Can Europe Make It?

Who are the new Euro-believers?

Why is the variety of citizen narratives on Europe going unheard? What will it take? That ordinary people are understood as citizens, engaged in dialogue with public thinking; a recognition both of European mobility and what it is to be settled; and attending to the emergent hierarchies of European-ness.

Kesi Mahendran Eleni Andreouli Ima Jackson Nicola Magnusson Anubhuti Kapoor Caroline Howarth
22 May 2014

Placing Ourselves is a comparative international pilot which aims to understand how key categories relating to ‘belonging’ and ‘integration’ - are conceptualised and enacted by practitioners and citizens in six European cities - Dublin, Dusseldorf, Glasgow, Gothenburg, London and Manchester. People’s views are sampled from across a 10-point migration-mobility continuum (Mahendran 2013) from the generationally non-mobile to serial migrants anticipating their next move. An interview-based comparative qualitative approach uses visual and verbal stimulus materials. Fieldwork involves both migrants and non-migrants discussing their integration and their belonging.  

The European elections are upon us and people across Europe will be pondering their belief in the future of the European project. We examine the parameters of European citizenship asking, who are the new Euro-believers? This question, we suggest, is neither a matter of europhile and eurosceptic nor a question of voter-ignorance or voter-apathy. Drawing on new studies of people’s accounts of their European citizenship - we propose that the European project -  to grow ‘from the bottom up’ and be taken up by its citizens – needs to understand the diversity of citizen relationships which constitute it.

The coming European community, we found, is characterised by national, post-national and nested citizenships. The elections look to be dominated by issues of austerity, immigration and the limits of mobility - we ask, what space is there for new narratives on European citizenship?  We can show from our research that belief in the European project is often enacted through some degree of mobility. The challenge for the European project is to face emergent hierarchies of European-ness and articulate a citizenship rooted also in place – identity – we term this the freedom to be settled. 

Placing ourselves 

Since 2007, 100 people from the generationally non-migrant to serial migrants anticipating their next move, were asked questions on belonging, integration and citizenship in Edinburgh and Stockholm (2007-8)and Dusseldorf, Dublin, Glasgow, Gothenburg & London (2012-14) .

The first open request was to complete the sentence I am a part of …. Our last question, using the image below - do you consider yourself a citizen of the European Union

Stimulus image used in Placing Ourselves project. 

In this way, we enter the dialogue about Europe from the ground up with an investigation into the relationship between the degree of mobility and identification and enactment of the European Union project. We have a specific social psychological interest in how debates on the future of Europe characterise ‘ordinary citizens’ - their ideals, capacities and actions - and how they respond to this.   

Take NP (anonymised initials throughout), an Estonian living and working in Stockholm:

NP: We tell ourselves all the time we are a Nordic country and not part of Eastern Europe. I feel more North European than Eastern European.


KM: What about a citizen of this thing called the European Union?


NP: (17seconds) I'm quite happy when the nation-states can keep going as well. I think the collaboration between different countries that's very good.  Well part of it comes because my own country is so small that we have always felt that we should keep it going and not be dissolved within some big union or something -  just to keep our own integrity. (…) I like the other countries so I think the culture of certain nations I think its best we can build on that.


KM: So it's between nation states? But you wouldn’t be so interested in something that existed above that?


NP I think the whole common value should be the same e.g. basic rights and things - but they should keep also their own cultural identity. Stockholm. Dec 2007.  

NP takes 17 seconds before her response on European citizenship. Earlier she said ‘yes’ to the question are you a European citizen?  - she lived on the territory after all - but the EU question requires a more qualified response. As an inter-European migrant she enacts one of the key rights of European citizenship, yet her response starts by taking a national identity position – the Estonian. NP’s position on the EU with its contingencies and parameters will resonate with many people across Europe.

There were in our findings eight key emergent public narratives of the European Union, such as an outsider narrative or a sense of participation in the grand supra-national project. Our aim, in identifying these key narratives, is to move beyond the binary of europhile versus eurosceptic, and to get a more precise portrait of an expressive citizen who lives and works in the interplay between the micro and the macro where everyday relations are political. As it happens, the figure of this expressive ordinary citizen in Europe is also vital in countering the nationalism-populism nexus.

