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The Achilles - heel of the European Union

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15 October 2019
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The Achilles’ heel of the European Union - © Vince Fleming/Unsplash

In separate referenda in 2005, French and Dutch citizenry rejected the “Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe”. The Constitutional Treaty intended to bring the European Union (EU) — a unique international organization because its Member States give it the exercise of political power — closer to the idea of a State. From 2008, citizen dissatisfaction with the EU increased due to the fiscal measures that were imposed on some Member States as a way to deal with the economic crisis. This dissatisfaction included those who suffered the consequences of these measures and others who resented how the EU concentrated its efforts in certain territories. Years later, this citizen dissatisfaction continues as a result of the migration and refugee crisis. In 2016, British citizenry approved, in a referendum, the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU, a phenomenon called Brexit. At the same time, other Member States have anti-European political parties that are supported by the citizenry in different electoral processes.

These events, which mark the most recent history of the EU, serve as examples of the fragility of European identity. European identity can be defined as the sense of belonging to the EU. This concept is relevant because it provides legitimacy to the EU and, thanks to it, the EU ensures its own existence because its citizenry accepts its presence and the decisions taken by its political authorities.

Current European identity in numbers

According to the Eurobarometer — a survey that analyses the opinions expressed by the citizenry of EU Member States in connection with issues linked to the EU itself — in June 2019, 89% of the citizenry of EU Member States felt attached to their city, town or village and 92% to their country. On the other hand, only 60% of the European citizenry felt attached to the EU. Of these 60%, 42% felt fairly attached and only 18% very attached. Accordingly, 27% of the European citizenry felt not very attached and 11% not at all attached.

The distribution of these 60% that felt attached to the EU among the States presents variations that can be observed in the following map. Luxembourg, Poland, Latvia and Germany have the highest level of European identity. Conversely, the countries with the lowest level of European identity are: the United Kingdom, wrapped up in Brexit; Croatia, the last State that joins the EU; Greece, the main country that suffered the measures of the EU to deal with the economic crisis that started in 2008; and the Republic of Cyprus, where anti-EU discourse predominates.
In short, European identity exists, but it is weak.

State distribution of European identity in June 2019

Source: Prepared by the author on the basis of question QD1a.3 of the Standard Eurobarometer 91, published by the European Commission in June 2019

The European identity’s weakness

With this context, the question arises: why is European identity so weak? To answer it, it is necessary to look at two areas that nurture European identity: culture and politics. From a cultural perspective, the EU is composed by extremely different territories. This territorial diversity appears first within each State and then in the comparison between States. This has increased with the enlargements of the number of EU Member States: from 2004 to 2013, thirteen new States joined the EU. It is very complicated to find common elements between twenty-eight States that also count territorial differences inside their borders. In this regard, the EU’s values have been used to build European identity. These values are: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and human rights. However, these are not exclusive elements of the EU that, in addition to serving as a unifying force between the different States, can enable to distinguish itself from the rest of the world.

Although it makes decisions that affect its citizenry, from a political perspective the EU presents a deep democratic deficit. The European Parliament is the only institution whose members are directly elected by the citizenry, and participation in European Parliament elections is not very high. Certainly, this democratic deficit separates the EU from its citizenry and hampers the acceptance of some European decisions.

The European Economic Community, the EU’s predecessor, was born with the goals of avoiding a new war in Europe and reconstructing the economy of the European continent after the Second World War. Nevertheless, these goals were diluted by the success of the process, the trace of time, and the search for a political union from 1992. Today, the EU needs a new goal and this goal must be explained to and understood by its citizenry. In the meantime, the EU cannot advance European integration with a weak European identity because not only does that identity constitute the current threat of the EU, it is also its engine.  


Óscar Moreno Corchete is a researcher in training at the Faculty of Law of the University of Salamanca, for which he was granted a fellowship by the Spanish Government (FPU). In summer 2019, he was a guest researcher at the Institute for Comparative Federalism at Eurac Research. His research field is the territorial decentralization of political power and, in his doctoral thesis, he focuses on the territorial identity. He loves spending his free time with his friends.

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