This post is about a chat and, just like any self-respecting chat, it took place around a steaming cup of coffee. It was in Maastricht, and as you had already probably figured out due to its heading, it was about European identity.
In the picture you can see my interlocutor, Jeroen Moes,who was in charge of feeding my inquisitive hunger for answers while slowly sipping his caffeine-full beverage. Jeroen is originally from the Netherlands, but he feels genuinely European. He is a professional social scientist, a member of the Citizen’s committee in Fraternitée 2020 and an amateur photographer. He is preparing, perhaps as a result of this melange of interests, a thesis with the purpose of unveiling what is the picture of Europe that people have, in three very different countries: Italy, Estonia and the Netherlands.
WHY IMAGINING EUROPE
The way we imagine Europe is linked with the way we imagine ourselves as Europeans and, thereby, it also determines the way we imagine all the members of the European community that we feel we belong to. Jeroen Moes developed an interest in European integration when he was just a child. He recalls: “When I was ten years old, I had this EU flag in my room and that was really weird. People used to make fun of me because of that”.
The aspect of Europe he focus on is people, because “European integration has always been about integrating markets but I think this crisis in Europe is showing that we did not pay enough attention to the integration of people”.
Concerning this, he explains, “The idea was that if they integrated the markets, people would also integrate as a result, but I do not think this is necessarily true. I think to some extent it has been truth. There is some European identity in that sense, otherwise German would never have sent any money to Greece for instance. But still, if they (the EU) want to continue on that way, they might benefit from promoting it more“.
In spite of this, he clarifies that his intention is not to give recommendations, or to reflect on how things should be, just to describe how things are. His thesis is still in an inception phase, but he has already gotten in contact with part of ‘his sample’ for which he says, “I try to interview as diverse people as possible”. Explaining further, “For example, the Russian minority in Estonia, or Italians both from the North and the South of the country. It would be very interesting if there were clear similarities among people across countries, or across socioeconomic groups”.
The challenging aspect of performing interviews is to have the chance to listen to reasoning that may challenge our own perception of reality. It happened to Jeroen that some components of his sample had a very negative idea of Europe. “I did some research in Estonia, where illiterate interviewees asked me what is my research about. When I said it is about European integration, and asked what did they think about it, they answered: You know what we feel about Europe? It is bullshit.”
Of course, as a social researcher, he smiled at them and wrote down the results. The contrast in responses that resulted were very thought-provoking as “other people are really positive”. In spite of this contrast, he has identified common patterns, seen both in those with a negative and a positive view of Europe. “Normally the media portrays people who are against European integration as if they would not feel European, but that is not necessarily truth. Some people, highly educated, who thought about this a lot, are still opposing the EU. However, they are not against European integration as such, its cultural aspects, but against the very neoliberal project of the EU, focused on the markets and on making money.”
In addition, he highlights that, “Euroskeptics are against the EU, but they still consider themselves to be Europeans. In Estonia some might deny to be part of Europe and consider they are somewhere in between, but in the Netherlands and Italy is clear for everyone”.
WHERE IS EUROPE
Does the proximity to the EU institutions make any impact in the perception people have about the meaning of being European? Jeroen frowns in the face of this question, and answers that,“It would be interesting hearing from people in Brussels (not the Eurocrats), about their thoughts of Europe. But it will not necessarily happen, just the same way as people do not need to live in the capital of a country to identify themselves as part of a country”. Here he once again remarked that feeling European does not necessarily mean to feel attached to the EU project.
Jeroen has already found out something intriguing about the perception where one can find Europe. “People used to say: You have to ask this questions in Rome, in Tallinn or even in Florence, but not here in the countryside; because Europe is there, not here”.
A COMPLEMENTARY, INTEGRATIVE IDENTITY?
“Jeroen, is there an Europen identity at all?” I ask him and, slowly, he answers: “I do not know if we can call it identity. I have to re-think my title”. He laughs and says: “When we talk about identity we used to think about national identity. If European identity exists, it is something completely different from national identities, which its specific historical ‘revolutions’. European identity does not have this common background and we should avoid European nationalism, because nationalism creates the ugliest problems”.
Until here, everything is understandable but, what does it mean to be European? Jeroen confesses: “For me, European identity would mean that people are open to other ways of livings and other types of organizing social life. I do not think that there are fixed characteristics. European identity would not mean that we are all the same, it would only mean that we feel we have something in common.”
In the view of this social researcher, “European integration should be open to newcomers”. “If being European would be something tied to the EU, which does not necessarily have to occur… it should be open to the integration of Croatia, or to maybe include Turkey”, he adds.
According to this, European identity would strongly resemble a global identity. What would be the main differences between these two? Jeroen takes some seconds to think, and concludes that, “You look at theories about identity and they are based on the opposition to other groups, highlighting the exclusionist nature of the identity. On an intuitive level, I do not fully agree with that, it seems for me that it should be possible to have an identity that does not oppose to the others”.
To end up this post, we suggest you to undertake one of the exercises Jeroen ask his interviewees to do. Where would you mark the borders of Europe? How many differentiated areas would you round within Europe? Do you think your answers would differ from those of other European fellows?