London: uncovering European identity in a global city?

140 x 80 SP.png

The absence of Europe on any agenda - as an object of critique, a space of solidarity, or a target of reform - seemed to suggest that, while London may be a global city, it is not, politically at least, a European one. Is this really the case?

Sean Deel Tamsin Murray-Leach
12 October 2012

Ah, Europe. Now that the continent is returning from its annual vacation, and that the UK is waking up from its Olympic dream, attention is refocusing on the efforts of economists and policymakers to stop the Eurozone from falling apart. But what of Europe beyond the euro? Beyond economics – Europe as the answer to war? Europe as a political idea? Almost twenty years on from the Maastricht Treaty, does this Europe any longer have resonance?

Certainly across the United Kingdom, assuming a European political identity has typically been sneered at. The bulk of public discourse remains one of separation from ‘continental’ or ‘mainland’ Europe, with frequent attacks from both media and politicians on EU institutions, such as the European Court of Human Rights. But how does this eurosceptism play out in London, a ‘global city’, to use Saskia Sassen’s term, where ‘an immense array of cultures from around the world…are reterritorialized’ and whose links to that new territory are ‘far less likely to be intermediated by the national state or “national culture”’?[1]

Consider London’s demographics: according to Eurostat (2009), London, home to 12.5% of the UK’s population, is the most populous municipality in the EU, with one out of three Londoners born outside the UK (Office of National Statistics, 2011), and three hundred languages spoken in London. Nearly a tenth of the city’s population are citizens of other EU countries (ONS 2011), a much higher proportion than in the national population.

This diversity is true not just in the upper echelons of the self-identified ‘cosmopolitan’ community of international elites, or in the (poorly paid) transnational labour force often occupying low-skilled jobs, both of which Sassen frequently cites, but across most of London’s social stratas, not least in the influx of international students and young, often (relatively) well paid workers in the creative, IT and service sectors from EU member states and beyond. With considerable crossovers between those groups and younger activists, this is certainly true of the various protest groups that were so vocal in 2011, and which were the subject of the Subterranean Politics study.


UKUncut street party outside Nick Clegg's house.
Demotix/HeardinLondon. All rights reserved.

London, global city

The UK research team focused on London due to limitations of time and other resources, choosing to frame our research in recognition of the fact that the context was that of a ‘global city’, and not representative of the UK as a whole. Global cities, by dint of being major hubs of flows of capital and labour from all over the world, are sites of politics and identity formation on multiple scales: national politics and contestation play out through public sector strikes and protests over austerity measures imposed by the legislature; community organisation groups articulate political programmes on behalf of diaspora communities; and new, trans-territorial political formations begin to emerge that are not only linked to national membership.

Over the past two years, London has been the epicentre of groups making claims at one or more of these levels. In our research we chose to focus on four, aiming to include both new and existing groups, and groups that aimed at both specific UK-based issues and those calling for a broader, transnational or systemic change, in order to discover whether Europe, in its moment of existential threat, was present either as an object of critique, a space of solidarity, or a target of reform.

Most of our interviewees were or had been participants in the student protests against educational cuts and university fee reform, the Occupy encampment outside of St. Paul's Cathedral (or in Finsbury Square, the Bank of Ideas, and the School of Ideas), and/or had taken part in UK Uncut actions bringing attention to tax evasion and alternatives to cuts in social spending. We also spoke to members of London Citizens, a Community Organising group with many members from across the diasporas, which campaigns to ensure that specific issues are taken up as electoral platforms by UK political parties. Despite the context of a worsening crisis in the eurozone countries, in none of these groups had there been noticeable demands made towards ‘Europe’ as a site of policy making, or on behalf, of a 'European' political community (based on both mainstream media coverage and their own publicity). And yet, as noted above, many within those groups were either European citizens or European born.

