A visitor stands in front of an exhibition at of the House of European History in Brussels
A visitor attends the inauguration of the House of European History in Brussels Eric Vidal/Reuters

A new museum, the House of European History, highlights the tensions between national identities and transnational belonging.

A fun map from 2014 suggests 20 different ways to divide Europe based on cultural habits and traditions. There is butter Europe and olive oil Europe; tea Europe and coffee Europe; tomato Europe and potato Europe. But, as the Brexit referendum highlighted, the biggest current division in Europe is the one between its cosmopolitan and national identities.

On May 6th, the European Parliament opened the House of European History in Brussels. This museum will dig into the topic of European identity, a concept that predates the European Union itself. A permanent exhibition—in all 24 of the EU’s official languages—shows the timeline of European history beginning with the 19th century, leading visitors through the events of the 20th century and ending with a search for a better, united Europe after the World Wars.

This sounds like a worthy goal, but experts can’t really agree on a single definition of “European identity,” or whether it actually exists in the first place.

In his work, Florian Stöckel, a political scientist at the University of Exeter, uses a two-part definition of identity that draws on psychology. There’s a cognitive element: someone considers herself a member of the group of Europeans. But there’s an emotional part, too: this particular identity must mean something to the person holding it.

But some researchers, like Adrian Favell, a professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Leeds, believe that a singular European identity does not exist. In Favell’s opinion, being European is synonymous with being cosmopolitan. That’s why he prefers to talk about European citizenship, a legal term that is enshrined in the EU Treaty, which stipulates that “citizenship of the Union shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship.”

Research suggests that many EU citizens don’t view their national identity and a bigger European one as being mutually exclusive. Instead, those identities may be mixed together in a way that has been described as the “marble cake model.” According to a study by the political scientists Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks, around 40 percent of EU citizens imagine themselves holding an exclusively national identity, while around 50 percent identify as belonging to a certain nation as well as being European. A much smaller group, which Adrian Favell calls Eurostars, identifies as exclusively European. Members of this group “wanted to leave behind their national label as citizens of a certain country and to live freely as individuals in a cosmopolitan world within Europe,” Favell says.

Traveling abroad seems to help foster a sense of a more expansive European identity, according to Stöckel’s study of 1,200 students who participated in Erasmus, a university exchange program across EU member countries. Stöckel surveyed the students before they went abroad, while they were there, and again after they returned home, and measured these findings against a control group. He found that participating in the Erasmus helped students find commonalities with other Europeans, and they exhibited greater pride in being European. Stöckel says that talking to students from different countries helped spur this change, because those interactions “reduce prejudices and increase trust between individuals from different groups and backgrounds.” Still, Stöckel notes that studies like this one can’t always tease out cause and effect, since it’s often the self-identified cosmopolitans who seek out opportunities to travel abroad. Favell points out cheap roaming fees for mobile phones and flights on discount airlines like Ryanair have enabled people other than students—even those on the lower end of the economic spectrum—to participate in a lifestyle that is broadly transnational.

Exhibitions at the House of European History aim to showcase relationships between and across countries within the EU. (Eric Vidal/Reuters)

Who’s least likely to embrace the idea of a European identity? Stöckel found it was the citizens who felt least represented by the mainstream political parties in their home countries. “Those who only hold a national identity are those who also trust elites much less. This is where the divide plays a role,” Stöckel says. For these citizens, “Europe is a threat to their national identities, to the sovereignty of their countries,” he explained. That tension plays out, for instance, when voters choose candidates based on their stance on immigration.

While European identity is hard to define, the changes that a more fluid Europe brought to people’s lives are tangible, and aren’t likely to disappear completely. “You can’t put that back in the box. I think people will start getting very upset if they start losing all their rights,” Favell adds, referring to European citizens’ ability to live and work in any country within the EU.

The House of European History’s “Interactions” exhibit invites visitors to map points of connection between countries. (House of European History)

Transnational projects like the House of European History won’t reconcile the tensions that bubbled, for example, when a national population wondered whether Great Britain should remain part of the EU. The recent election results in the Netherlands and France showed that there is still hope for the European Union, but that it should never be taken for granted. Still, these efforts create a narrative about what Europe is—or could be.

The museum’s first special exhibition, “Interactions,” invites visitors to map their connections to various countries within Europe. They might indicate, for instance, where they were born versus where they live, or where their favorite sports team is based. The story the Museum tries to tell about Europe is one of connections, and of shared experiences. And, in times of rampant divisions, maybe it’s not such a bad idea.

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