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European identity and the economic crisis

What’s at stake: the EU prepares to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, and the European Commission has presented a white paper “on the future of Europe”. However, some have argued that Europe is going through a serious identity crisis, whose roots are to be found in the economic crisis and whose implications could challenge further steps towards integration. We review the recent contributions to this debate.

By: Date: March 6, 2017 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

Ferrera looks into what it means to be a European, and argues that integration proceeded so as to favour the emergence of a pan-European elite identity, while the inherited weight and inertia of national cultural frameworks prevented the emergence of a deeper sense of common citizenship across the EU. The ‘econo-cracy’ and austerity politics of the recent crisis years have eroded what little sense of solidarity there might have been, particularly the equality principle among nations in the EU.

Ferrera suggests two options for the way forward: (i) a both symbolic and institutional reaffirmation of political equality as a principle in EU governance; and (ii) a reaffirmation of the importance of national liberal-democratic welfare states as the underpinning to the ‘European Social Model’.

Risse takes issue with the “no demos” thesis about the European Union. Empirically speaking, a “demos” requires a sense of community among the citizens, on the one hand, and  lively public spheres in which political issues are debated on the other. Risse argues that first, a majority of European citizens has developed dual identities – to their nation-state and to Europe – and this Europeanisation of national identities is sufficient to sustain carefully crafted (re-)distributive policies on the European level. Second, the euro crisis has strongly increased the politicisation of national public spheres and has also led to their growing Europeanisation with regard to issue salience and to the actors represented.

Fligstein points out that until the financial crisis, European identities were stable, but the financial crisis shifted the sense that people in Europe are in this together. He argues that the reason why the sense of being European has decreased so much is linked to the “ugly” politics of the crisis, where there has been little or no sense of solidarity.

Citizens in the north cannot be faulted for not wanting to pay for the economic errors or misdeeds of the south: since the vast majority of them already view themselves as mostly having a national identity, they do not have a sense that they “owe” those in the south anything in the name of a shared European identity.

Duchesne argues that there’s no use looking for European identity for now. As they keep trying to scrutinise this shadow, social scientists fail to see what is happening between citizens and their rulers and to explain the gap and dislike growing between them, which might seriously endanger democracy in Europe.

Instead of longing for identity to secure European integration, it is time to acknowledge that the EU’s challenge is not to carry on: it is to win the capacity to control the economy and to provide people who live under its jurisdiction with fair means to live decently, democratic rights and hope for a good life. The rest is smoke and mirrors.

Ntampoudi argues that there are four distinct but interrelated ways of interpreting the current identity crisis of the EU. The first concerns the international standing of the EU as a proclaimed global agent of peace, democracy, welfare and prosperity, which is undermined by its inability to provide these goods to its own citizens.

The second kind of identity crisis relates to the EU’s qualitative direction, centred on the question of whether we now face a more technocratic EU, rather than a democratic and social one. In a third sense, the rise of nationalist sentiments and sharp divides between the north and the south have contributed to the reconfiguration of perceived prototypical meanings of both national and European identities.

Ultimately, all of the above culminates in the fourth dimension of identity crisis, related to the internal consistency and citizen support for continuous and further integration, legitimised through the notions of unity and solidarity.

Schaefer and Weber investigate how the compatibility of national and European identity in the EU member-states has been affected by the Eurocrisis and if there has been a “re-nationalisation” of identities, particularly looking at whether economic factors have gained more weight as explanatory variables. They find that the crisis has led to a decrease in European identity, but it also seems to have affected the determinants of it. Utilitarians have gained in strength and significance and it seems that the crisis has made such evaluations more salient and more important to Europeans, making them more influential on attitude formation.

However, distrust in EU institutions and dissatisfaction with EU democracy has more explanatory power. Specific economic discontent such as negative evaluations of the economy might have an indirect negative effect on European identity, since such discontent does translate into diffuse discontent with EU democracy and EU institutions. Moreover, the crisis did connect discontent with national economies to distrust with EU institutions, indicating that the institutions seem to be rather a part of the problem than a part of the solution in people’s heads.

Poliakova and Fligstein point out that one aspiration of the project of European integration has been to attempt creating European citizens, with the idea that over time, citizens would look towards Europe as their main national identity. While the political and economic integration projects are quite far along, the national identity project has lagged far behind.

The paper argues that the EU integration project has pushed citizens to value their national identities more and to look to their national governments to protect them. Poliakova and Fligstein examine the evidence for this in the context of the financial crisis and show that in countries most seriously hit by the crisis, national identities have increased dramatically and citizens with a national and European identity have decreased.

Serricchio et al. explore the link between the financial crisis and Euroscepticism at the level of public opinion, building on and developing further the literature on the impact of economic, identity and institutional factors on Euroscepticism. They argue that the economic crisis did not substantially bring economic factors back in as an important source of Euroscepticism, even though the most pronounced increase in Euroscepticism has taken place in the countries most affected by the crisis. By contrast, national identity and political institutions play an increasingly important role in explaining public Euroscepticism.


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