The European identity: from a ‘European’ Perspective

Written by Adam Volf, Individual Member of LYMEC     

The European identity, the European Schools, and the question of nationality and belonging.      

I’ve long pondered the curious phenomenon of nationalism.   The question of nationality is fraught with perceived meaning. And where nationality and identity overlap is a faultline with immense potential - for both bad and good. Europeans know this as well as anymore, not least in what concerns the ‘bad’. Nowhere have national divisions led to greater - and more consistent - strife than on the European continent. Indeed, the European Union (EU) grew in part out of the catastrophic accumulation of nationalist fervour which culminated in one of the most barbaric periods of conflict in human history. Afterward, it was as if Europe’s leaders finally decided to contain their nations’ headstrong sentiments while there remained something of European society to salvage.  

But there are reasons why devotion to one’s nationality endures. National identity is, simply put, one of the most simple and obvious methods of community-building. It is no accident that Irish people - like myself - seek out other expat Irish people immediately upon arrival into a new cultural environment. Expats everywhere will probably agree that the sound of one’s own native language piques the interest more so than a nearby conversation in an unfamiliar language might do. The sight of a restaurant serving one’s own national dishes might draw the eye swifter than a site serving local delicacies - even if we don’t generally enjoy our country’s cuisine. We seem socially engineered to gravitate towards those who we perceive ourselves to be most alike. In his remarkable book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt cites psychologist Mark Leary in noting that we are hard-wired - as an survival instinct - to be included in a group[1]. Which group we chose to make our own (and by extension which identity we assume) is by-and-large often a personal decision: humans are nothing short of creative in aligning themselves into various demographic sub-configurations. Even the pull of an ideological community is enough to cause unity and division. This is perhaps part of the reason why like-minded individuals flock toward ideologies which they hold to benefit their interests or those of humanity as a whole - communism, conservatism, republicanism, monarchism, nationalism, regionalism, socialism, etc. Even feminism, liberalism, football hooliganism, and adherence to select branches of moral philosophy can attract devotees out of community-focused inclusion rather than independent conviction alone. To be part of a collective is to ensure survival. And if we cannot ensure our acceptance as part of one collective, we may seek acceptance elsewhere. This is, likely, how many fall victim to the allure of extreme religiousness or political thought.    

So what about European identity?  

To what extent inhabitants of Europe identify as ‘European’ varies greatly. The European Parliament counts among its elected members both hardline Eurosceptics and passionate Euro-federalists, reflecting the corresponding divergent views on EU integration of the electorate they represent. And while Euroscepticism has undeniably seen a surge in parts of Europe, an emerging pan-European identity is undoubtedly also seeing nascent strength, due in part to the considerable effort of the EU and its leaders[2]. Indeed, there exists a growing portion of young Europeans whose national identity has been accompanied - or even replaced - by a flourishing sense of ‘European’ identity. And nowhere is this sentiment more visible than in the EU’s own educational project: the thirteen schools built originally to nurture and educate the children of EU officials, known to us as the European Schools.  

European identity in the European Schools  

I arrived in Brussels at age fifteen, having been born and raised in Ireland to a Czech/Irish family. I was swiftly ushered into a European School, where I saw out my remaining years of schooling. As formative educational establishments, the European Schools fall short on many fronts. The unique system of education, based on harmonised exams for students separated into a series of language sections, has seen perceived preferential treatment for some linguistic groups decried by students and parents alike[3]. Persistent mishaps in translation of the harmonised exams has also caused fury[4]. Furthermore, the curriculum is - in some ways - a shambles. My own alma mater (European School III, Ixelles) possessed only limited sporting infrastructure, and an extracurricular sports programme that would be laughed out of any state school in Ireland. On the whole, the school appeared to place little emphasis on non-academic prowess - something perhaps reflected in the professional pursuits of the Alumni Europae. A glance at the Wikipedia page of the European Schools (sub-section ‘notable alumni’) indicates that, in the sixty-odd years of the existence of the schools and many thousands of graduated alumni, only a handful have distinguished themselves in creative fields of the arts, and fewer still have led the field in sporting pursuits. The likelihood is that a significant proportion of the students, after leaving school, eventually make their way dutifully into the bureaucratic institutions of the EU - returning thus to the Luxembourg and Brussels bubbles that many students (given that six European Schools are located in these cities) will have grown up calling home.  

