December 27, 2017
The lack of a well-defined European identity has framed the diversity of European citizens as a challenge to be overcome rather than an opportunity that must be seized. This has exacerbated political divisions, empowering nationalist sentiments, protectionism and ensuing Euroscepticism, supported by the spread of disinformation and over-reliance on national party proxies. It has also led to the marginalisation of minority groups, prohibiting entire pools of people from reaping the socio-economic benefits of the European Union. All this amounts to a considerable threat to the social fabric of European societies, while attacking the European project at its core.
A Twofolded Problem
The problem is twofold: there is an increasing divide among citizens both within and across the different EU member states, where diversity prevails over unity. In terms of division within states, Brexit showed an overwhelming appreciation towards the EU among young people, while this was not the case for older generations. Indeed, the Erasmus programme is considered the third most positive result of the EU, while the level of social welfare (healthcare, education and pensions) is next to last, with only 18 per cent of votes in favour. Considering divisions across states, there is little political will to work on shared solutions to problems affecting the most vulnerable groups of society. As we move forward, globalization and technological advances will inevitably translate into more flexible borders. Migratory influxes are gaining increasing salience in political discourse. The Eurobarometer found that, while this perception decreased 7 percentage points since 2016, 38 per cent of citizens believe immigration is among the two most important issues the EU is facing, second only to terrorism. This has put pressure on specific minority groups and geographical areas, as well as giving further ammunition to extremist ideologies.
While it was only formally conceptualised in 2000, ‘United in Diversity’ has been the core message of the European project for several decades. As a focus in bridging the gap between citizens and their political institutions, this motto can prove to be an effective antidote to nationalism, protectionism and the Eurosceptic sentiment. The promotion, or rather, the construction of European identity necessarily builds on this idea of acknowledging and respecting diversity: diversity of cultures, identities and individuals.
The EU is a political system: it is not a state, and it should not be expected to operate as such, especially when conceptualising the existence of a single European identity. In Europe, there are several distinct identities. The differences that sets us apart as member nations make us uniquely poised to contribute to the Union in our own way, rather than as adversaries. A European social ground should be based on the idea that despite highly pluralised societies and a multitude of different cultures, norms and languages, Europeans share values, such as the rule of law and democracy, and are characterized by an unmistakable sense of solidarity. As the aim to have a unique European identity seems mostly utopic, diversity can be a unifying feature to build a common ground on shared values. The key to create this Union on diversity is the promotion of social integration, with which we, as Europeans, can turn social divisions into a coexisting diversity.
A Better Life for Citizens
Among others values, social equality is a central driving force of our common European project. Policies should incorporate minorities in today’s pluralised societies. The EU institutions have to play a more prominent role in the welfare of all citizens. The benefits of a union among nations must become evident at all socio-economic levels, not only to technocrats and highly educated members of society. Despite representing a compromise, the Union’s ultimate raison d’etre is to better the lives of citizens: it must play a part in shaping aspects such as EU-wide healthcare, education and pensions.
Although the citizens of the EU are diverse, they should all have equal access to opportunities. This is not only defined as bringing together different groups within member states but also as the inclusion of immigrants into European societies. Social integration will prevent the influx of immigrants from being weaponised by populist forces. It is imperative to ensure that truthful information is being circulated to prevent distorted rhetoric from creating a fictitious link between, for instance, terrorism and immigration. It should be clear that there is enormous value in having unrestricted access to wholly unique cultures, its people and customs. As is the case with programs like Erasmus, Europeans are encouraged to expand their horizons, thereby making them more open-minded and able to seize the opportunities of today. The world is shifting towards innovation and leaders in thinking, and Europeans will be able to be at the forefront of this, because of their access to each other.
Moving forward, cultural and educational policies should: promote equity among citizens, emphasise the role of EU institutions, further the cooperation between member states and uphold the notion that diversity is a defining feature of the European identity. The EU is not only an association of national governments, but a partnership between citizens. It is important that we not feel separated by our heterogeneity, but rather united in our diversity. Indeed, diversity should be in identities; not in social opportunities.
Be part of the discussion! Join the 1989 Generation Culture and Identity Roundtable at “A New Deal for Europe: Reconnecting the EU and its Citizens” at the London School of Economics and Political Science in February 2018.