The significance of creating collective Identities for European policy-making

How is European identity constructed within the legal framework of the Erasmus Project?

Academic Paper, 2018

15 Pages, Grade: 7,5 (Niederländisches System)



The perception of a collective identity is of great significance for policy-making processes. This paper substantiates the following claims: collective identities are socially constructed and the political attention toward a shared European identity has steadily grown within the past decades. This shift is visible within the legal framework of the Erasmus project which has become the EU's flagship in terms of identity­shaping processes. While the 1987 decision on establishing Erasmus lacked indicators of an identity-shaping purpose the renewed Erasmus+ regulation puts a clear focus on the idea of creating a European mindset.

keywords: European identity, policy-making, social- constructivism, Erasmus, Bologna Declaration


As presented by the March 1, 2018 press release by the European Commission, the European Union budgets for 20,000 to 30,000 free inter rail passes for young Europeans in 2018. The intention of this project is straight-forward. By having the chance to explore Europe for 30 days young Europeans should encounter with different cultures and nations within Europe and by this acquire a European identity (European Parliament 2018; European Commission March 1, 2018). However, the plan of shaping the European identity by giving the possibility to go abroad for a certain period of time is not new. Its most prominent forerunner was implemented in 1987, legally legitimized by decision 87/327/EEC, and ever since then enabled more than 4.3 million young Europeans to study abroad (European Commission 2018) - speaking of Erasmus and its successor Erasmus+. Encountering with these models, however, raises the question why a collective European identity is of such significance for European Policy-Making. In the light of current setbacks on European integration (Financial Crisis, Migration 'Crisis', Brexit etc.) and a rising Euro­scepticism, addressing the very idea of a shared European identity appears more topical than ever.

In order to contribute to this debate, the following research paper aims to address how European identity is constituted within the legal framework of the Erasmus programmes and the Bologna Declaration as it had a substantial impact on the design of Erasmus+. Based on the assumption that European identity is socially constructed, I claim that the depiction of that concept has significantly changed from the 1987 Council Decision on the initial Erasmus Programme to the 2013 Regulation on establishing Erasmus+.

In order to account for this claim I will first provide a theoretical framework on the issue of collective identities, especially European identity, and critically engage with their significance in the daily political sphere. The following discourse analysis, then, examines the depiction of European identity in the Council Decision 15 June 1987 adopting the European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students (ERASMUS), the 1999 Bologna Declaration and the Regulation No 1288/2013 of 11 December 2013 on establishing 'Erasmus+'. I suggest, that there is a discursive shift from an almost exclusive economic focus towards a strong account on shaping a collective European identity and furthering European integration. These findings underline the general development of European integration from cooperation driven by economic benefits toward a European mindset. My findings, thus, indicate that the significance of European identity for the Erasmus project was the result of political spillover. I aim to set a starting point with this paper for further investigations on the causality between economic interest and the identity­shaping character of the project.

Section 1 - Theoretical Framework

The research approach of this paper is in line with sociological institutionalism while acknowledging constructivist thoughts on defining European Identity as a concept.

Institutionalism emphasizes the significance of international organizations and institutions in order to facilitate cooperation and regional integration (Keohane 1998, pp. 86ff.). In the case of the European Union this obviously is a central issue of daily policy-making processes. It furthermore, assumes that international communities are built on common values and norms, which shape a common identity (Kuhn 2012, pp. 996ff.). Sociological instititutionalism acknowledges the interconnectedness between community and identity (among a variety of other assumptions) (Schimmelfennig 2003, pp. 70ff.; appendix Figure 1). According to Frank Schimmelfennig,

Collective ideas play a central role in the sociological analysis of international institutions. 'Identity,' 'values,' 'norms,' 'rules,' 'culture,' and 'community' are the core concepts in which sociological institutionalist explanations are formulated." (Schimmelfennig 2003, p. 70)

These concepts are all related to one another in different respects. Identity, norms and values form a culture. A culture forms a community of actors with common values, norms and identity. Moreover, rules constitute institutionalized cultures and a community organization is the institutionalized form of a community (Schimmelfennig 2003, pp. 70ff.). Thus, in this respect, the European Union is a community organization based on a shared identity, shared values and norms. In this context, Deutsch develops an integration theory that emphasizes social exchange, communication and transactions (Deutsch in Kuhn 2012, pp. 996-97; Stone Sweet & Sandholtz 2014, p. 233). Accordingly, "...existing (national) communities were held together by a high degree of cohesion, mutual trust and feeling of collective identity generated by social, political and economic transactions" (Deutsch in Kuhn 2012, p. 996-97). In other words, increased transaction between states leads to "learning processes" (Deutsch in Kuhn 2012, p. 997) or what Zürn and Checkel call socialization: "[b]eing exposed to a certain set of institutions, they gradually adopt their values and norms" (Zürn & Checkel in Kuhn 2012, p.996)1.

Additionally, Kuhn defines collective identities as socially constructed, consisting of a collective and an individual part and as being multidimensional (cognitive and affective level). While the cognitive part of collective identities describes how we perceive ourselves as members of a group, the affective component refers to our attachment to a group. Thus "one need [sic!] not only to identify as, but also to identify with, the collective" (Kuhn 2012, p. 996). What is more, individuals possess multiple identities that may reinforce or crosscut one another, according to Smith (Smith in Höjelid 2001, p. 3). Thus, the value and emotional weight attached to an identity influences whether one acts according to, for example, one's national collective identity or one's supranational identity (Kuhn 2012, p. 996).

