Europe | 26 november 2019 | by guest blogger

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Will we ever be Europeans?

by Job Knobbout

A report by the European Commission shows that there is an ever increasing sense of European citizenship, with seven in ten respondents stating they feel citizens of the European Union (Eurobarometer 89, spring 2018).  But feeling European seems more contested now than ever before, with nationalism and populism on the rise. So what does the future hold? 

I’ve been asked a lot lately whether I feel like a European citizen. I find it a difficult question to answer. First of all it makes me think about what European citizenship is and what European citizenship means to me personally. For me, being a European citizen means that I can have dinner with friends from all over Europe, carry on into the night while drinking a nice cold, German Beer, or spend an evening at home watching some European TV series like Downton Abbey or La casa de papel. On a whim, you can buy a cheap airplane ticket and have a nice weekend in one of the many beautiful European landscapes. Besides, as a European I can study at a university with people from over one hundred countries.

Now, back to the question. For me European citizenship is visible in my daily life but not something I’m conscious about. I feel like a European citizen in the sense that I try to fully exploit the mobility, privileges and rights it provides, and it is increasingly a part of my identity. But I am not ashamed of my national identity either. It is not a trade-off — more like an addition to my already established sense of nationality and belonging.

European citizenship – an identity or a bunch of rights and privileges?

The term ‘European citizenship’ was introduced in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 before I was even born. My generation grew up with this concept and in our lifetimes, European national boundaries have become increasingly blurred. But even the benefit we get from this on a daily basis, people tend to focus on negative aspects of European integration and globalisation. People often see European citizenship as an identity based project which overrules national and local identities. Growing up in a small town in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant, I was often confronted with these prejudices. Although people enjoy the benefits of their ‘European citizenship’, often without realising it, the fear of losing their regional or national identity seems to take the upper hand. Dutch people feel like they are being overpowered by non-democratic European institutions and feel increasingly distanced from decision-making. This has the effect of intensifying political debate in Dutch society. It can also push us toward a more nationalist or protectionist approach, in which Dutch industry and production is protected by the Dutch Government, in turn increasing tension with other European countries.

An ever increasing rift

The fear of losing one’s identity is exploited by certain media and politicians and this magnifies social tension. It also changes the way we look at ‘European citizenship’. This doesn’t have to be the case. By seeing yourself as a ‘European citizen’, your national identity doesn’t have to become subordinate. Seeing yourself as European does not mean you can’t feel Dutch and vice versa. With populism on the rise and a seemingly ever increasing rift, I feel the urge to actively decrease tension and try to reduce the differences, instead of exploiting them. In doing so, we can use the discussion regarding European citizenship. Everybody experiences being European in a different way. People have different interpretations of what Europe should stand for and what constitutes European values. We should not impose a homocentric ideal of European citizenship, but instead we should acknowledge existing differences, make them open for discussion and try to change things through  a bottom-up approach, through dialogue and discussion. In the end, European citizenship is something that is defined by its citizens and cannot be imposed from above. This is why I decided to get involved in the programme “Europe as a peace project” at PAX, to help build bridges and prevent walls from being erected.

What does PAX do?

PAX wants to capitalize on the hope shown in the Eurobarometer report by increasing awareness for European core values and the sense of feeling European, also known as European citizenship. Europe as a peace project is an example of how PAX works to make citizens and institutions aware of the negative consequences of a passive or ignorant attitude towards European issues. However, I think PAX should try to include more youth and civilian organisations, get more local support and help amplify local voices. This needs to include those who have not seen the benefit of globalisation and European integration and who are increasingly alienated from the European project. Because how can we speak about European citizenship, if there is no connection to its citizens?

Read more about PAX’s programme Europe as a peace project

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