An UK perspective on the meaning of European Identity
Ben Butters is Policy Director at Eurochambers
The EU policy arena is one in which we often deal in intangibles, ‘what ifs’, maybes and numerous variables. It is not an environment for people who seek finality, certainty, or clear and immediate causality between actions and outcomes. Perhaps that’s why we are fond of discussing European identity in Brussels. After all, we are who we are for many different reasons and defining and classifying those reasons is complex. I consider myself both British and European, but I also consider myself English, a Belgian resident, a father, a husband, an EU public affairs professional, a football fan, a #remainer….(a non-exhaustive list).
Having spent a year in France as an under-graduate (an exotic rarity among UK students in the pre-Erasmus era), lived and worked in Belgium for over 20 years and married a German, my sense of identity is certainly different to many of my British compatriots. European identity has peculiar connotations for Brits. Europe is typically referred to in the UK as somewhere else and in certain respects, it always has been. Driving on the other side of the road or using different weights and measures is one thing, but the outcome of the 2016 referendum on EU membership revealed a more deep-seated sense among a significant proportion of the adult population that the UK should plough a separate political and economic furrow to its immediate neighbours. Conversely, the subsequent backlash against Brexit and the closeness of the result, despite the nature of the referendum campaign, suggest that many Brits do in fact identify themselves as European and identify themselves with the EU.
As EU policy making has acquired greater influence over the decades, so has the impact on European citizens of EU decisions grown. Despite this and despite my firmly pro-EU views, I would not say that I have a strong sense of European identity. This may in part be a vestige of my British origins, but it probably also reflects the fact that it is very hard to construct profound identity around institutions, rules and processes over a relatively short period of time. History and culture also contribute greatly to one’s sense of identity and neither Europe’s history nor its culture could ever be considered homogenous; Europeans are ‘united in diversity’, as the EU motto reminds us. Family, education, work, media and many other elements also enter into the complex identity equation.
Some EU leaders have in the past actively sought to promote European identity, but it seems a futile pursuit bearing in mind all of the variables and uncontrollable elements at play. It is also slightly sinister. Citizens each determine their own unique identity, which evolves constantly; the EU will be a positive factor in this subliminal process if it is visibly instrumental in advancement on crucial and substantive policy goals, such as job creation, sustainability, civil liberties and security. Surely that’s enough to be getting on with.