“What is the EU?” was the second most googled query in the UK the day after the EU referendum. The answer is deeper than many believe and touches on values and identity, but the sentiment towards the EU varies in different countries. “The answer Britain has given to this question over the past 40 years has a lot to do with the vote to leave the European Union,” says Edoardo Ongaro, Professor of International Public Services Management at Northumbria University in Newcastle. “The way the British elite and the people have been part of the EU has prepared the outcome of the referendum.”
So what is the European Union?
The European Union is an unprecedented experiment in Europe to create a space where people share the same rights and duties independently of national borders. Since the beginning, in 1957, the idea was to create a European identity so that, after centuries of conflicts and two World Wars, people from different countries would stop looking at each other as enemies. It is a political project based on the very modern idea that it is possible to have more than one identity – local, national, European – and this is enrichment, not a loss. This is the most original element of the EU and is what freedom of movement for people is about.
Why do you think the UK has not caught up with this idea?
The UK joined the European Community only in 1973. It has always seen Europe as a market and the European Union as a trade agreement, pretending to decouple the political and the economic dimensions and to benefit from the latter totally averting the former. Trade is indeed a major part of the EU project and is covered by the freedom of movement of goods, services and capitals. But it is not everything. The European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for having brought reconciliation in the continent, not for having created the single market. Also, if you consider the EU only as a market, the risk is to include people in this frame and to treat them as “bargaining chips”, as we often read these days.
But in Scotland and Northern Ireland, as well as in many cities in England, there seems to be a sense of European identity.
And this is probably why for many people – those who feel European – it will take a long time to recover from the shock. Part of their identity has been denied by the vote. The paradox is that the result of the referendum and the exit from the European Union now also risk to intensify internal divisions.
In which countries is the European sentiment stronger?
Opinion polls fluctuate and, I think, only capture the surface of reality. It seems to me that the sentiment towards the EU might be deeper than it is currently represented, especially in the founding countries (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) and in Mediterranean states.
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Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Latin Quarter, Paris, France, by Terence S. Jones [CC BY 2.0].