European Central Bank. Flicker/Jurjen van Enter. Some rights reserved.
It is becoming increasingly tiresome to read economic analyses about the present and future of the European Union. All the talk about growth, GDP and debt makes us lose sight of some of the most important dimensions of a union among states if not, generally of the dynamics of a group of people.
EU is more than an economic union
The argument that the EU is anything more than an economic union may make cynics smile with disbelief. For some, there is no common bond among Europeans other than their interdependent economic interests. In fact, economists set the tone: there is no motive for participating in the EU other than the satisfaction of those interests. Consequently, most elaborate analyses about the future of the EU focus on the exploration of interests and resources as well as the pathways through which we might achieve the best fit between resources and interests. We unfortunately often fail to go beyond the GDP and the possibility for its distribution.
Psychologists have a wealth of concepts to understand and explain human behaviour, including attitudes, motives, instincts, needs, drives, thoughts and feelings. Moreover, the scientific search for valid causes of behaviour calls for more complicated concepts such as relationships, communication, groups, values, and social norms, which underline not only a subjective view of behaviour that concentrates on the individual but also an intersubjective view that in turn relies on the broader context of the social situation. Admittedly, understanding why people might pursue a union among states is no easy task.
An example of a scientific explanation can be drawn from the field of Social Identity Theory, a well established social psychological theory that explains behaviour in terms of group membership. Instead of viewing citizens of a particular country alone as part of the ‘ingroup’, the social identity of citizens residing in the European continent can be broadened to encompass other residents of the same continent as ingroup members. After the European Union venture was initiated, the newly developed identity of the ‘European’ provided a new meaningful ingroup. This identity served – and still does - to elevate the self-esteem of its citizens by contrasting it either with the State identities of the past which led to conflict and war or the world identities of the future in which the EU will stand firm against anti-democratic, anti-liberal societies. Prejudice and discrimination was reduced while common social and cultural norms were especially stressed and incorporated into the identity that is increasingly becoming an integral aspect of European citizens’ self-awareness.
The identity of the ‘European’ simply cannot be reduced to the level of interests and resources since its development is a long-standing, continual and extremely complicated psychological process in which interests and resources tell only part of the story. Self-esteem, values, norms, feelings, the need to belong - these are currently very central to the existence of the European identity and the EU as a whole, and therefore should be part of formal analyses concerning its future.
Nevertheless common values or established norms that Europeans incorporate into their own self-image are rarely a formal part of economic analyses and are only alluded to by politicians, philosophers and leaders. The problem is that these considerations seem somewhat idealistic. Still, psychology – especially humanistic psychology - can verify that people do strive towards an ideal self according to their intrinsic tendencies and own values. Economics often serve to misdirect people, disengage them from natural identity strivings in order to bring them back ‘in touch with reality’. Just as children are erroneously urged by parents to let go of their natural inclinations and aspirations to find a ‘meaningful job that pays’, economists can condemn us to a life of calculations that make us lose sight of our true selves. This kind of short-sighted economic analysis undermines a venture that it has poor understanding of.
No one can really doubt the usefulness of economics to deal with the issues of limited resources and their effective use. However, it is simply an instrument for the better use of resources, not an instrument for setting strategic goals. The vision of Europe should be set and maintained by taking into account psychological processes that underline the very existence of the European Union. A psychological analysis would point to the usefulness of the EU based on the satisfaction of basic needs, intrinsic tendencies and the elevation of human values. Furthermore, economists might argue that the use of resources is not as effective as it would be if Europe’s integration was forestalled. This is an argument not necessarily directed against a unified Europe but one that we should take into account while proceeding with the process of integration.
It might therefore be better to forget economics when it is telling us what goals to set. Let us listen when it tells us how to get there.