Who are Europeans?
Who are Europeans?

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Who are Europeans?

1.7 Toward a European civil society?

1.7.1 European citizenship

The EU is an economic, juridical and, to an extent, political reality. But is it a public space in the sense of an arena in which groups and individuals vigorously exchange symbolic messages of different types? It would appear as if, while the public of most EU countries are willing to accept ever closer economic union (including a common currency and even political convergence), when it comes to historical memories, social organisation and cultural ideas (including religion), they are mostly recalcitrantly national in their attitudes.

From its inception to the present, the unification of Europe has proceeded unevenly to consolidate the economic dimension, and with more difficulty the legal and political ones. The real difficulties have always been encountered when attempts have been made to progress along the issues of cultural identity. The explanation is simply that they clash with the entrenched national realities that still dominate the European world. This is where there is presently an unbreachable gap between the growing, but still small group of intellectuals, politicians, civil servants, entrepreneurs, media people, academics, syndicalists and others who are committed pro-Europeans, and the public opinion of the different European countries who espouse national perspectives, often accompanied by negative stereotypes and xenophobic attitudes toward other European nationals. In spite of the elections to the European Parliament, or perhaps because of the limitation of such an institution, public opinions and especially political ideas are largely formed by the national media; this is also the chosen arena where politicians expend most of their energies.

Dominique Wolton (1993b) and Victor Pérez-Díaz (1998) have pointed out that there are a number of major differences between the national public space and the proposed European one:

  • It is a fact that national public spaces have developed over a long period of time (at least since the French Revolution). The EU is not only young, but it has hitherto had mainly an economic basis.

  • National public spaces were created within rigid state borders (even allowing for the existence of multinational states). The way in which the EU is evolving seems to prefigure a vast space ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’, to use de Gaulle's well-known expression. Borders may be on the way out, but it is not clear how to build the ‘common house’.

  • While national identities are still strong, European identity is still in the making. The creation of a European citizenship may be a step in this direction, but Europe is still an aggregate of polities, not a new, fully shaped one.

  • The question of a European commonality of values is becoming more difficult to achieve because the values either are becoming actually or potentially universal (democracy, liberalism, human rights, market economy, and so on) or can no longer function as European (Christianity, anti-Communism).

  • The majority of national public spaces are constituted by the presence of a common language. This is not the case of Europe as a whole, where more than 70 languages are spoken. The absence of a lingua franca makes it difficult to participate in a political dialogue and makes the appearance of common ways of thinking and common attitudes more difficult. It is true that English is becoming the most commonly used language among Europeans, but it is difficult to see this development in other than purely instrumental terms.

  • Within the EU a sphere of free public debate is little developed. As a consequence, it is difficult to know whether individuals are engaged citizens. In Europe most debates are about domestic issues.

Having a European passport, being able to freely travel around Europe (at least for the citizens of those countries which have signed the Schengen Agreement) and a few more trappings do not make for what Ralph Dahrendorf calls ‘hard citizenship’. It is true that the members of the EU may feel that they belong to a community of sorts and that they share, to a certain extent, certain ideas and aspirations. But to move to something more substantive, to develop a more meaningful kind of citizenship, institutional and symbolic developments will have to be accompanied by educational ones. Even if European identity is not meant as a substitute for regional and national ones, but rather as complementary to both, history teaches us that it would be naive to think that it can grow quickly and without hurdles.

Not all authors are so pessimistic about the possibility of a European civil society. John Keane, for example, believes that the idea of European citizenship consecrated in 1992 will slowly but inevitably lead to the creation of a new political animal: the European civilian. He thinks that this person ‘can take advantage of an emerging civil society comprising a mixture of personal contacts, networks, conferences, political parties, social initiatives, trade unions, small businesses and large firms, friendships and local and regional forums’ (Keane, 1998, p. 111).

There are even those who, like Shaw (1998), think that the EU, conceived as a supranational community, is anchored in the idea of citizenship which implies the rights and duties of the citizen as expressed in the treaties of the EEC/EU. Following T.H. Marshall's classical formulation in Citizenship and Social Class (1950), we can distinguish three kinds of rights:

  • Civil or legal rights. The European Court of Justice supersedes national law in any matters concerning situations of national discrimination on grounds of race, religion, gender, and so on.

  • Political rights. Here the emphasis is not only on democratic participation in the EU institutions, but also the right to information about the different levels of the EU.

  • Social rights. These affect areas of employment, consumption, and so on.

On the whole, this bundle of rights may appear as limited, but there is no reason why the idea of European citizenship could not be taken much further even within the existing institutional framework. European citizenship and the rights and duties associated with it hold the potential to encourage greater engagements with the European project. It is in this sense that individuals could feel motivated to participate in governance processes shaping the EU.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus