Finding political identities in Europe

Alistair RossAlistair Ross (© privat)
What are the political attitudes of young Europeans (12 - 20 years)? The current and future political and social participation of young people in the European project is critical to the long-term success of the Union. My qualitative study of the views of some 2000 young people, in over 100 locations across 29 EU and Candidate states, was through 350 group discussions about how they construct their political/locational identities.
  • Young people see attachment to their country as cultural rather than political: they largely reject outdated feelings of nationalism.
    • In France, Belgium and the Netherlands there were concerns about what constituted identity with the country.
    • In Germany, young people welcomed new Germans: this was reciprocated by those of migrant origin.
    • In eastern European countries, nationalism is now of less significance.
    • Nordic young people explicitly reject nationalism as racist: some were unwilling to admit to ‘pride’ in their country.
    • Young people in the Balkan states often felt ambivalent about the status and position of their country.
    • In the southern states of Italy, Portugal and Spain they felt stigmatised as underdeveloped.
    • These findings underscore the importance of recognising and responding to the political and cultural identities of marginalised groups (sometimes called ‘hard-to-reach’), as explored in the NECE hard-to-reach working group’s book Beyond Them and Us.[1]
  • In all countries, many young people referred to a Europe of human rights.

  • Initial doubts about a common European culture disappeared when asked about other political contexts. Referring to the values of democratic institutions and the denial of gay and LBGT rights made Europe political/cultural reality. An important way to mobilise young people’s sense of Europe is to focus on the extension of human rights.

  • Many were committed and empathetic to refugees and those of migrant descent. Living and being educated alongside those of different origins helped them appreciate cultural differences.

  • Most said that they talked primarily with parents and family, less so with friends, and few discussed these issues in school. There were rare exceptions where schools encouraged genuine debate.
We must change how we approach young Europeans about the nature of Europe – be less fact-based, more centred on issues that concern them, not rights achieved long ago. This means tackling controversial issues in a lively way that respects their views and opinions. Asking what they can do to effect change will lead to a more active consideration of political processes within Europe, and a greater commitment to future political involvement. Schools and teachers need a different approach to teaching and learning in this area.


Alistair Ross holds a Jean Monnet Chair in Citizenship Education in Europe and is Emeritus Professor, London Metropolitan University. He is a member of the NECE Working Group ALL=IN (formerly the Hard-to-Reach group, and co-editor of the NECE book Beyond Us versus Them (2016). The research outlined in this article is reported more fully in his two books, Understanding the Construction of Identities by young new Europeans: Kaleidoscopic identities (2015, Routledge) and Finding Political Identities: Young people in a changing Europe (2018, Palgrave Macmillan).


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