European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 3: Who are the Europeans?

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Getting to grips with the European Union is only partly a question of understanding its political character.We must also understand its people: who they are, how they think of themselves in relation to others, and how they perceive the European Union. Most Europeans still regard themselves as citizens of the states in which they live, or as members of a national group, and only a few have taken to the idea that they are also Europeans. Europe has a population of nearly 600 million, divided among 40 sovereign states (44 if the definition of ‘Europe’ is expanded), speaking more than 60 major languages, and belonging to several hundred different national groups. Because the lines of states and nations do not always coincide, most European states are multinational, and many of the larger national groups are divided among two or more states. The exercise of European integration – although it was designed to help Europeans move past their historical suspicions of one another – has made only limited progress in helping build a sense of European identity. This chapter begins with an attempt to pin down where Europe begins and ends. It then reviews questions of identity in Europe, looking at what divides Europeans while also explaining how the sense of association with Europe and the EU is changing. It finishes with a review of some of the key demographic trends in Europe, including its declining and aging population, the impact of immigration, and changes in the definition of the European family. It argues that Europe is undergoing a fundamental change of identity and demographic structure, but that while current trends are becoming more clear, the end result is still open to debate.
  • The geographical, political and ethnic borders of Europe are debatable. To the south, west and north they are marked by coastlines, but there is no obvious border to the east.
  • If the external limits of Europe are contested, so is its internal identity. Nations offer Europeans the most obvious reminder of their differences, with language, culture, history and symbols preventing a broader sense of European identity.
  • Europe is divided into at least 40 different states and 160 different nationalities, with natives of the EU speaking more than 40 different languages, of which 23 are currently recognized as official. English, though, is rapidly becoming the common language of Europe.
  • Although the EU has promoted an EU ‘citizenship’ (giving EU citizens the right to live in different EU states, and to run and vote in local and European Parliament elections, for example), this is not the same as providing Europeans with the same rights and legal status as those who are citizens of a member state.
  • Polls suggest that only about 4 per cent of Europeans consider themselves as such, while about 41 per cent identify exclusively with the states of which they are citizens, and about 55 per cent have some mixture of European and state identity. Only about half of EU residents feel a sense of attachment to the EU.
  • A combination of declining fertility and improved life expectancy means that the population of Europe is both shrinking and becoming older. This is leading to concerns about the region’s economic productivity and about the growing costs of supporting an aging population.
  • Europe’s population growth is now almost entirely accounted for by net immigration, which presents a host of troubling political and social challenges.