But there is at least one area in which - most alumni will likely agree - the European Schools excel: the nurturing of a distinctive ‘European’ identity amongst the students. This is hardly by accident - it’s in the European Schools’ founding mission[5]. One might argue that this ethos manifests itself primarily in the pluralist focus on European languages pursued by its curriculum. Whilst classes are taught according to each student’s mother tongue, every student must take certain subjects in either French, German or English. The resulting bilingualism - and sometimes trilingualism - ticks at least one condition for European inter-understanding. In addition, students are immersed in an ethnically-diverse social environment, exposing students to the cultures of their European neighbours in a way that national schooling systems might - for the moment - struggle to mirror. Similarly, the embrace and celebration of European diversity (including festivals and events promoting national diversity in several Brussels schools) enables further integration of the student body. While the schools - in my opinion - falter on the intended goals of harmonisation and academic merit, they do at least provide for an intercultural tolerance which fosters a new generation of Europeans, one armed with a more favourable outlook upon diverse European cultures and - possibly - on continued European integration.  

The effect of the European School in nurturing this identity has not escaped academic scrutiny. Sociologists Dr Nicola Savvides and Dr Daniel Faas conducted a study designed to contrast the views on European identity of students attending a bilingual school in England with those of students attending a now-defunct European School, also in England[6]. While Drs Faas and Savvides determined that European identity was more palpable in the European School than its counterpart (which they nicknamed ‘Darwin’ School), they also identified a curious phenomenon by which students of the former described how they struggled to fit in amongst their peers in the countries of which they were - at least by nationality - natives. Simply put, the students described themselves as being ‘a bit from anywhere and everywhere’ and felt that ‘they did not fit or belong anywhere in particular’. It was as if the students, in the absence of a strong sense of national identity, filled the void by adopting instead a European identity - something which I will discuss further in the following segment.    

The pull of the emergent European identity  

As mentioned before, the extent to which one identifies as European can vary across cultures. Libertas contributor Lovis Lindquist[7], using the example of Sweden, pointed out that a high level of domestic support for the European Union does not necessarily mean a great level of affinity with European identity. I might add that the Swedish sentiment she identified is largely echoed in my own homeland (Ireland). Like Sweden, Ireland remained neutral during the traumatic years of conflict which preceded the EU’s foundation. Like Sweden, Ireland has maintained a high standard of living (and, therefore, potential for aloofness in a broader EU context) for some years, and has (again, like Sweden) opposed several tentative alterations to EU legislation - rejecting both the Treaty of Nice and the Lisbon Treaty on first reading. Moreover, Ireland and Sweden both sit on the geographical fringes of Europe, and the corresponding disconnect felt by Irish people to goings-on in Brussels is - conceivably - similar to that in Sweden.    

It is likely that young people born of mixed nationality - and raised in a multinational environment - may adopt a European identity by default through virtue of these conditions. Most students in my class (like myself) were born to parents of different nationalities. Most, unlike myself, had grown up in Belgium. This led to a tripartite national affiliation, with many of my classmates holding the passports of both parents’ countries, along with a Belgian ID indistinguishable from those of our Belgian friends. Indeed, many students had even spent parts of their childhoods in more countries still, and others were born to parents who - themselves - were of double nationality. This allowed for a vast array of uniquely fragmented identities (at least, regarding nationality) for many. For young people growing up split between several cultural contexts, it is hardly surprising that some would adopt a ‘third way’ approach when quizzed on their sense of national identity.    