This seemed to us to be a curious state of affairs: if London were populated solely by British-born citizens, and if Europe failed to appear on the agenda of any ‘subterranean’ actors, that would seem to reflect the mainstream debate in the UK on the future of the country’s relationship to Europe. It could, for example, indicate Britain’s insularity within Europe (to which we might well give some credence, given recent public opinion polls). However, since London is a global city, and since many ‘subterranean’ actors are foreign born, the absence of Europe from any agenda instead seemed to suggest that, while London may be a global city, it is not, politically at least, a European one. Is this really the case?

Bringing Europe into the conversation

Subterranean Politics research in London was conducted through a focus group and semi-structured interviews with activists in the aforementioned groups, aiming to discuss three aspects of their involvement: the nature of their group, including both their personal and the group’s motivations, the content of their claims and critiques, and reflections on the forms of their actions; the spatial and political levels on which they or their group operated and addressed their claims; and their relationship – again, both on a personal and group basis – if any, to Europe.

While Europe was brought into the conversation explicitly by interviewers two-thirds of the way through, the topic list was arranged in such a way as to allow interviewees to discuss Europe unprompted almost from the start, had it been prominent in their thinking – for example in response to questions on whether the group was connected to a wider network of activists, or in relation to the group’s broader systemic critiques (e.g., of neoliberal capitalism). Yet during the first section of the interviews, not one participant mentioned the crisis in the eurozone, or the fact that fluid borders allowed both for transnational activism and transnational activists; nor did any bring up the subject of Europe, or the EU, or European institutions. The second section made it even easier for respondents to bring up Europe as a political space, should they deem it relevant, by focusing on different scales of political belonging from the local on up in which they acted and in which they saw the loci of the issues on which they campaigned. Again, even when an interviewer mentioned Europe as an option – for example, “What I’m thinking about in terms of spaces are the differences between action on a community/local level, at the national level, and the regional level – such as Europe – and at the global level”, respondents did not take the opportunity to praise or lambast Europe, while local, national and global levels were all cited. Thus the most striking impression from the first two sections of the interviews was the conspicuous absence of Europe, seeming to support the assertion that London, at least as far as the activists protesting within it are concerned, may be a global city, but is not a European one.

In fact, when Europe was finally dragged into the conversation by the interviewers, it often felt like a forced departure from the rest of the conversation. “Do you think that the European level is a relevant one, in terms of addressing your issue?” Though a seemingly natural progression from general questions of space, it seemed to throw respondents. It took further questioning on actions, such as “Is there a common thread amongst European grassroots movements?” before interviewees seemed ready to address the final questions. Interviewers had been careful to use the word ‘Europe’ and not to pin down any particular European institution.  But now they asked, “What do you mean when you talk about Europe?” and, finally, “Do you see yourselves as a European?”.

Initially, the answers given appeared to confirm the impression that Europe was indeed an irrelevant political space for what we’re calling subterranean actors in London. Although activists born in EU countries more readily identified as European and were more likely to identify European connections to national and global issues, their level of engagement with the debate on the future of Europe, at least in relation to their engagement in subterranean politics, was as practically non-existent as that of the British respondents. “The EU never occurred to me as a target”, said one German respondent, when asked if Europe seemed a relevant level for campaigning action – and this rather neatly sums up the bulk of the responses.

Interestingly, when asked this question, almost all respondents took ‘Europe’ to mean the European Union, and once it was brought into the conversation, most (though not all) were quick to criticise the ‘Europe’ of the EU as an agent of neoliberalism. “What is the EU any more? What’s it supposed to be doing? It just seems like a big function for the markets at the moment,” was a typical comment. Interviewees also bemoaned the democratic deficit created between the EU and national politics – “it’s like ping pong” – and the perceived technocratic nature of policymaking in Brussels.

A thread of ambivalence

However, there was a thread of ambivalence in these responses: many respondents qualified their initial rejection of Europe/the European Union. Indeed, even those who did not see supra-national governance as a progressive form of political arrangement still believed it necessary in addressing issues such as the environment and the free movement of labour – and voiced the opinion that it was not the EU per se that they didn’t like; it was the fact that it had been co-opted by markets and simply did not ‘work’.

