At a dinner table surrounded by Europeans of various nationalities, the question hung in mid-air:
“But, who chooses them? Who chooses the commissioners?”
“But, who, specifically?”
“The European Parliament…? The heads of states? The leading political party in each country?”
There we were; a group of Europeans who by most measures could be called informed citizens, with no clear answer to the question. According to the European Commission’s Website, the president-elect of the Commission chooses the commissioners from a list set by member countries. The European Parliament approves the president-elect’s suggestion. Without any definitive statistics to back my assumption, it is reasonable to assume that a large part of Europeans do not know who chooses the commissioners nor would they realize to ask the question.
These days, one of the solutions offered for getting the populace invested in decision-making and to overcome crises is the creation of a European identity. When citizens identify with the larger whole, it is believed that sharing information about the EU would not only be left to the EU machinery, but would be something everyone would feel compelled to do on their own.
Yet, identity is complex, personal, and characterized by a range of other things besides nationality. It grows over time and cannot be imposed by political measures or campaigns. In our daily lives, few of us actively reflect on questions of identity or on whether or not we feel European. Instead of identity, I prefer to speak about a sense of belonging. Creating belonging is more tangible than creating identities, even though the two concepts are closely linked.
Who belongs to Europe today? Europe is often mistakenly seen as a synonym of the larger countries of the European Union. This is a complaint commonly voiced in the former Yugoslavia and places seen to be on the “periphery” of Europe. The future of Europe depends also on how well we manage to view all regions of Europe on an equal footing. On a smaller scale, those most likely to feel a sense of belonging in Europe are those who have had the opportunity to travel outside of their own country, exchange with people from other countries, and those who are able to enjoy the benefits of the current system. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman speaks of “liquid modernity” and a class of people who feel at home everywhere and nowhere. Belonging to this “liquid” group is not necessarily a matter of wealth, but rather a certain social predisposition. In today’s Europe, this group is not only students, international employees and other mobile individuals, but it is also the big corporations that benefit from the single market and the thousands of employees of the European Union.
How do you create sense of belonging? When the FutureLab Europe group conducted a number of questionnaires about questions of European identity, I went a step further and asked young people what would make them feel more “European.” The answers were clear: better opportunities to work and study in other countries. In addition to better opportunities, the habitual talking points to simplify institutions and increase their transparency need to turn into a serious goal.
There is no strong historical basis for shared identity across Europe, a fact that has been brought to the surface particularly strongly by the recent crisis. We have to give ourselves time. A European identity needs to be seen as a concept that can grow organically together with national and regional identity, and transform over time as immigrants and new generations create their understanding of Europe. There is enormous potential to include young generations, who have grown up with the European Union and who already are more Europe-minded than their predecessors. Most importantly, it needs to be understood that the opportunity to feel belonging has to be equally available. Otherwise, we risk European dinner conversations ending not only in not knowing who the commissioners are – but in questioning the European project itself.