Written by Betony Clasby
There is a currently a problem in the heart of Europe. The
largest ever poll on leaving the European Union has shown that the British public
is divided on the EU, with 41% in favor of continued membership, 41% in favor
of Brexit and the remainder undecided.
The European Union is a political-economical union created to unite its member
states against political extremes. However, the problem is that currently the
EU is just a political and economic
union, and not a social one. Fukuyama
argues that the EU is currently deteriorating due to a missing common identity.Why,
as inherently social creatures, have we not yet formed a strong European social
identity? There is a lack of faith in the EU, and to have any chance of
enhancing our European identity, we need to listen to European citizens and
understand why this is the case.
We need to reflect on the meaning of these terms we use so often. Identity, for example, refers to the characteristics that determine who or what a person is. We all know that as individuals, we have many identities; ranging from our personal identity to our familial, or cultural identity. Palmer (2012) believes that our own core identity continually develops with our genetics, social networks, culture, schemes and lived experiences; to name a few factors. It is important to remember how intricately linked our identities are. Whoever we are, where have we been, where we are now, and where are we going. Perceived membership of a specific social group doesn’t eclipse your own personal identity; it merely adds to it, like all your other experiences. The same holds true with a European identity - identifying as European should not reduce the importance of our national identity, or overcome our rich cultural heritage. It enhances it.
Without a strong collective identity to bind groups together,. As stated by Angela Merkel, “many people do not feel that they can relate to the EU”. A truth reflected in the average turnout of the European elections, which has dropped every single year since 1979. There is little sense of collective identity, leaving all of us in the EU, vulnerable.
The motto of the EU – ‘United in Diversity’ – suggests that we can have a collective identity through our shared interest and celebration of diversity. A Social Identity Approach theorist would argue that the necessary condition for the formation of social groups is “awareness of a common category membership” and that a social group can be “usefully conceptualized as a number of individuals who have internalized the same social category membership as a component of their self concept”. Can you really be United in Diversity at all, or, as human beings do we need stronger ties than this alone? Europeans are aware of their membership in the EU; but we need to attach value and emotional significance to our membership in order to develop a social identity. Some have lost their faith in the EU; we need to understand why this has happened and address it as it contributes to the development of our attitudes, and thus our social identity.
So how do we acquire the attitudes we carry with us, and paint our perspective with?
Firstly, attitudes are formed as a result of experience. If people have a negative attitude towards the European Union, then this is partly shaped by their experience of it, or lack thereof. For instance, in Greece, after 5 years of strict austerity, 53.2% of young people are still unemployed, and it still has the highest unemployment in Europe. More than a third of Greeks were classed as being ‘at risk of poverty or social exclusion’ in 2014. Furthermore, in June 2011, The Economist assessed the EU’s handling of the crisis in Greece as following the rule that “if a plan doesn’t work, stick to it”. Further austerity measures are being implemented despite bleak social and economic outcomes, creating an anti-European feeling among the Greek people.
Secondly, our attitudes and identity are shaped by our education. While learning is not limited to our experience in the education system, the attitudes we form through learning are largely influenced by our time in school. In the United Kingdom there is currently no mention of the European Union in the national curriculum; aside from a brief mention of national politics in citizenship classes, there is little introduction into the political world, both at a national and international stage. At the age of 18 many young people earn the right to vote, with no comprehensive understanding of the political spectrum, and with no will to learn it. If young people are not encouraged to engage in politics - particularly in relation to the European Union - then it can be of no surprise that people do not relate to Europe as part of their social identity. Political education should not be limited to introducing and explaining the EU’s role, but also to stimulate debate on its work. Critical analysis is important; the EU should be working for the people of Europe, therefore feedback should be welcomed to improve it. As George Eliot said “it is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.” In order to raise debate amongst a wider audience, initiatives such as Debate Europe Schools are crucial to help younger people engage with politics and should be universally accessible. This would be an opportunity to remind people of the often-unnoticed benefits of the EU, help dispel rumors and answer criticism, which would make it far more transparent and understandable.
Finally, social factors, such as our membership to a specific social group, can vastly alter attitude. Once we identify with a particular social group and perceive our membership as part of our identity, a process of social comparison begins. Derrida’s différance makes intergroup comparisons available; whereby we compare our in-group, with other non-conforming groups to verify the in-group’s own existence. This leads to the creation of an out-group and affects how we perceive this group of people. Theoretically the European Union itself should be the in-group. Without a common identity being formed, however, this is not the case. A misplaced and misunderstood fear of European integration has caused an in-group to form within Europe, undermining the entire foundation of the EU.
The Social Identity Approach posits that the creation of a European identity is entirely possible, even whilst being “United in Diversity”. Indeed, the underpinnings for a strong social identity are already in place with the EU, as long as we take notice of criticisms, and don’t let successes go unnoticed. One of the most important things to remember is that in order to promote a European identity, we need to adopt it ourselves and remind ourselves why the Union was originally formed – as a way of combating the extremism that led to The Second World War. The current polarization of anyone engaged with European politics as being a ‘eurosceptic’ or a ‘europhile’ is in contradistinction to the objectives of the EU. Identifying as such creates hostile territory, whereby it is increasingly challenging to view any other perspective. As William Ward said, “the pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” No system is perfect. However, a blind adoption of its opposite would be just as flawed.
 Turner, John; Oakes, Penny (1986)."The significance of the social identity concept for social psychology with reference to individualism, interactionism and social influence".British Journal of Social Psychology 25 (3): 237–252.