A fabric of many golden threads

One of the most important effects of free movement is the exchange of opinions and experiences. But are we finally witnessing the creation of a common and lasting European identity? Or is it something limited to élites and, in the end, an utopia?

By Claudia Samaras
The right to travel, live, work, study or retire in any EU country is the first of the four fundamental freedoms of the European single market, as well as well as a fundamental component of the set of rights linked to the status of EU citizenship. The concept of free movement of people was first established with the signing of the Schengen Agreement in 1985 and the subsequent Schengen Convention in 1990, which initiated the abolition of border controls between participating countries. Being part of the EU legal and institutional framework, the Schengen cooperation has gradually been extended to include most EU Member States as well as some non-EU countries. At present, “the right of citizens of the Union and their family members to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States” is guaranteed by Title IV of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and the Directive 2004/38/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2004.

Undeniably, the right to travel and reside freely in any Member State represents an immense potential for European citizens. Remarkably, as confirmed by the Standard Eurobarometer 81, the possibility of visiting the Eiffel Tour in Paris or the Coliseum in Rome without bureaucratic burdens is highly valued by European citizens. According to the report, “the freedom to travel, study and work in Europe remains the main representation associated with the European Union”. It is, in other words, the most appreciated aspect of what the European Union is and represents; it is the one element that citizens would not want to see themselves deprived of.

Over the years, European citizens have learnt to appreciate that immense potential, as they have the opportunity to experience unhindered all different cultures, traditions and lifestyles of the European Union. These are numerous and extremely diverse from one another – the cultural and linguistic richness of Europe is namely astonishing. Let it suffice to mention that in Europe there are as much as 225 indigenous languages and countless traditional dances and culinary peculiarities. Being able to study and work abroad brings people and cultures closer and makes them more open to accept differences and diversity. Eventually, it promotes a perception of differences less as a threat but rather as an opportunity for development. Think of the over 3 million students who benefitted from EU Erasmus grants since the exchange programme’s launch in 1987. Think of a Spanish young man living for 6 months in Germany, thereby experiencing the German culture, traditions and language, but also experiencing the cultures, traditions and languages of the British, Italian, Portuguese, French, Bulgarian and Croatian students who decided to spend the same period of time in the same university as he did. This can lead to nothing else than a personal openness towards European cultures and thus to an always stronger European internal cohesion and acceptance of diversity.

According to a study conducted by Russell King and Enric Ruiz-Gelices in 2003, the participation to an international exchange programme gives students and graduates a more ‘European’ identity and a greater insight into European issues. Secondly, this experience increases the chances that graduates would pursue their subsequent career paths in continental Europe, continuing thereby the cultural exchange initiated by the programme. In other words, such an experience makes European citizens more European, thus more caring about the European Union and its mission.

Hence, the central question to be asked is “does the free movement of people contribute to the achievement of a strong European identity?”

In order to provide this question with an answer, one should first clarify the meaning of the very concept of identity, which over the years has been subject to great academic debate. One argument widely present in research trying to go in the depth of the concept of identity is that this notion is always linked to the dichotomy self-other. This argument goes far back in history and finds a prominent articulation in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit:  “Each is for the other the middle term, through which each mediates itself; and each is for himself, and for the other, an immediate being on its own accord, which at the same time is such only through its mediation. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another”.  In other words, the definition of a collective identity depends on the definition of an opposite, different identity.

Collective identities, as highlighted by British Sociologist Gerard Delanty in his paper “Is there a European Identity?”, also possess a narrative dimension. “They can be seen as the stories people tell about themselves in order to give continuity to their existence. Such narratives are the basis of memory and express the performative and public aspect of identity”. Some academics argue that, since Europeans share the same set of values, they also share a common European identity. However, European values are in many aspects very similar to, say, the American ones; this cannot therefore be the discriminating variable for the existence of a European identity.

Unknown to many, there is a Declaration on European Identity signed in 1973 by the Heads of State or Government of nine Member States with the intention “to introduce the concept of European identity into their common foreign relations”. Although a mere formal declaration is not enough to guarantee the de facto existence of such identity, it was a strong statement at the time to show the commitment of political actors to promote a strong European identity. This is therefore important for, as proven by the study of Michael Bruter “Winning Hearts and Minds for Europe”, the communication activity and the promotion of symbols associated with the EU on part of European and national institutions has a significant effect on European identity.

Interestingly, at the European council meeting in Laeken in 2001, the opposite vision of the EU as a threat to national identities was brought up. This diametrically different perception of the European reality either as a threat to the national ones or as an opportunity to be promoted should be kept in mind in any consideration of the topic. It is indeed very recurrent and inevitable when dealing with multiple feelings of belonging as it is the case of the concept of the European identity. As reported by the Standard Eurobarometer 77, published in July 2012 but still the most recent one on the topic, “a very large majority of Europeans are attached to their country (91%) and more than half of them are “very attached” to it (51%)”. Local attachments also appear to be strong: 88% of Europeans are attached to their city/town/village including 49% who are “very attached”. This highlights a very important aspect: feelings of belonging are not exclusive. If an individual feels very attached to his/her city, town or village, this does not prevent him or her from having an attachment to the country. The same applies to the attachment to the European Union, which shall over time be definitely added to the feelings of belonging that citizens already feel towards closer realities. Using the words of Edgar Morin, “the European identity, like any identity can be a component of a poly identity”.

Possibly, the quantifiable aspect that most reflects European identity is the one of “attachment to the EU” measured by the European Commission on occasion of the Standard Eurobarometer 77 mentioned above. According to it, there has been a strong deterioration in citizen’s attachment to the European Union from 2010 to 2012 – possibly due to the economic crisis that hit the European economy since 2008. The data collected show that 46% of respondents declare to be attached to the EU (-7 percentage points compared to 2010), whereas 52% declared not to feel any attachment to it. This data must be considered carefully and no superficial conclusion should be drawn from it. It is indeed evident that contingencies such as economic or political crises affect the punctual results of pools such as the one presented above. As a consequence, these should not be regarded as an indicator of a long-time period trend but rather as punctual indicator of citizen’s satisfaction with the European project. In other words, the cultural identification with the European Union could be a component of the answers, but not the only one. Other factors could influence the answers, such as the disappointment with specific policies or with the handling of extraordinary socio-political circumstances.

Finally, one last aspect should be considered: The fact that attachment to the EU is more widespread among citizens who show a high political interest index (56%, compared with 37% of those citizens with no interest in politics) indicates that, should political participation increase, with good probability so would citizens’ attachment to the EU. Also, since political interest usually leads to more political information and knowledge, one of the reasons for such a lack of attachment to the EU and, thus, European identity, could be the stereotypes and the commonplaces about the EU. These could and should be fought on the side of European, national and local institutions and media through both schooling and educational campaigns, accompanying European citizens towards a greater and deeper knowledge of the European reality.

So, “does free movement of people contribute to the achievement of a strong European identity?”. Yes. It contributes to an always stronger European identity. However, it is far from determining it alone. There is a need for top-down educational campaigns and a strong effort on side of the institutions to promote a positive perception of the European Union. Of course, since every communication requires two interlocutors, citizens must be proactive and responsive to such institutional endeavour.

The identitarian mosaic of European society is the invaluable result of centuries of history and should therefore be safeguarded and cherished. Nonetheless, European identity should equally be promoted and enforced, for by no means it represents a threat to such a great heritage. Countless golden threads are better off if pulled together in a strong and refined fabric then confusedly left in a twisted knot.

Retrieved from The New European, issue 4