Can Europe Make It?

Battling prejudice in Europe

Prejudice is not necessarily the result of conflicting interests, poverty and unemployment. It is more likely fueled by perceptions of illegitimacy, pushed forward by far-right politics.

Alexios Arvanitis
12 June 2014

It is sad to see the dream of an unprejudiced European Union so openly challenged by its leaders. Succumbing to far-right pressures, French President Francois Hollande wants a French person to take the position of President of the European Commission while British Prime Minister David Cameron is threatening to play the card of a British withdrawal in case his requests are not met. Of course, these leaders can never sway far-right voters in their favor through satisfying their demands. These types of tactics will most likely strengthen far-right politics instead. Still, leaders are erroneously trying to satisfy prejudiced voters, instead of battling prejudice. Ethnocentrism is taking over.

In some way, this is inevitable. Early social-psychological theories traced the causes of intergroup friction to the underlying opposing interests of social groups. Groups have a high probability of clashing with each other if their objective interests are opposed, according to Realistic Conflict Theory. According to the later developed theory of relative deprivation, though, objective interests may take a back seat to subjective expectations, as formed through comparison with others. The more people feel relatively deprived, the more they are likely to be prejudiced. 

If we accept the underlying logic of these two well known theories, we basically trace the current rise of prejudice and the appeal of far-right ethnocentric ideologies in Europe to the clash of interests between groups and the fact that living standards are not consistent with the peoples’ expectations. A possible solution would be to raise the quality of life for all Europeans with some level of equality. 

However, it seems that prejudice is a little more complicated than that. Originating in the work of Henri Tajfel, Social Identity Theory argues that people will tend to favor their own groups relative to others even if they are randomly allocated to a group for the purposes of a simple experiment. Experimental research has shown that groups, named for example “X” and “Y”, formed on the basis of purely random allocation, are highly likely to compete even in the absence of any real underlying conflicting interests.

This finding is very disturbing. It serves to show that identification with any type of group may produce prejudice. People do not have to be poor, frustrated or engaged in any sort of real conflict with members of other groups to experience prejudice. Conflict arises because of a simple need to maintain a positive social identity. Therefore, prejudice among European countries would be prevalent even in the absence of certain opposing interests. 

A possible solution is proposed by the Common Ingroup Identity Model, which argues in favor of the use of an inclusive identity to reduce bias between groups. Indeed the whole European venture is based on creating the superordinate identity of the Europeans that encompasses the identities of the Dutch, the French, the Germans, the English and the rest of the nationalities of the EU member states.

The mere creation of a superordinate identity is not enough though, as it is easily seen nowadays by the increase of euroscepticism. The challenge for Europe is great and prejudice is again gaining ground. The English and the French are currently leading the way against European consolidation and identification of citizens with the European identity is increasingly lowered. The root cause goes beyond economic difficulties and lies mainly in the enhanced perception of instability and illegitimacy of the status quo.

Unless they feel the status quo is illegitimate, people will not automatically resort to prejudice and conflict, even if they are poor or frustrated. According to Social Identity Theory, they can choose to take control of their own lives and improve their status through individual ascendance on the social ladder. If this is very difficult though, they can improve their social identity through social creativity: they can compare with other groups outside Europe, e.g. Asian countries, redefinine the value of comparison dimensions, e.g. argue that money brings bad luck, or find new dimensions of comparison, e.g. focus on the natural beauties of their own country. On the other hand, they will choose social competition when the legitimacy of the status quo is under question, that is, when they think that their mishaps are accentuated by an unjust and unjustifiable regime.

Far-right parties consistently invest in challenging the legitimacy and the authority of the European Union. Their purpose is to advance conflict among European countries. In fact, their motto should be "divide and conquer". In this endeavor they find reluctant partners from the political far-left, who often do not realize that, by also challenging the legitimacy of the EU, they are fueling the prototype conflict between national and supranational identity. If this interpretation is correct, it will take much more than economic recovery to battle prejudice. 

The solution lies in strengthening the institutions of the EU and encouraging citizen participation. This, of course, means that people should at least be able to choose for themselves the President of the European Commission. Witnessing the recent political games and the lobbying pressures applied to determine the identity of the new President of the European Commission, it is easy to see that the EU has much ground to cover to reach true legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. Instead of the European citizens automatically imposing their will, it is left to Chancellor Merkel to protect democracy. This is no way to support legitimacy. And certainly no way to fight prejudice.

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