Populism and the expressive citizen 

Etienne Balibar identifies two root causes of the current European phase of multiple crises firstly - inequalities - which have led to hopelessness and fragmentation and the crystallizing of power relations between states, and secondly the resurgence of nationalism.

This has developed into a nationalist-populism nexus which calls on us all to engage and to talk about Europe. Populism - the powerful rhetorical business of taking up the voice of the ordinary person against the established elite currently combines with nationalism, ranging from a patriotic belief or a desire for sovereignty to racism and xenophobia. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this nexus is currently setting the terms of debate around the European Union. So why is the variety of citizen narratives on Europe that we have uncovered in our research going unheard? What will it take for public dialogue on Europe to attract the attention of the news media and politicians?   

It is partly because Europe is often framed through a distinction between demos and ethnos. The first as Thomas Risse-Kappen explains is ‘an elite consensus embracing modern, democratic and humanist values against past nationalism, militarisms and communism’ – and the second ‘the Europe of white Christian peoples that sees itself as a distinct civilisation… less open to strangers, with boundaries against Islam as well as Asian and African ‘cultures’.’ The assumption of a homogeneous ethnic, cultural and racial heritage in the latter makes it possible to scapegoat some groups both within and outside Europe as a ‘new’ problematic Other.

Yet whilst much of the news media focuses on the Eurosceptic nationalist-populist nexus, a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey notes an uptick in people's support for Europe. Admittedly this uptick is from the very low base caused by the various crises. But this fragile rebound, they find, does not relate to an increase in trust in EU institutions and their ability to promote economic prosperity, but rather people’s own ideals and aspirations for the project. A focus on citizen’s relationship with EU institutions could therefore be misplaced. It is better to focus on the relationship between the diversity of European identification and European citizenship.

What does it mean to be European? 

So what does it mean to be European? To answer this question we need to attend to the politics of European structures and policies, as well as to the ‘lay’ politics of constructing European identities.

Europe is not simply a set of institutions, managed from the top-down, but is also a network of symbolic representations which define who is European and who is not. Capturing the dream of Europe requires systematic understanding of how people themselves are articulating Europe in their words and actions in ways that bridge the bottom-up with the top-down.  

The emergence of boundaries around the Ukraine crisis, the Eurozone crisis and the crisis around immigration – the mobility crisis – creates immanent possibilities for both citizens and governments to develop a new Europe. So, ‘Who are the new Euro-believers?’ And what is needed to bring them to the fore? We propose three considerations. That ordinary people are understood as citizens engaged in dialogue with public thinking, that the future of Europe must understand both mobility and what it is to be settled, and that Europe attends to emergent hierarchies of European-ness.

1. Citizens in dialogue  – putting Europe in the hands of the people

Within a dialogical democracy, citizens both create and position themselves within public narratives based on the interplay between the micro-realities of their lives continually imbricated into the macro-realities of power within and between nations. 

JW is a nurse who has lived elsewhere in Europe and then returned back to her home city of Gothenburg:

JW: For some reason I don’t like it (Laughs). It’s the European Union flag, isn’t it? (KM: Yes) I don’t agree with the European Union. I think the European Union is more or less trying to make all the countries equal and similar and I don’t think you can do that overnight and I can’t see the reason for doing that because maybe a certain economy or certain law or rules or whatever is suitable in one country, but it might not be applicable for another country.  The European Union spoke about having open borders (KM: Yes) and it has actually become more strict so I don’t know. It feels like the European Union was created because we wanted to be stronger towards the States. (KM: towards America?) yeah (...) I can’t really see the reason for having that feeling for a start.

When asked directly whether she is a part of the EU states, JW replied: 

JW: I can’t see anything good about it. Not the way it works at the moment. Gothenburg, January 2012.