Consider this: to be detached for so long for a country of which you are a national (in the eyes of the state) can take its toll. How can one truly fit in amongst their peers who’d spent their entire childhoods in a given country, when they’d spent theirs in another country with an entirely distinct culture and upbringing. How can one catch the references to popular TV series, music and other cultural staples that their familiars in home countries had grown up with? Whilst native in the language of those countries, would they truly be able to replicate the linguistic regional nuances of their kin? What school history lessons they did not have, designed to inform them of their own cultures? And sports - how likely is a person born and raised in Brussels to Irish parents to have played Gaelic football or hurling (national sports in Ireland) during their childhoods in Belgium? The disconnect from one’s own culture can be stark, when contrasted with those who’d lived immersed in it. And it is curious how quickly that cultural disconnect can occur - for indeed anyone. My entire first fifteen years of existence were quintessentially ‘Irish’, having been educated mostly in an Irish Gaelic-speaking context. And even still, not one year after my arrival in Belgium, my Irish-ness began to feel almost fraudulent, upon return to my former home. How would someone who’d spent those fifteen years in Belgium come to feel amongst family, friends, their fellow Irish - if someone like me struggled to do so after only a cursory immersion in another culture? Is it so therefore unsurprising that students would adopt another identity, one which emphasises the shared nature of European cultures rather than a singular focus on national identity?    

The European School outlook on European identity as a model for the future?  

The tug of national belonging affects us all - though perhaps to varying extents. In countries like Ireland and Sweden, young people grow up in formative cultures with, arguably, a weaker emphasis on European identity than those at the fore of the evolving European project - and most certainly the European Schools at the very centre of it all.   But perhaps, as European integration continues to evolve, the ethos of the European Schools will no longer be the outlier in what concerns the regard to European identity. As movement between member states begins to become the norm for many career-seeking young professionals - rather than the exception - it is likely that educational formation inclusive of different societal cultures and linguistic considerations will adapt accordingly. For my part, I do not believe that European identity should be forced upon anyone, and much less that it should be made to supplant connection to one’s own national pride and heritage. Nevertheless, it is my very firm belief that at the very least, national schooling systems would benefit from seeking to promote instilling competence in languages outside of the norm for a given society - in other words, to adopt the European Schools’ emphasis on languages. It is my great hope, for example, that the Irish state will one day restructure the national schooling system to make education in equal parts through Irish and English mandatory (thereby making all Irish nationals fully bilingual in both languages). And why stop there? Why not make Irish compulsory throughout all primary education, followed by compulsory secondary education in both the dominant national language of the country, plus one commonly-spoken second language of the European Union? What would the possible harm be in making our young Europeans capable of conversing at leisure in their mother tongue, another culturally-relevant language, and also a language of mobility such as French and German? Should it not be a dream of our European leaders that young people would have little difficulty in conducting a full conversation in a plethora of different languages - allowing them to embrace the cultures of the many ethnicities with whom they share this continent, and seeing the very same take place in reverse? Some societies are well on their way to accomplishing such a dream (in Belgium, for example, it is not unusual for a young person to be fluent in the culturally-relevant Dutch and French languages, and also fluent in English as a conduit toward professional and social mobility). Such an outlook should be a cornerstone of the future development of any European federal state, and a benchmark for the elimination of national differences - which have, for too long, ravaged this peculiar and beautiful continent of ours.  

Simply put, there are currently 24 official languages of the European Union. There is not a single person on this continent who would not benefit from exposure to at least one more.  

About the Author:  Adam Volf is an Irish/Czech graduate of Trinity College Dublin (BA) and the College of Europe, Natolin (MA). He now lives in Brussels, where he specializes in field of EU public affairs and policy. He also worked as a trainee at the European Parliament, during which he served as General Coordinator of the Schuman Trainees' Committee. He is an advocate for the Irish language and continued European integration, and he joined LYMEC in March 2021.    

[1] Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Penguin Books Ltd., London (2012), pg90

[2] https://www.newstatesman.com/world/2021/02/meaning-pro-europeanism-response-hans-kundnani

[3] https://www.politico.eu/article/why-greek-students-get-top-grades-eu-schools-brussels/

[4] https://www.politico.eu/article/european-schools-european-problems/

[5] https://www.politico.eu/article/european-schools-european-problems/

[6] https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/161918131.pdf

[7] https://action.lymec.eu/european-identity-from-a-swedish-perspective

Adam Volf

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