But what does identity mean after all? To answer this question I will first make use of identity theory as derived from social psychology and afterwards give an overview on constructivist thoughts on the issue.

Identity is always defined in context of the "self" and an "other" (Aronson et al. 2010, pp. 137ff.). This is in order to process the large amount of information humans have to process. In this respect, information are grouped in order to shape one's own identity. This then, results in a variety of groups the individual feels attached to, which are called in-groups and those that are acknowledged as the out-group. Defining one's identity via group membership is also what is present in the political sphere. What makes the concept of identification so powerful is defined as in-group bias or in-group prioritization. In-group bias describes the "positive feelings" that individuals have for members of their in-group. These feelings do not arise from any deeper attachment towards individual members but are solely created by the shared identification with the group. Moreover, feeling part of a group leads to higher acceptance of group decisions. In contrast, out-groups are perceived negatively (Aronson 2010, pp. 397ff.). This circumstance illustrates the significance for political actors to shape a common identity. In other words, the acceptance of a decision is in general much higher when the individuals addressed have the feeling of belonging to a group with a shared identity (Bucher & Jasper 2017, pp. 392ff.; Skonieczny 2001). In this respect, shaping a common European identity has the benefits of creating higher acceptance for European Union decisions and a higher acceptance for its legitimacy among its citizens. In case of the latter, Schneider explains,

The representatives of the people's political will need a 'metapolitical justification'. It must be explained that this state should exist. This explanation refers to the existence of a 'cultural nation' that now wants and deserves to constitute itself politically. (Schneider 1999, p.14)

Moreover, as Miller claims, "in acknowledging a [...] identity, I am also acknowledging that I owe special obligations to fellow members of my nations, which I do not owe to other human beings" (Miller in Höjelid 2001, p. 8). This sense of obligation does not only refer back to in-group and out­group dynamics as explained above, it also bears the possibility for political elites to instrumentalize these dynamics. "Elites can shape these constructions by actively employing symbols and narratives emphasizing commonalities and strategies of inclusion and exclusion, which strengthen the psychological existence of the collective" (Kuhn 2012, p. 996).

States or supranational institutions in this case, are highly dependent on public support in terms of introducing "painful policies" and whether their implementation will be sufficient (Korthals Altes 1999, p. 55). Especially for the European Union, this is of importance, since "the Union's very ability to survive, grow, act and succeed in its endeavours depends on it" (Jansen 1999, p. 27).

Having outlined the institutional setting, conditions, dynamics and political benefits of collective identities, the following section addresses a widely contested topic. There is widespread disagreement among academics on how to textually define European identity. This is first and foremost due to the fact that the collective identity is not static (Vignon 1999, p. 112; Korthals Altes 1999, p. 51, Wallace in Höjelid 2001, p. 3). According to Korthals Altes, "[i]dentity is subject to change. It is not [...] given for all time. It is something that grows or withers away" (Korthals Altes 1999, p.51). Wallace agrees with that and elaborates on European identity as follows,

They [identities] are to a great extent shaped 'by experience and social learning, by mutual interactions over time, by the imagery and persuasiveness of intellectual and political leaders, and by shifts perceived in the external environment. (Wallace in Höjelid 2001, p. 3)

With that in mind it appears impossible to provide a clear definition on European identity in its entireness. However, terms that ever so often reoccur in this context vary from "collective memory" (Schneider 1999, p. 16), "European spirit," (ibid. p. 14; Jansen 1999, p. 27) "agreement to disagree," (ibid. p. 15) "unity in diversity" (Korthals Altes 1999, p. 51) to Jacques Delors' famous question on the "heart and soul" (Delors in Korthals Altes 1999, p. 53) of Europe. Even others claim that the idea of a common European identity is nothing but ideology created for the sole purpose of political instrumentalization (Barraclough in Schneider 1999, p. 15, Bryder 1999, p.39). Due to the scope of this paper, I will not investigate on this position in any more depth; however, there are points worth to discuss on that account and further research might help to shape a better understanding of such an abstract concept as European identity.

In sum, the concept of European identity is complex and it is hardly possible to define it.


1 In her analysis Kristine Mitchell (2012 and 2015) gives an interesting approach on how to measure these identity-shaping processes by testing whether individual perceptions of Eurpeanness have increased after participating in the Erasmus Programme. Theresa Kuhn (2012) takes it a step further by claiming that Erasmus primarily addresses those who are already very likely to have established a European mindset. It might thus be of relevance to draw a connection between findings on the discursive construction of European identity within the programme's legal framework and its actual impact on participants and non-participants.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The significance of creating collective Identities for European policy-making
How is European identity constructed within the legal framework of the Erasmus Project?
University of Groningen
European Policy-Making
7,5 (Niederländisches System)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
european identity, identity politics, european integration, European Union, policy-making, social constructivism, Erasmus, Bologna Declaration
Quote paper
Elena Mertel (Author), 2018, The significance of creating collective Identities for European policy-making, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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