In most public opinion surveys JW would be a tick in the Eurosceptic box. But this resistant narrative is more nuanced. It is a temporally contingent narrative – ‘not the way it works at the moment’. Resistant narratives were common amongst people who were relatively non-mobile in cities in Sweden and the UK. GL, an engineer who has always lived in Edinburgh, explains it further:

GL: Not particularly.  And I think the reason for that is that I’m not necessarily all that accepting of the freedom that EU citizens have interstate. I know that I’m British and the UK. I never put Scottish, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think like that.  And so in the same way that I don’t see myself as British in so much as that wouldn’t be my first choice, then I even further I don’t see myself as European. […]I don’t see that we have sufficient generality between states to talk to the idea of being European or to identify with Europe as a whole. 

GL’s position on Europe relates closely to his sense of Scottish citizenship. He explains that his position on Europe is contextual:

GL: It depends on what aspect: if I see the ‘European’ (…) things like for example human rights. So you know, I might say ‘that would never happen in Europe’.  Edinburgh, December 2007

In contrast, TY of mixed-European origin, who has moved ever since she was a child and plans to move again, takes a less situated and more post-national view:   

TY: (…) I think it’s the realisation that you’re part of this Europe which has essentially no boundaries apart from outside boundaries.  I think, you know, just to realise that you can live in any European country without being a national of that country and that you have rights in another European country and you should be treated equally in every European country.  (…) for me it kind of replaces the feeling of a national identity that can also be there at the same time but which isn’t the only identity. Edinburgh, December 2007

This second narrative - the freedom through mobility narrative - was held by intra-European movers in all the cities. XR from Athens, currently based in Gothenburg dismisses the image we showed her as ‘cheesy’. A scientist, to her Europe is about the environment, “I see a blue globe”. She spontaneously states, “I am a part of Europe” at the beginning of the interview, and when asked directly she states:

KM: so do you consider yourself a European Union citizen?


XR: Definitely. Definitely! (…) I share cultural elements (…) I think we have common references in terms of human rights, gender equality, more or less. (…) I have said this to my friends and people around me, they agree, that we are Europeans. We are the first generation of Europeans. Gothenburg, April 2013.

A difficulty in terms of collective mobilisation is that narratives, whilst not short of socio-political belief, such as resistant or freedom through mobility, nevertheless do not map neatly onto left or right wing political ideologies. And they are associated with the socialist or social democratic position as much as the conservative or neo-liberal.  

2. Freedom to be settled

The European project must begin to articulate an understanding of both the parameters and possibilities of intra and extra-European mobility as well as an understanding of the right to be settled – for both the generationally non-mobile and the newly arrived. What we term ‘freedom to be settled’ requires an appreciation of place-based belonging and identification. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, people in our studies from North Europe who are non-mobile have a more qualified position on European convergence than people who are mobile.  This raises the question of the relationship between European citizenship and being settled. ‘Settlement’ in this context may range from deciding to settle in a new country to never having moved.

Take LV, an entrepreneur who moved with his partner from Poland. They imagined they would move from country to country. Instead they fell in love with Glasgow and settled there. LV calls for Poland to enact a gay marriage law, ‘we are part of the European Union now’. Yet he doesn’t relate European citizenship to his sexuality. To him it is more a question of being part of a supranational region – a demos on a global stage. The image as he saw it, inspired this response:

LV: No sky, no limits - with the European Union! So definitely the European Union gives you much more opportunities to just do things globally. (…) Most of the countries being part of the European Union need to just adjust their law to create one integrated law. To treat people equally in every single country, so that makes a massive difference I think and you know I’m not talking about the currency because the Euro, that is not an issue for me (…) the whole Europe  should just be a massive part of the globe. Glasgow, August 2012.

JJ, also an entrepreneur, has lived abroad and settled back in Gothenburg. His belief in Europe does not rest on the freedoms of mobility but rather on the peace project. The Pew Survey found that peace and cooperation remains the most common positive narrative on Europe:

JJ: I will gladly try to convince anyone that says that Sweden should disband the European Union. I would gladly like go to war about it (laughing). I would gladly take the side of staying within the European Union for that very reason. Gothenburg, April 2013. 

