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Once a European, always a European

Once a European, always a European

by Erich Striessnig

The future of the European project looks grim. The predominant narrative thread being woven through Europe’s media tapestry—that Europe’s near-decade-long string of crises has citizens shedding their European identities and, with it, their support for European integration—certainly gives that impression.

The data tell a different story, though, and it is not quite so dramatic. Not yet, at least. Identity is undoubtedly a fickle thing, just less so than many commentators realise.

The identities acquired in our formative years are fairly stable and not easily lost later in life. This means that people who grew up with a positive perception of Europe will continue to hold their European identities in addition to their “original” national identities despite negative developments (let’s call them “crises”) later on.

In a nutshell, this is what my co-author Wolfgang Lutz and I have found in our latest study, published recently in Population and Development Review. The study, which uses the latest Eurobarometer data, is in effect a follow-up to a 2006 study by Lutz and others that projected the growth of European identity through 2030. Using a demographic metabolism model, a model describing the process of social change as younger people replace older people in the population, the study predicted that by 2030 the percentage of the population aged 45 and younger with a European identity would exceed 70%. Our recent study confirmed that so far the demographic metabolism model was quite accurate, even in the face of a crisis-ridden decade that the original study could never have accounted for.

Or, to put it more pointedly: once a European, always a European!

That’s not to say the crisis years have been consequence-free. Just as adults who grew up in a period of optimism tend to both identify with and, in somewhat of a feedback loop, hold a favourable view of Europe, you might expect young people forming their views of the EU after 2008 to become more Eurosceptic. This is precisely the case: among 15- to 24-year-olds surveyed in 2013, the percentage with a European identity was 8 to 9% lower than forecasted.

Our findings certainly leave the defenders of European integration with room for cautious optimism. For the moment, past success in convincing young people of the necessity of the community project will continue to lead to increasing numbers of people, particularly among the ever-important age groups over 35, to think pro-Europe.

However, our results suggest that the recent crisis has had dramatic effects on the prevalence of European identities among younger parts of Europe’s population—those who only just started to form their opinion of Europe during the long years of crisis. If this cycle cannot be broken quickly, the same mechanism of generational replacement currently reinforcing support for Europe could begin working in the opposite direction—against further identification with Europe and possibly toward gradual re-nationalisation.

I think it is time for a new narrative, one emphasising hope for the EU and its resilience, to replace the ominous version entangling Europe’s most visible media. To replace the version that itself—as more young people begin to believe it—threatens to become self-fulfilling. What our study makes clear is that this thread must be spun sooner rather than later.


Picture Source: Copyright: Ramonespelt


About the author:

Erich Striessnig, Research Scholar with the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital, affiliated with both the Vienna Institute of Demography VID and IIASA’s World Population (POP) Programme, Vienna/Austria.