthem.
Nation states build shared identities through war and routine
Nation states are a key example of the importance of culture. As they consolidated in the 19th century, they relied on the development of nationalism to underpin their power and legitimacy in the eyes of their subjects. Symbols and practices such as wearing tartans and kilts and playing a bagpipe, for example, were designed to bring together people who had never thought of themselves as a unified community, turning them into Scots (or Belgians or Indonesians). In all cases, it took a lot of work by motivated political elites to construct a national culture that created a sense of national identity. Thus nation states are “imagined communities,” as Benedict Anderson has described them — people who think of themselves as having a shared identity.
Very often, nation states have used war and symbols of deep passion to bring their peoples together. In the United Kingdom, the rituals connected with the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, created after World War I, provide one example. The U.S. national anthem, invoking “the rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air,” is another.
But ordinary administrative activities add to a sense of national identity, too, just by creating taken-for-granted categories. When states carry out censuses or issue passports to their citizens, they collect knowledge and help people travel. But they also help create a sense among their citizens of what it is, say, to be British. Ordinary routines are as much a part of making a nation as patriotic myths.
The E.U. has focused on routine, not war
The E.U. faces the same challenges as the nation states that tried to build identities in previous eras. The E.U., too, needs to build social solidarity across disparate groups, persuading Greeks that they need to care about Germans, and Germans that they need to care about Greeks.
The research in my recent book, “The Politics of Everyday Europe,” finds that even if the E.U. has used similar identity-building tools, the bloc is not simply a supersize nation state in the making. Rather, it is trying to build a new, post-national political community, focusing on the boring aspects of identity building and leaving aside the blood-stirring aspects.
The E.U.’s cultural infrastructure is rooted in what I call “banal” authority, which navigates national loyalties while portraying the E.U. as complementary to national and local identities rather than competing with them.
For example: The euro’s paper currency displays abstracted bridges and windows not tied to a specific place, instead of heroic imagery. Rather than building one monumental capital in Brussels, European institutions and regulatory agencies are scattered across the 28 member states — with the European Parliament even moving, vagabond-like, between cities.
The E.U. has a standardized burgundy-colored passport (except Croatia’s holdout blue), but it is issued by each country with its own national crest and the words “France” or “Czech Republic,” for instance, beneath the E.U. label. When a single diplomat was created to represent Europe, she got a long-winded title — the “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy” — rather than a straightforward one of European foreign minister or secretary, avoiding a direct symbolic clash with national power.
Finally, the E.U. anthem is an instrumental version of Beethoven’s lovely “Ode to Joy,” which is widely used to symbolize European comity but notably has no official E.U. lyrics. All of these symbols and practices redraw the lines of political community so that they don’t stop at the nation state, but do not seek to stamp out national loyalties or inflame passions.
European identity complements national identity but does not challenge it
All of these points suggest that the E.U. identity is complex. It’s a kind of marble cake of identities, always contingent on circumstance. In the most recent Eurobarometer polls from spring 2015, a stable majority of 60 percent of people polled across the 28 member states continue to respond “European” when asked what they “see themselves as.” Even more consider themselves fitting into the category of “European Union citizens,” at 67 percent.
Crucially, however, their Europeanness is almost always linked to their own nationality, rather than standing on its own. Just 8 percent see themselves as primarily or only European — and this is unsurprising, since the E.U. itself frames European identity as entirely complementary to national identities.
Left out of this identity building is a substantial minority of people who still see themselves only in terms of their national identity (38 percent across the E.U.), and do not feel themselves to be a citizen of the E.U. (31 percent). Such voters in the U.K. were the base of support for the Leave campaign, as they are for the Euroskeptic parties on the left and right in France and elsewhere.
But the young feel European
Even so, European identity is strong among one group of British citizens — the young. Young British people have grown up knowing nothing but the everyday backdrop of the E.U.’s own version of an imagined community — mobile, multicultural and cosmopolitan.
The E.U. is a natural part of their life. This is reflected in the polling results on identity, with 64 percent of those in the E.U. born after 1964 seeing themselves as European, while a whopping 73 percent of those born after 1980 see themselves as “E.U. citizens.”
No surprise, then, that young British voters overwhelmingly rejected Brexit and voted to remain in the E.U.
Still, the E.U.’s strategy of building an everyday Europe by stealth is under attack. The E.U. has been built to be banal by design, and has avoided confronting the emotional attachment of its citizens to their nation states.
But ignoring the majority of people who do feel European and identify more broadly as “European Union citizens” blinds us to the ways in which European governance has built a legitimate identity and what more it might do to strengthen itself.
In some ways, the overt politicization of Europe in the U.K. and elsewhere is a good thing, as it brings out the real issues at stake, and has prompted some surprising displays of solidarity. Still, it shows how far Europe still has to go to forge a viable sense of political identity for all its citizens.
Kathleen R. McNamara is professor of government and foreign affairs at Georgetown University and the author of “The Politics of Everyday Europe: Constructing Authority in the European Union.”