How to create a European identity?

Opération “Europe à l’école” franco-allemande (Jeunes Européens Strasbourg / JE Baden-Württemberg) (Photo JE-Strasbourg)

Note: The original version of this article was published in French on February 14th, 2012.

React to a loss of confidence

A recent Eurobarometer survey shows that, in average, in the European Union, people continue to trust more the EU than national institutions. However, since the autumn 2009, a worrying trend appears, showing a substantial loss of confidence in only 2 years: around 30% less people tend to trust the EU. This decrease affects all institutions, though the European Parliament is slightly less touched than the Commission and the Council.

Of course, this loss of confidence doesn’t concern only the EU, as national institutions suffer from the same downward trend. But it shows that in current times of crisis, the European integration is not necessarily perceived as a solution. Common institutions and a common currency are not sufficient to create a strong enough link between the citizen and the EU.

How can we create a European identity, a sense of common belonging? It is not the first time (and it will not be the last one…) that this question is asked. In this article, I intend to provide an answer based on three keywords: explaining, exchanging and sharing.


Explaining is vital, because how do you want to adhere to something you do not understand?

The effort of pedagogy, a virtue that is often put forward by politicians, must also benefit the EU.

I believe that two kinds of protagonists are particularly important: the media and the education system. Indeed, both have ideally the mission of contributing to reflection and to the forming of a critical and informed mind.

Regarding the media, their role is especially important due to the extremely wide public they reach. For a long time, media have been criticized for not talking enough about Europe. Today, there is a new, not less important problem: mass media talk too much about what is going wrong in Europe and not enough about its successes, e.g. 25 years of Erasmus.

As for the second protagonist, the education system, couldn’t it play the same essential role for Europe as it did for the building of the Nation, in France, in the 19th century? It is not about doing away with the national (or regional, or …) identity; it is about adding a European component to the identity of each child, of each future citizen! This would go through subjects such as literature, philosophy, history and geography: reading not only Shakespeare, Locke and Bacon, but also Voltaire, Dante and Kant, learning not only the important dates of British History, but also those of European and other countries’ History – and that would not be too difficult, as European History has been made of interstate wars for centuries. As for learning about the European integration and the functioning of European institutions, it is a fundamental knowledge that would be an ideal common ground to all young people across the EU.

Still in the educational field, I mention the programme “Europe à l’école” by the Young European Federalists in France (I am member of the Strasbourg branch). This programme consists in going in primary and secondary schools to talk about Europe in a ludic and pedagogical manner.

But “explaining” is only a first step. We must also “exchange”.


Here too, education is first and foremost concerned. First, let us underline the importance of learning foreign languages. Indeed, how do you want to exchange if you do not understand the other one and if s/he does not understand you? It is therefore vital that the education system promotes the progressive learning of several languages, so that each pupil speaks and understands well at least two foreign languages. It is not only a necessity for the European integration; it is also imperative in order to adapt to globalization and to ever increasing exchanges.

Exchange also goes through meeting the others. This was understood very early, as the Erasmus exchange programme, the best known of all, was set up already in 1987!

Erasmus van Rotterdam, who gave his name to the famous student exchange programme (Flickr)

Other programmes facilitate mobility at different stages of the individual education and training:  Comenius, Grundtvig and Leonardo da Vinci.

“Erasmus: change lives, open minds for 25 years”: this title of a conference by the European Commission shows the importance of exchanges in becoming open to other people, to their culture, which is an unconditional prerequisite to the development of a European identity.

The European Commission has recently suggested a merger of all existing programmes into a single programme called “Erasmus for all”. The objective is that 5 millions Europeans go abroad to study and to be trained.

Last, in order to create a common identity, a sense of common belonging to the EU, we must share.


Jean Monnet said that he wanted to create a “factual solidarity” among European people, in order to avoid a new war. Solidarity is a form of sharing; we may still experience it today, as the financial rescue plans to the benefit of some European countries are a form of solidarity.

However, here, we will focus on the sharing of elements similar to the ones that enabled the creation of Nations in various EU Member States. It is notably common values, symbols and citizenship.

Common values are in article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU). In particular, they include democracy, respect of Human dignity, equality, rule of law and Human Rights. This values are reasserted in the Charta of Fundamental Rights of the EU, whose legal value is the same as the Treaties’ one. The Charta gathers civil and political rights, but also social and economic ones. These values are also a prerequisite for any adhesion to the EU.

Then, the EU also has symbols, whose spreading seems important to me in order to create a sense of common belonging, as they are easy to remember.

The European symbols are notably the European flag, the European Anthem (“Ode to Joy”, coming from Beethoven’s 9th symphony), Europe Day (on 9 May, a day that should become free in the whole EU, so that citizen would be more aware of this day) and the motto (“United in diversity”).

Finally, let us talk briefly about citizenship, a notion that has been historically tightly linked to the nationality. Indeed, for a long time, voting rights were limited to the State’s nationals.

The Treaty of Maastricht created the European citizenship, which does not substitute itself to the national citizenship, but adds itself to it! Besides, the possession of the European citizenship is still conditioned by the possession of the citizenship of a MemberState. This EU citizenship enables the nationals of a MemberState who live in another MemberState to participate in the local and European elections, provided they have the right to vote and they have been living in the place where they vote for a certain length. This right to participate in the choices of the community are one of the most important progresses realized in the framework of the European integration and must symbolize a successful integration.

Unfortunately, the percentage of Europeans using this right remains extremely low at the moment. The same problem touches the rate of participation at European elections, as this rate does not reach anymore 50% in average in the EU. It is a real shame that citizen do not seize this opportunity, but it probably proves the need of a true European identity.

The European identity exists; it must only be spread

As a conclusion, I will allow myself to invoke my personal experience. I did nearly all my schooling at the EuropeanSchool of Luxemburg, where children from all EU Member States, split up into about twenty linguistic sections, create a true “European melting pot”, providing a unique sense of European common belonging, a European identity. Children start learning a first foreign language at the age of 6. In secondary school, from a certain level on, history and geography are also taught in this first foreign language, so that students are made aware of the History of other European States too. These elements, among others, contribute to creating a unique sense of European common belonging, of European identity. Of course, it is materially impossible to copy the model of the European schools everywhere, but this model might be a source of inspiration for national education policies and, above all, it shows that a true European identity exists, provided that we set up the necessary means for its development.

Pierre-Antoine KLETHI

One thought on “How to create a European identity?

  1. Pingback: The European identity: a fundament of a political Union | Europe's Café

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