In line with Eurobarometer surveys, for those who are generationally non-mobile, who have not lived abroad at all, we find that belief in Europe depends on the geographical or political position of the country. In Dusseldorf and Dublin a sense of European citizenship was held by the majority of the non-mobile, whereas in Stockholm and Edinburgh it was not. This is one of Europe’s biggest challenges: to inspire people who can’t or don’t wish to move. European citizenship needs to incorporate a freedom to be settled which requires a focus on place-based identity and its relationship to European belonging.

3.  Hierarchies of European-ness

Since Maastricht enacted the freedom to move, we must ask who do current conceptions of European citizenship include and exclude? What internal and external ‘others’ are being created around the figure of the European? 

Across all cities one group of people, with the exception of two cases, did not regard themselves as European – the black and minority ethnic community (BME). WF, with mixed Asian-European heritage, came to Dublin from the United States. His response to the image was as follows:

WF: People’s whose hearts are in the right place but at the same time who don’t necessarily completely get it, if that makes any sense. (laughs). I think a lot of the people who kind of call the shots on immigration and decide policies are people who are from countries and who are descended from people from that country who’ve been there for a very, very long time. I mean maybe this is superficial but you look at the colour of the hands holding up this globe and you can tell there’s an effort to make it to look multicultural but you don’t see someone from Sub-Saharan Africa on there and there are plenty of people from sub-Saharan Africa in Europe (…) It’s like someone is trying to say ‘look how hard we work on diversity’ but they’re defining diversity on their own terms (…). Like when they talk about diversity they forget about themselves as part of that diversity. Dublin, September 2012

WF expresses a key faultline in Europe: the assumption of whiteness. This we found affects the viewpoints of both BME Europeans as well as relatively new arrivals from ‘third-countries’. In a study on newly naturalised British citizens, understandings of what it means to be European were intertwined with understandings of British national identity for many ‘third-country’ nationals.

Being British meant having a European Union passport. This was not simply a pragmatic or instrumental understanding of European-ness. It carried the symbolic weight of marking a positioning shift: from being an unwelcomed migrant to being a welcomed traveller within the European context. In a political context of increasing mistrust, even hostility, towards so called ‘third-country nationals’ and growing global inequality, becoming European, for some, is equivalent to becoming part of an elite western community, characterised by its ‘spatial autonomy’. Acquiring the red passport was understood as a symbol of freedom.

Yet as BME Europeans testify, such imagined freedom may in certain contexts be limited:

KM: The image is from an article on European citizenship.  Do you consider yourself a European citizen?


GB: I used to (4 seconds) but my experiences of being in Europe and how I have been treated in European airports. I have a perception that I’m not. I would not be welcomed. Glasgow, June 2012.

GB is a Glaswegian-Sikh technician who travels regularly for his work - he has never lived abroad.  At university he considered himself a European citizen but for the moment he doesn’t, because he is rarely treated as one when he travels – his is an abandoned narrative – also temporal-contingent. 

PR is a Persian who settled in Gothenburg: 

PR: I don’t identify myself as a European citizen, but I know people who do and call themselves Europeans when they are outside of Europe [KM: and why don’t you?] well it’s a lot to do with what you identify with. I identify with a global context and don’t want to make that difference between people and people. I see us as one, and for me it’s a very conscious decision that I’m absolutely not going to make those differences and anyway I don’t look very European either, so no one would buy it. Gothenburg, April 2013.

Our BME citizens - irrespective of their degree of mobility - generally took the outsider narrative articulated here by PR. It is not that they did not believe in the EU. It is that in everyday relations, being a European citizen is in part other-conferred. It requires the in-group to believe in you.

In the context of Ukraine, the Eurozone and the economic-mobility crises – who are the new Euro-believers? They are from an ethnically diverse descent, living in the south, north, east and west of Europe, ranging from the generationally non-mobile to the serial migrant - who seek to enact the future of Europe.  Who are the people who currently enact their citizenship beyond protest? – they are white Europeans with the desire and means to move and no recognisable signs of a non-white ‘third-country’ past.

Freedom to move must have the counter-position - freedom to be settled. Returning to Dublin, ‘WF’, gave the shortest reply when asked - do you consider yourself a European citizen?

WF: Not yet.

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