European Elections Special

Be tenacious and fight!

European identities are fact, not fiction. Politicians underestimate popular support for the EU and surrender the arena to right-wing Eurosceptics.

One claim is frequently made in debates about the future of the European Union: Allegedly, the citizens of Europe don’t identify with the European project. In the words of Jürgen Habermas: “Solidarity among strangers” is under-developed.

According to this line of reasoning, people aren’t willing to shoulder the substantial costs of European integration because they don’t feel sufficient affinities with their European brethren. Transfer payments have to be kept within tight bounds. Redistributive politics have to be confined to individual nation-states. A European “debt union” or “transfer union” is impossible as long as the citizens of the prosperous Northern countries refuse to bear a part of the Southern burden.

Small degree of European identification

It is certainly correct that large majorities in Germany and other creditor countries reject unconditional support for debtor countries. But a majority is favorably disposed towards the idea of a transfer union, as long as the recipient country is held to clear standards of deficit reduction, and as long as the German contribution isn’t seen as excessive.

We can observe an increased level of crisis solidarity among people who identify with Europe. But there’s an important caveat: For most people, a strong identification with the European idea does not imply a renunciation of their respective national identities. Studies have shown that people who identify as citizens of a particular country – as Germans, French, Poles, et cetera – as well as citizens of Europe are much more inclined to display “solidarity among strangers” than those who identify only with their nation-state.

Even a small degree of European identification is often sufficient to render people supportive of a European transfer union as long as the recipient countries do their homework. In contrast, those who identify solely with their nation-state are much less likely to support further European integration and transfer payments to the countries of southeastern Europe.

We have multiple identities

A clear majority of European citizens has embraced a dual identity and identifies as nationals as well as Europeans. The sole exception is Great Britain: Only a minority of Britons identifies with Europe at all. But the key point isn’t about numbers – it’s the realization that we must not choose to be either Europeans or national citizens. We can be both. We have multiple identities. It doesn’t surprise me that most European capitals fly their national flag alongside the EU flag, or that the Euro coins have a national symbols imprinted on one side, and the European continent on the other side.

The Eurozone crisis has put European solidarity to the test. But it’s possible to show that identification with Europe hasn’t actually declined. To the contrary: The percentage of people who identify with Europe has increased in many countries, including Germany.

Changed attitudes towards Europe

On average, twenty to thirty percent are openly Eurosceptic. They comprise the constituency from which populist parties – and especially right-wing parties such as the French “Front National” – try to recruit their supporters. But we should not over-estimate the degree of Euroscepticism. A pro-European majority exists in almost every country. The challenge is to mobilize it.

What are the consequences for European politics? First, European identities are sufficiently robust to weather the current crisis. Europeans are willing to stand up for their convictions – and to pay a price as well. The support for European rescue funds, for a common economic policy, and for equal political and social rights across national borders provide evidence of the strength of the majority’s identification with the European project.

Unfortunately, politicians have thus far failed to realize the changed attitudes towards Europe. Too often, policy decisions have been driven by scandalizing media coverage and have assumed that Germans are unwilling to support “lazy Greeks”.

Cry out to politicians

Because many politicians underestimate the level of popular European solidarity, they also assume that policy disagreements are necessarily detrimental to European integration. To the contrary: The ongoing struggle over Europe’s future illustrates the depth of the majority’s commitment. It can handle the stress.

For most people, the question isn’t about support or rejection of the European project but about the direction of European politics. Silence in those debates only benefits populist Eurosceptics. If we surrender the arena, we shouldn’t be surprised if populist parties gain support and parliamentary seats. During this EU election campaign, I want to cry out to politicians: Be tenacious, and fight publicly for your European vision.

Read more in this debate: Gerard Delanty, Sophie Duchesne, David Held.

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