I am a Londoner, a central Londoner to be precise and I’ve lived in England my whole life and I could probably tick off a few of the criteria on one of those ‘You know you’re from the UK when…’ facebook groups. By extension, I suppose I am a European also, but this identity is a less immediate one for me and many Britons. Before the obvious point that Euro-scepticism is rife in the UK is highlighted, let me point out that in 2013, 33% of respondents in the UK said that they felt attached to the EU. In Cyprus that number dipped down to 22%, and low levels of identification could be found in both new and older member states.
This is all despite the fact that the same respondents often believed that the EU was in fact good for their nation, so why do they not feel more attached to something that they perceive as a good thing? There are several academic theories, including the idea that states with low levels of identification feel that they have not benefitted economically from membership. For example, 66% of the Irish say that EU membership is a good thing, compared to less than 33% per cent of the generally euro-sceptical British and we all know that Ireland has received billions of Euros in aid from the EU.
Yet, if we travel back to 2013 and look at the Eurobarometer survey from that year we can see that 48% of Irish respondents felt attached to the EU, whereas 66% felt that membership was a good thing. Again, we must ask why this gap between the two numbers exists. Another theory posited is that non-identifiers generally don’t identify with many or any territories, not even their region or nation. However 91% said that they identified with their nation compared to 48% with the EU, which suggests that this theory is also inadequate.
Academics across faculties are busy trying to figure out the answer to the question we have posed, so in attempting to not step on their toes, I will put forward a suggestion that probably wouldn’t stand up to academic rigour. It seems to me that concepts of European identity have been very political whereas we often regard it as a subjective or emotional attachment. It isn’t always reasonable, and we often struggle to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes us feel part of a nation we believe in it.
Europe suffers from its own eclecticism and vastness. Identity includes two main parts: inclusion in something distinct and the exclusion of all else, therefore identities are inherently limited. Alas, it is difficult to limit Europe, or just the idea of it. Demarcation lines between Europe and Asia could be at the Urals or with the EU seeking ties in central Asia, is it inconceivable that countries like Kazakhstan could one day become members of the EU? Turkey is the epitome of this very question, as it struggles to convince the EU and its citizens of where it belongs; inside or outside of the EU.
Why does Turkey want to be a part of the EU anyway? Well the 2013 Eurobarometer suggests that generally, the factor which citizens of Europe feel that the greatest benefit of membership is that they are free to travel, study and work in any other member state. Again, this is an understandable reason for thinking of the EU as a good thing more often than not, but it is a political freedom and you can’t cheer a freedom on in a sports game… Even if we could cheer on a European team someday, I wonder which language we would all cheer in. We certainly aren’t a region with neither a common language, nor common myths and we spent the greater part of history fighting each other so what do we have in common?
We might be held together by the lack of barriers between member states, by similar views about welfare, or by the modernity that we are beginning to enjoy across Europe, but these aren’t tangible symbols of our unity. How many people could claim that they know when Europe Day is, or could recite a short extract of ‘Ode to Joy’? These are our symbols of European Unity and yet we barely know them. The more educated a person is, the more likely they are to identity with the EU and I guess, also be aware of these symbols, possibly because they are open to the idea of a cosmopolitan and open Europe. And it is the idea that one has to embrace, because as Benedict Anderson put it, what is nationalism, other than an imagined community?
Approximately half of all European citizens feel attached to the EU to some degree, whether it is their most important level of identification or their least important, which suggests that the EU is somehow creating an idea of commonality. Maybe Huntington was wrong, and actually the more we interact with each other, the more we will understand each other despite our differences, rather than rejecting each other. Could it be that a political right to freedom of movement has brought us together somewhat, by bringing us face to face? I think I might take advantage of my EU passport and go on a little trip to find out just how much we do have in common…
*Mazida Khatun is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies, and the London School of Economics. She writes about identity and nationalism politics.