In fact, as each interview progressed, the hypothesis that London is a global but not a European city was increasingly challenged by the findings. Both European- and British-born respondents started to reflect on the role that an integrated Europe – “an easyJet culture” – had played in shaping their own identities. Despite the fact that some interviewees resisted labels marking political boundaries altogether, and even though the British respondents were slower to consider themselves European, all respondents eventually settled for possessing a layering of identities that included several scales of political and cultural belonging, with the majority positive about identifying with Europe – including those born outside Europe but now holding British citizenship. These discussions of European identity, coming as they did at the tail end of the interviews and after much initial resistance to the topic of Europe, led to a finding that seemed to contradict both the dominant discourse on Europe in London (primarily against) and the general conclusion of the study (that Europe is primarily absent at the level of subterranean politics). They acknowledged some kind of responsibility and legitimacy at the European level.

This finding first surfaced at the end of the initial focus group, when the group members were asked why they identified as European. A Finnish Occupy campaigner considered that perhaps it was because she felt both legitimate campaigning across Europe in a way that she did not when outside the continent and responsible for the actions of institutions that she saw either as European or as influenced by a political-economic system in which European governance and markets were complicit. This assertion was met with recognition and agreement by other members of the group, and so was explored further by the researchers during the individual interviews. Variations on this sentiment appeared repeatedly: a sense of responsibility, legitimacy and effectiveness at the European level, separate from feelings of solidarity at the global level, and alongside convictions, across all respondents, that the problems that their activism was addressing were global ones, requiring global solutions.

“I came back to Europe because … I can’t really speak [in Tanzania] the way I can speak as a European in the EU,” said a young German Occupy activist, echoing the sentiments of many of our interviewees; “there can be solidarity, but I have to ask, where do I have the capacity to fight the strongest?”

Of course, unpacking identity is a hugely complex, multi-disciplinary endeavour, and even a cursory analysis might reasonably ask if ‘Europe’ as a political or cultural imaginary was in fact what these activists felt in common, or if it was, more broadly, a shared experience of democracy[2] which has reached, as Jordi Vacquer recently argued in openDemocracy, a dangerously low point in expressing the demands of its citizens.

But as the above quotation expresses, and as many of our interviewees responses confirm – being European – governed by Europe’s institutions, travelling and working freely across its borders, benefiting from its historically linked variations on the welfare state  – does cultivate a boundary of rights and responsibilities that informs a distinctly European identity.

London: a European city

Returning to Sassen, understanding London as a global city helps us to understand it as a European city. The process of immigration 'de- and re-territorialize[s]', which leads to novel types of political and cultural membership not based (only) on the nation state. And, in the case of London, this has laid the foundations for a substantive trans-territorial European citizenship on top of the formal voting rights and other guarantees granted in the four freedoms.

For now this new ‘European-ness’ may only be felt and not fully articulated, which leaves open the still very precarious question as to how it can voice its claims, entitlements and responsibilities. Certainly, we suggest, a first step in answering that question is to make its very presence visible. What the findings of the report suggest, limited as they are, is that both the mainstream discourse and the discourse within and around subterranean politics in London is overlooking an attachment to Europe that, in our opinion, has far more potential to galvanise the development of a re-imagined continent than debates on technocratic aspects of the EU and the future of the euro.

We suggest that it is time to reframe the discourse; to pull back from the arguably necessary technical aspects of its institutions, and, as the Europa project last year attempted to do, generate public debate that addresses its participants not only as citizens of countries within Europe, but also as European citizens with all the privileges and problems that this brings.


More details from all the country reports in the study will be published next year in the forthcoming book, Subterranean Politics (Palgrave 2013). 

[1] Sassen, S, 2000. The Global City: Strategic Site/New Frontier. American Studies, 41(2/3), pp. 88-90.

[2] The authors are indebted to Erin Saltman for this insight.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData