Do EU Citizens Feel Less European?

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(CORDIS) — The 2024 European elections – the world’s largest multi-country vote – saw the rise of nationalist and Eurosceptic parties. Going back a few years, there was Brexit and the debt crisis. How have these and other major events negatively impacted European identity? A report by the University of Amsterdam sought to answer this question.

A new perspective on European identity

A team of researchers combined various opinion polls from 34 European countries over a period of 41 years. Using advanced statistical modelling, they gathered data from all polls, countries and years.

“We wanted to map out how European identity has evolved over the years, but our research into this was severely limited by the types of opinion polls that we usually consult for our research,” commented lead author Theresa Kuhn, professor of modern European history and politics, in a news release. “Most polls don’t date back very far and usually only one type of question was asked on the subject.”

The results showed that the sense of European identity between people of most EU countries has increased in the last 15 years. Prof. Kuhn gave reasons for the findings: “That surprised us to be honest. The past two decades were marked by crises, not only externally, but also internally, such as Brexit and the Eurozone crisis. You might expect that this would make people want to distance themselves from the European Union, but that does not appear to be the case. One explanation for this could be that people are more inclined to adhere to a group as a result of a crisis. People feel threatened and are more likely to surround themselves with people whose views align closely with their own.”

According to Prof. Kuhn, another reason is that an entire generation only knows a Europe with more expansion, and the introduction of the single market, border-free travel and the euro. “This group of people have grown up in an era in which there are open borders and many countries have the euro as currency unit. These things have also made Europe something tangible, as a result of which people have been able to experience the EU, rather than it being an abstract institution.”

The role of the sceptics

EU discontent has boosted Euroscepticism. However, Prof. Kuhn doesn’t believe citizens also feel less European. “A clear differentiation needs to be made between the perception of a European identity and support for the European Union. Someone may feel European, but not agree with the current policy. The opposite may also be true.”

She further added: “Eurosceptic voters have most likely existed since the 1950s. However, they didn’t have any way yet to express that electorally, because almost all parties were pro-European at national level. Parties have only decided to make this an issue since the 1990s.”

Prof. Kuhn concludes by urging the EU to bolster a sense of European identity. “Many important decisions are taken at European level. That’s why it is important for the democratic legitimacy of the EU that a significant proportion of Europeans also feel connected to Europe. In addition, research shows that people who identify as European are less likely to vote for populist parties and more likely to show solidarity for other Europeans.”

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