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Jamie Bartlett and Alessandro Bonzio on Changing European Identity One Status At A Time

10th October 2013

Photo by Johan Larsson (Flickr)

Jamie Bartlett is the Head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos. He holds Masters degrees from the London School of Economics and Oxford University. A frequent commenter in British media, his primary research interests are terrorism, extremism, and the role of social media in politics. The article was co-authored by Alessandro Bonzio, a Masters degree candidate at King's College London, and Research Intern at Demos.

Many commentators believe that the lack of a strong European identity is an obstacle on the path towards more fruitful integration. Surveys such as the Eurobarometer poll consistently find that significant share of the European public does not self-identify as European. There are lots of reasons for this – and not all of them bad of course. Despite growing efforts to harmonise legal and economic systems – identity is much more than just technocratic measures or policies. And the continent lacks a single, unique historical and cultural tradition. Contemporary events such as the economic crisis have also dented the appeal of the European project to many, and caused rifts between some Southern and Northern member states. The growth of populist anti-Europeanist parties and movements across Europe – from both sides of the spectrum – partly reflects growing discontent about a perceived democratic deficit at the the European level.

But recent technological advances might help create a new type of European identity.  One thing European citizens do share is social media.  Close to 350 million people in Europe currently use social networking sites: that’s three in four EU citizens.  Facebook has 232 million users from the EU; and 16 per cent of European Internet users have a Twitter account.  The spread of these platforms is altering the way European issues are being discussed. Unlike a decade ago, a public space is now more easily available to citizens willing to learn about and discuss issues beyond national borders, at essentially no cost.  As we argue in our forthcoming Demos work Vox Digitas, these new spaces are increasingly significant for political organisation and engagement too.

We may be seeing early signs of this dramatic change. Both the Pirate Party and Beppe Grillo’s  ‘5 Stars Movement’ in Italy have used social media to reach beyond their natural political stomping ground. Founded in Sweden in 2006, Pirate Parties have spread across Europe and now target the European public as a whole.  In 2010, they created Pirate Party International, an umbrella organisation responsible for fostering coordination and communication between the party’s various branches, and a European Pirate Party will be running at the 2014 European elections. (This may be the first genuine European wide political party). While Beppe Grillo has focused more on Italy, his support extends beyond the country: he has successful ‘Meet up Groups’ in several European cities, 9,000 Facebook supporters based in the UK and 6,800 in Germany.    

Social media also means it is now possible (or easier at least) to engage in cross-border, real-time discussions about politics and political events. On September 26th, Mr Barilla, president of the multinational pasta-producing company Barilla, gave an interview in which he made a series of controversial remarks, declaring that he would never portray a gay family in one of his TV advertisements, and inviting gay people to ‘eat someone else’s pasta’ if they do not like his company’s communication style. The story – and a hashtag campaign #boycottBarilla – quickly spread across Italy, and then into English and French, with thousands across the continent joining, and tweeting:  “If gays do not agree, they can still eat another pasta brand.’ So can straight people”. Eventually, the scope of the protests forced Mr. Barilla to publicly apologise for his remarks in the form of a YouTube video posted on the company’s Facebook page.  (Which was then, predictably, spoofed).   

It is still early days. Politics is at least partly about identity and belonging, and that can’t simply be willed into existence. Laws that harmonise trading might be useful, but don’t capture the imagination in the same way a national football team does. But research also finds activism and engagement is a crucial way a feeling of belonging is formed. Social media are opening a new space for European citizens to discuss issues and make their voice heard. On that front, a European identity might arrive sooner than you think. 

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