Who are Europeans?
Who are Europeans?

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Who are Europeans?

1.2 Measuring European identity

1.2.1 The role of the Eurobarometer

In 1973 the Directorate of Information of the European Commission instituted a survey of public opinion amongst the members of the EEC. So now, twice a year, a sample of about 1,000 people from each country are interviewed on topics related to European integration and EU policy and institutions. This survey of public opinion is usually referred to as Eurobarometer. The reports are initially published by the Commission in French and English, though they are subsequently made available in the other official languages of the community. The Eurobarometer presents data by individual states and also about the community as a whole. When it refers to ‘European opinion’ what it is in fact doing is averaging national opinions. To a certain extent the Eurobarometer assumes the existence of European citizenship, while at the same time some of the questions are trying to find out how committed the different nationals are to the EU. Furthermore, some of the questions in the surveys are rather consensual and not probing enough, particularly in relation to the future of the community. Perhaps the most interesting thing that the Eurobarometer shows is the divergence of opinions between the different member countries (Wolton, 1993a, pp. 288–90).

The results of successive editions of the Eurobarometer show that in most EU countries only a very small percentage of people (around 5 per cent) declare having an exclusive European identity, while up to 50 per cent do not have any sense of European identity. Among the founding members of the community the sentiment of Europeanness is most developed. Although it is possible, and perhaps even justifiable, to criticise the methodological assumptions and categories used in most opinion surveys – including, for example, the dubious assumption that European identity and national identity are the same type of identity – none the less there is little doubt that the sentiment of belonging to an entity called Europe is rather limited.

In their study of European values at two different moments in time, 1981 and 1990, Ashcroft and Timms (1992) concluded that perhaps there is no such thing as ‘European values’ or rather that there is more disagreement than consensus. It is true that in some areas (family life, gender and attitudes toward the state and the economy) there are some broad similarities, but concerning, for example, the role of the individual and religion, the differences are staggering and do not appear to fade away. In the opinion of the authors ‘national culture and opinion remain robustly diverse in spite of the increasingly close political and economic ties’ (Ashcroft and Timms, 1992, p. 112).

Two preliminary conclusions can be drawn from the information published by the Eurobarometer: European political identity is weak and there is a great variation across states. It is naive, however, to contrast national identities and European identity with the argument that the former are natural and the second is artificial. It is true that at present national identities can be envisaged as given, while European identity is only in its infancy, and hence has to be constructed, but it is a well-known historical fact that national identities are also the result of a centrally-engineered process of nation-building which in many cases is relatively recent. It is, of course, another, quite different, matter as to how far the EU would want to go along the path of constructing a European identity.

Measuring the degree of European unity might necessitate looking at the support accrued to the European community over a long period of time. However, according to the Eurobarometer, a number of general points can be made.

  • At the affective level, support for European integration tends to be stronger among the original founders of the community (between 70 per cent and 80 per cent); among the other countries, Spain ranks as high as the original six and Denmark is the lowest of all (with less than 50 per cent).

  • At the utilitarian level, support is still strong among the ‘old guard’ (with figures between 60 per cent and 70 per cent) and rather low for the UK (37 per cent) and Denmark (38.8 per cent); the other countries are somewhere in between.

  • Between 1973 and 1992 support for membership of the EEC/EU increased in all individual countries.

  • Support increased when the national economy performed well and it decreased when the economy slumped. In the oldest communitarian states this correlation is less relevant, that is, people do not envisage their membership of the EU in economic terms.

According to Inglehart and Reif (1991), it is possible to state that support for the EEC reached high levels in the 1970s and 1980s, though, as we have seen, during this period Denmark showed a lesser commitment. In surveys conducted in the late 1980s, that is, before the Maastricht Treaty, 87 per cent of the EEC people were in favour of the unification of Europe, and only 11 per cent against. However, when it came to the formation of a European government that would be responsible to a European Parliament, the results were rather different: 49 per cent in favour versus 24 per cent against, with 26 per cent of don't knows/abstentions. These figures hide, however, the fact that there was strong opposition to the idea in two countries: Denmark (with 64 per cent against it and only 13 per cent in favour) and the UK (45 per cent against and 31 per cent in favour). It would appear that for the British the main reasons were economic (a perceived ‘bad deal’), while for the Danes they were political (concern about further national erosion).

Since 1992 the Eurobarometer has been following the extent to which the citizens of the EU define themselves as sharing a European identity. The question asked in the surveys is:

In the near future do you see yourself as:

  1. Nationality only?

  2. Nationality and European?

  3. European and nationality?

  4. European only?

The results from Spring 1992 to Spring 1998 are shown in Table 1.

Table 1 Responses to survey question, Spring 1992 to Spring 1998 (in percentages)

Spring 1992 Autumn 1993 Autumn 1994 Autumn 1995 Spring 1996 Spring 1997 Spring 1998
Nationality only 38 40 33 40 46 45 44
Nationality and European 48 45 46 46 40 40 41
European and nationality 7 7 10 6 6 6 6
European only 4 4 7 5 5 5 5

The way in which the European Commission reads these results is instructive.

Throughout the years that the survey has tracked the development of a European identity, there have always been more people who feel to some extent European than people who identify themselves as only having their own nationality. However, as the table above shows, the sense of sharing a common identity does not appear to have become more widespread over the years.

The rank order amongst countries that had been established in previous surveys has now changed slightly. Although Luxembourg residents are at 13% still by far the most likely to feel European only, the number of people who now feel Luxembourgisch only has increased significantly (+8), so that Italians (67%) are now most likely to feel to some extent European. In Portugal (62%), the UK (60%) and Sweden (59%), people are still most likely to see themselves as their own nationality only.

(Eurobarometer 49, September 1998, p. 41)

The sense of feeling to some extent European had increased in some countries (Belgium, Denmark, Spain and Italy), while the sense of identifying with one's own nationality had also increased in Portugal, Ireland, the Netherlands and the UK. By age, people over 55 were less likely to feel European than other age groups (42 per cent, while the average was at 52 per cent). Gender differences were small: 54 per cent of men and 50 per cent of women felt to some extent European. Among those groups who felt more European than average were: well-educated people (69 per cent) and students and managers (66 per cent). Also worth mentioning is the fact that 70 per cent of those who supported the EU felt European.

In the Eurobarometer 50 (released in 1999) there was a question which had direct impact on the issue of European identity. It was formulated in the following way: ‘Is there a European cultural identity shared by all Europeans?’ It was plain from the answers that Europeans distinguished between the sentiment of being European and the issue of whether or not there was a European cultural identity. The responses obtained do not always follow the patterns that occur in other parts of the survey.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century identification with Europe in its three modalities (nationality and European, European and nationality, and European only) was at an all-time low (50 per cent) when compared with the 1990s. Not surprisingly the European Commission expressed a growing concern with this issue. It is not clear, however, whether this state of things was due to excessive centralisation (the ‘Brussels syndrome’) or to the inability of the EU to offer an appealing European agenda.


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