Written by Charlie Jones

European identity and crisis 

The existence of a European identity, or lack thereof, has long been contested by both political actors and academics (Kaina & Karolewski, 2013). Debates tend to centre around what might constitute a European identity, and if it could supplant national identities. A shared European identity might have been ‘the dream of the Community’s founding fathers’ (Duchesne & Frognier, 2003) but it is far from clear whether this has materialised. Crises provide a useful opportunity to understand European identity since it is during crises that a lack of identity will become obvious as ‘established ties of cohesion are eroding or breaking down’ (Stråth, 2002). Crisis situations tend to bring distributional questions to the fore, and this allows us to understand if there is a shared identity among people, or if they still understand one another as rivals, competing for scarce resources. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic – an acute crisis situation –  there was constant dispute over the distribution of protective equipment as well as vaccines, revealing the limits of global solidarity (Yates, 2021). The relationship between identity and solidarity is powerful: when people identify strongly as part of a given group, they are much more likely to endure the obligations of solidarity (Verhaegen, 2018). Thus, examining the level of solidarity displayed by EU member states during crises seems to be a useful way of understanding the extent of their identification with Europe, as opposed to nations. This article will examine both the sovereign debt crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, paying particular attention to the way in which these crises are framed. Both crises have facilitated an increase in the salience of European politics, or the ‘Europeanization’ of national politics (Risse, 2014). Despite this, they also both represent the difficulty of invoking a common European identity which can appeal to citizens from such a broad array of countries, who are likely to experience crises differently. 

The sovereign debt crisis 

The sovereign debt crisis of the early 2010s in which borrowing costs for many Eurozone countries increased significantly was precipitated largely by the shattering of the illusion, created by the euro, that the creditworthiness of Eurozone countries was similar (Blyth, 2015). Specifically, the sovereign debt crisis led to a major divergence in the borrowing costs of member states as investors became increasingly concerned about the creditworthiness of countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland (Tooze, 2018). At the same time, countries like Germany, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden did not face the same increase in borrowing costs and resultant budgetary problems (Tooze, 2018). The sovereign debt crisis thus ended ‘the general belief that European integration could be a one-way street in the direction of common economic growth’ and instead highlighted some of the structural flaws to European monetary union (Schäfer & Weber, 2014). Specifically, the sovereign debt crisis led to a major divergence in the borrowing costs of member states as investors became increasingly concerned about the creditworthiness of countries such as Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland (Tooze, 2018). At the same time, countries like Germany, Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden did not face the same increase in borrowing costs and resultant budgetary problems (Tooze, 2018). The sovereign debt crisis presented a solidarity problem, as different member states were not affected in the same way and helping indebted member states – through having their government debt purchased by the ECB, for example – would force countries without debt issues to effectively underwrite any risks involved. The response to this crisis then becomes a useful example to analyse the presence, or lack, of a European identity. 

The sovereign debt crisis could have served as a kind of Other which the EU could have constructed an identity around opposing; this was reflected in media narratives which described the crisis as a weather front moving in on Europe (Galpin, 2012). The common threat of the crisis could have increased the salience of a shared European identity, defined by the shared threat which member states faced. However, instead of the sovereign debt crisis continuing to be seen as a kind of exogenous shock, internal divisions emerged based on which countries had been hit harder by the crisis, in other words, ‘internal Others’ arose (Glapin, 2012). Specifically, debtor countries, and Greece in particular, were seen as bringing on the crisis themselves through their frivolity and profligacy; the stereotype of ‘lazy Greeks’ was used to reject togetherness and mutual support (Lichtenstein & Eilderes, 2018). Indeed, citizens’ expressed attachment to Europe decreased from 2007-2013, and these declines were most significant in the ‘crisis states’ such as Greece (Schäfer & Weber, 2014). Although Greece, and other debtor states, were eventually offered support in the form of ECB bond-buying, more extreme solidarity measures, such as the ‘corona bonds’ seen during the pandemic, were ruled out (Isenson, 2012).

