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Is It Possible, In the Age of the EU, to Truly Have ‘A Community of Europeans?’

The idea of Europe has several meanings. Most obviously, it can stand for the landmass to the West of Asia, but recently Europe has also come to signify the European Community, and for many this is now its primary definition. In A Community of Europeans? Transnational Identities and Public Spheres, Thomas Risse sets out to examine the extent to which this is the case, and to question whether there is such a thing as a European identity that can be recognised throughout the continent.

His theoretical starting point is Benedict Anderson’s notion of the imagined community. This was how Anderson described nation states, but Risse takes the concept a stage further by suggesting that Europe can be thought of in this way. The imagined community of the nation is something that is very concrete; most people have a definite set of concepts that they associate with their country. The wider imagined community that Risse introduces here is less clearly defined. From some of the data presented in this book we learn that there is a not inconsiderable number of Europeans who do not have a clear conception of what it means to be European.

We might conclude that these people are not strictly European, and this would not be deviating too far from Risse’s understanding of Europeanness. He examines the proportion of nationals of certain countries who consider themselves primarily citizens of their particular country, and the number of those who identify foremost as European. The latter group form a very small minority; this is no surprise at all from my British perspective, but then, the United Kingdom has a lower level of identification with the European Community than any other country in Europe.

Risse attempts to identify what causes some members of the European Community to be more nationalistic than others, but his findings are essentially inconclusive. For example, the case of the UK shows that length of EU membership does not necessarily lead to a greater feeling of Europeanness. Although Risse cites media engagement with the EU, and the extent to which countries promote their involvement with Europe, as catalysts for European identification amongst national populations, the disparity in feeling between countries suggests that these would not be sufficient in swaying opinions.

There are many statistics presented in this book and, as an overview of how European people consider themselves, it is certainly comprehensive. Despite this, more time could have been devoted to the effects of European identity. There is, however, a section on the consequences of European identification, in which Risse addresses first issues of ‘deepening’, or become more involved with Europe, and then concerns around ‘widening’, or the expansion of Europe’s borders.

The second of these concepts is most interesting, since this book comes at a time when the boundaries of Europe are changing. As Risse points out, the number of EU member states has more than doubled since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the entry in the past decade of the formerly communist Eastern European countries has undoubtedly had an impact on the make-up of Europe and the ways in which its inhabitants perceive it.

We can expect to see such changes continuing in the near future: Albania, Montenegro and Serbia have submitted applications to join the EU and look set to become part of Europe in terms of community as well as landmass. The remaining Western Balkan countries – Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Macedonia – are also likely to become members, and widely-held perceptions that this region remains unstable mean that there is controversy attached to these plans.

More controversial still is the case of Turkey, which is primarily located within the geographical borders of Asia, and which is generally regarded as being beyond the boundaries of Europe. Should Turkey be admitted into the EU, then Europe’s boundaries will change significantly and any collective European identity will also surely change.

As such, Risse’s book comes at something of an awkward time. It’s arguable that the parameters of Europe have always been constantly shifting, but the recent influx of new EU member states means that this seems to be a time of more pronounced change than usual. While a study into the nature of European identity is a worthwhile project, this climate of change means that it’s difficult to take Risse’s findings to heart.

The many different types of European that feature here – from the highly nationalistic British to the citizens of new member states keen to feel integrated in Europe – confirm the great diversity that can be found within the EU. However, this level of diversity means that it is difficult to make a case for a specifically European identity.

RATING 6 / 10