The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

Generation Europe

Petra Huyst

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)

“We must go back to teach Europeans to love Europe,” said Luxembourg's former prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, in 2004. His words are just as true today.

The champions of European integration have certainly made a steady effort to connect Europe with its citizens. During the 1970s there was much talk about a People's Europe, and the European Council, meeting in 1984 in Fontainebleau, France, bandied about the idea of using symbols, myths, and celebrations to strengthen and develop European identity. Talk was followed by concrete actions, including the creation of a European flag and a European anthem. But the persistence of a gap between Europe and its citizens was painfully evident during the protracted struggle to win ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, which introduced the euro and established the various institutional pillars of the European Union.

In the earlier stages of European integration, when the project was driven by a technocratic elite, the lack of popular attachment was considered a small but eventually surmountable problem. Love for the European project would grow, the elite believed, once its benefits were clear. That period of permissive consensus is over, and strong resistance to various ratification efforts shows that the EU has failed to gain a supporting demos.

Indeed, evidence suggests that Europeans feel little sense of solidarity with each other, much less a sense of European identity. Results from the European Commission's Eurobarometer surveys consistently show that people feel connected mostly to their region and their country, far less to Europe. These low levels of connection are reflected in low voter turnouts for European elections, most disturbingly among the 18-to-24 age cohort, only a third of which voted in the 2009 European elections.

This youngest group warrants particular attention. Having grown up with the EU as a presence in its life, Generation Europe has been able to take full advantage of open borders, a common currency (at least in many parts of the Union), and ample opportunities to travel. Yet the members of this generation do not display a significantly stronger sense of European identity than older generations.

Research among Flemish youths (ages 17-18) sheds some light on the matter. Based on responses from focus groups and a supporting survey, the results showed a mixed story of European identity formation. Metaphor analysis, in which participants were asked to compare the EU to an animal and explain their choice, showed broadly favorable leanings toward the EU. When those responses were linked to the question of whether or not the respondents felt European, up to 75 percent claimed to feel a little sense of belonging to the EU. This high percentage has to be weighed against the fact that these same respondents were much less likely to present themselves as European when asked directly. Moreover, the focus group discussions revealed a clear lack of connection with Eastern Europeans, which seems odd for a generation that grew up in a united Europe and for whom the Iron Curtain is a thing of the past.

Another obstacle to the formation of a European identity was illustrated by the respondents' lack of knowledge about the EU. We do not know enough about it, frankly, one focus group participant said. This limited familiarity makes it very hard for young people to envisage what being European truly means. One might think that the benefits brought by the EU (a common currency, open borders) would have produced a stronger sense of belonging, but the research findings do not support that supposition. On the contrary, the benefits were thought of as givens of everyday life, with little explicit connection to the EU.

So for this specific target group, we find a complex story in which there is some level of support for what the EU does but very little identification with (or even awareness of) what the EU is. A European identity, it seems, is still a long way off.

Petra Huyst is a European project coordinator at Visit Flanders. She holds a PhD in European Union studies from the Center for EU Studies, Ghent University, Belgium, and has published journal articles and other writing on the question of European identity.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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