Verhaegen has found that European identity can serve as a ‘cloak of charity’ whereby European citizens will support aid for other member states, even if it is not clearly in their own self-interest (Verhaegen, 2018). The stronger someone’s notion of group identity, the more they will be willing to sacrifice their own interest or group benefits. However, Verhaegen found that the positive effect that European identity has on solidarity can be cancelled out by individual economic precarity, which tends to make people more averse to offering aid (Verhaegen, 2018). This finding is particularly problematic for economic crises since it is in moments like this in which we might expect more people to be experiencing economic hardship. Thus, precisely in the moment when ideas of European togetherness, and the resultant solidarity, would be most important is also the point at which people are least likely to act on the basis of this shared identity. 

COVID-19 – another test for European identity 

The COVID-19 pandemic seemed like a crisis far more conducive to constructing or drawing on a shared European identity than the sovereign debt crisis. Although the pandemic inevitably harmed some countries more than others, it was hard to portray this as that country’s ‘fault’; it was a completely exogenous shock. Member states were able to pursue more meaningful forms of aid, most notable was the NextGen EU package which included 500 billion euros worth of grants to struggling countries, to be raised by common borrowing (Howarth & Schild, 2021). It seems that the pandemic could symbolise a true moment of European unity, where, faced with a common threat, member states were able to group together and agree on an aid package. However, it is important to examine the reasons behind these acts of solidarity: was it the result of genuine shared European identity, or was it framed in terms of national interests? 

Germany’s support for the NextGen EU package was essential for its passage, however, Angela Merkel did not necessarily employ a language of common threat and European identity when attempting to garner support for it. At the time, surveys indicated that Germans were much more amenable to debt mutualisation when it was framed as mitigating against the breakup of the EU, which was seen to be against German interests (Bacarro et al, 2022). Thus, it was a threat to the integrative framework of the EU, not the need for solidarity due to shared identity, which framed NextGen EU. If NextGen EU had been the result of a clear, shared European identity, then it would be unclear why similar measures have not been taken in the current context of an energy and cost of living crisis (Chazan & Felming, 2022). 

Indeed, Krastev and Leonard have argued that solidarity measures during COVID-19 resulted from necessity rather than choice (Krastev & Leonard, 2020). Specifically, any powers given to Brussels were ‘about strengthening rather than weakening national sovereignty’ through using EU power to reinforce national governments (Krastev & Leonard, 2020). This explains why national leaders often couch arguments about burden-sharing in terms of national interest, rather than shared European identity and solidarity. This exemplifies national leaders’ awareness of the relatively weak notions of European identity and solidarity among their populations, at least when it comes to difficult distributional questions. As mentioned in the example of Germany, Merkel was acutely aware that arguments based on German national interests would be more convincing than those based on the need for solidarity. 

A distinct, European identity and interest still seems far from reach. Efforts to cooperate in the context of crises have often been inflicted with internal divisions about the relative deservingness of support of each member state. When these kinds of efforts have been successful, it has largely been due to the ability of politicians to frame support in terms of national interest. It is certainly true that citizens increasingly identify as European, and European issues increasingly dominate national political discourse (Risse, 2014). However, a European identity strong enough to transcend national heterogeneity does not yet exist at scale. There is also an acute danger in the form of populist challengers for national political elites seeking to position themselves closer to Europe. Populists in many countries, including France and Germany, have capitalised on the perception that the domestic political class is preoccupied with European, not national, interests, leaving them the only ‘credible critics’ of the EU (Gryzmala-Busse, 2019) . European states retain different interests in a variety of issue-areas and political elites must also be careful to continue to centre national interests so that they are not perceived to be ‘abandoning’ their national populations. Thus, as long as political context and incentives remain this way, the prospects for a powerful European identity which can produce material acts of solidarity remain relatively low.


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