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How can we create a European identity?

, by Pierre-Antoine KLETHI

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The latest Eurobarometer survey shows that, in average, in the European Union, people continue to trust more the EU than national institutions. However, since the autumn of 2009, a worrying trend appears, showing a substantial loss of confidence in just 2 years: around 30% less people tend to trust the EU. This decrease affects all institutions, though the European Parliament is slightly less touched than the Commission and the Council.

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Of course, this loss of confidence doesn’t concern only the EU, as national institutions suffer from the same downward trend. But it shows that in current times of crisis, European integration is not necessarily perceived as a solution. Common institutions and a common currency are not sufficient to create a strong enough link between the citizen and the EU.

How can we create a European identity, a sense of common belonging? It is not the first time (and it will not be the last one either...) that this question is asked. In this article, I intend to provide an answer based on three keywords: explaining, exchanging and sharing.

Explaining

Explaining is vital, because how do you want to belong to something you do not understand?

The effort of pedagogy, a virtue that is often put forward by politicians, must also benefit the EU.

I believe that two kinds of protagonists are particularly important: the media and the education system. Indeed, both have the ideal mission of contributing to reflection and to the forming of a critical and informed mind.

Regarding the media, their role is especially important due to the extremely wide public they reach. For a long time, media have been criticized for not talking enough about Europe. Today, there is a new, not less important problem: mass media talk too much about what is going wrong in Europe and not enough about its successes, e.g. the 25 years of Erasmus programme.

As for the second protagonist, the education system, couldn’t it play the same essential role for Europe as it did for the building of the Nation, in France, in the 19th century? It is not about doing away with the national (or regional, or ...) identity; it is about adding a European component to the identity of each child, of each future citizen! This would go through subjects such as literature, philosophy, history and geography: reading not only Shakespeare, Locke and Bacon, but also Voltaire, Dante and Kant, learning not only the important dates of British History, but also those of European and other countries’ History – and that would not be too difficult, as European History has been made of interstate wars for centuries. As for learning about the European integration and the functioning of European institutions, it is a fundamental knowledge that would be an ideal common ground to all young people across the EU.

Still in the educational field, I mention the programme “Europe à l’école” by the Young European Federalists in France. This programme consists of going in primary and secondary schools to talk about Europe in a pedagogical manner.

But “explaining” is only a first step. We must also “exchange”.

Exchanging

Here too, education is first and foremost concerned. First, let us underline the importance of learning foreign languages. Indeed, how do you want to exchange if you do not understand the other one and if s/he does not understand you? It is therefore vital that the education system promotes the progressive learning of several languages, so that each pupil speaks and understands well at least two foreign languages. It is not only a necessity for the European integration; it is also imperative in order to adapt to globalization and to ever increasing exchanges.

Exchange also goes through meeting the other. This was understood very early, as the Erasmus exchange programme, the best known of all, was set up already in 1987! Other programmes facilitate mobility at different stages of the individual education and training: Comenius, Grundtvig and Leonardo da Vinci.

“Erasmus: change lives, open minds for 25 years”: the title of a conference by the European Commission demonstrates the importance of exchanges in becoming open to other people, to their culture, which is an unconditional prerequisite to the development of a European identity.

The European Commission has recently suggested a merger of all existing programmes into a single programme called “Erasmus for all”. The objective is that 5 millions Europeans go abroad to study and to be trained.

Last, in order to create a common identity, a sense of common belonging to the EU, we must share.

Sharing

Jean Monnet said that he wanted to create a “factual solidarity” among European people, in order to avoid a new war. Solidarity is a form of sharing; we may still experience it today, as the financial rescue plans to the benefit of some European countries are a form of solidarity. However, here, we will focus on the sharing of elements similar to the ones that enabled the creation of Nations in various EU Member States. It is notably common values, symbols and citizenship.

Common values are in article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU). In particular, they include democracy, respect of Human dignity, equality, rule of law and Human Rights. This values are reasserted in the Charta of Fundamental Rights of the EU, whose legal value is the same as the Treaties’ one. The Charta gathers civil and political rights, but also social and economic ones. These values are also a prerequisite for any adhesion to the EU.

Then, the EU also has symbols, whose spreading seems important to me in order to create a sense of common belonging, as they are easy to remember. The European symbols are notably the European flag, the European Anthem (“Ode to Joy”, coming from Beethoven’s 9th symphony), Europe Day (on 9 May, a day that should become free in the whole EU, so that citizen would be more aware of this day) and the motto (“United in diversity”).

Finally, let us talk briefly about citizenship, a notion that has been historically tightly linked to nationality. Indeed, for a long time, voting rights were limited to a State’s nationals.

The Treaty of Maastricht created the European citizenship, which does not substitute itself to the national citizenship, but adds to it! Besides, the possession of the European citizenship is still conditioned by the possession of the citizenship of a Member State. This EU citizenship enables the nationals of a Member State who live in another Member State to participate in the local and European elections, provided they have the right to vote and they have been living in the place where they vote for a certain length. This right to participate in the choices of the community are one of the most important progresses realized in the framework of the European integration and must symbolize a successful integration.

Unfortunately, the percentage of Europeans using this right remains extremely low at the moment. The same problem touches the rate of participation at European elections, as this rate does not reach anymore 50% in average in the EU. It is a real shame that citizens do not seize this opportunity, but it probably proves the need of a true European identity.

The European identity exists; it must only be spread

As a conclusion, I will allow myself to invoke my personal experience. I did nearly all my schooling at the European School of Luxemburg, where children from all EU Member States, split up into about twenty linguistic sections, create a true “European melting pot”, providing a unique sense of European common belonging, a European identity. Children start learning a first foreign language at the age of 6. In secondary school, from a certain level on, history and geography are also taught in this first foreign language, so that students are made aware of the History of other European States too. These elements, among others, contribute to creating a unique sense of European common belonging, of European identity. Of course, it is materially impossible to copy the model of the European schools everywhere, but this model might be a source of inspiration for national education policies and, above all, it shows that a true European identity exists, provided that we set up the necessary means for its development.

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Your comments

  • On 4 March 2012 at 20:20, by Jose Replying to: How can we create a European identity?

    I agree on all you wrote. I´d just add that in order to everyone be equally represented in Europe the institutions must be respected. It makes no sense that Germany is the only one in charge of making decisions and the rest of the institutions like the EU parliament,president and commission stand still watching.

  • On 15 June 2012 at 16:24, by Pierre-Antoine KLETHI Replying to: How can we create a European identity?

    I agree with your comment.

    Please, do not exagerate about what we might call the “German domination”. In the recent weeks and months, Germany has committed itself to a deeper integration; in my opinion, it is France that must accept an evolution in the European integration, if we want to solve the economic and governance crisis in the eurozone. Due to its federal and parliamentarian political regime, Germany usually respects the European Parliament and the European institutions in general.

    Finally, I think that a sense of common identity could surely contribute to the fact that everyone will feel fairly represented in Europe.

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