Skip to main content

'Feeling European'. The Visual Construction of EU Identity.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EVI ('Feeling European'. The Visual Construction of EU Identity.)

Reporting period: 2015-08-01 to 2017-07-31

This project seeks to reform the symbols of Euro currency.

For three reasons, the EU’s current symbols are no longer capable of eliciting European-ness. First, existing icons are inadequate vehicles for expressing the project of European unity as they are backwards-looking, appealing to a manufactured myth or an archaic vision of European-ness defined by Cold War ideology. Second, existing icons were almost exclusively selected by elite policymakers decades in the past: with the expansion of the EU in the 1990s and 2000s, both geographically and socially as the Union encompassed more peoples and grew from a distant economic entity to a fact of daily life for its citizens (particularly through currency), the Union’s symbols were (and are) frequently interpreted by citizens and policymakers as unwelcome interlopers, symbols of the EU’s democratic deficit and apparent erosion of national identity and national sovereignty. Related to this problem is that the EU’s current symbolic identity is backwards-looking; using symbols which appeal to an imagined unity in history (a unity which never existed) rather than embracing Europe’s diversity and looking forward to what the EU will become in the future. Third, the EU’s current symbols are incapable of appealing to emotions and fostering affiliation to the Union as current icons belong to the realm of ‘heroic European-ness’: official symbols which are intended to behave like the traditional symbols of nation-states. This barely functions for a national identity based in an imagined ethnic, primordial unity, and cannot possibly work in a supranational entity such as the EU, which is far too young to have acquired the necessary myth for people to emotionally identify with it. Subsequently the EU’s symbols must compete with national symbols. This is a battle which EU symbols inevitably lose, as a common European identity does not exist. The election of a largely Eurosceptic Parliament in 2014 demonstrated the extent to which citizen identification with the EU is eroding. The spectre of Grexit, public hostility, the Spanish banking crisis, ongoing Eurozone protests, objections to TTIP and CETA, a surge in anti-EU populist politicians, and the threat of a second migration crisis if Turkey suspends its deal with the EU, are all related symptoms of a ‘general crisis’ of the European Union. One important theme running through this is a lack of public support for the EU – either apathy or outright hostility – among national populations. This is mediated through symbols. Formal, rational politics cannot compete with the emotional, symbolic, fundamentally arational politics of symbols and visual language. Emotion is not an adjunct of politics but the very foundation, and it is through symbols that citizens’ emotions are funnelled into political behaviour and a sense of European-ness. Political activity is not defined by purely rational thought, and particularly in the context of a supranational entity whose governance remains distant from citizens, ‘political life is rooted in the manipulation of symbols’. EU policymakers continue to assume that a European identity will emerge as a consequence of functionalist spillover and consequently, studies on political identity consider symbols to be ‘something of a quaint survival, a bit of puffery that has little influence on the real stuff of contemporary politics’. At the heart of this problem is the neofunctionalist assumption that the EU’s current symbols, and their deployment, follows the national pattern and the assumption that an identity will ‘spill over’ from integration. This is demonstrably not the case. EU policymakers want to give the EU ‘a soul’; a political rallying-point which appeals to Europeans’ emotions, expressed in symbols of what it means to be “European”. But this soul cannot be manufactured from abstract emblems. Faced with pressures that encourage Europeans to reaffirm their nat
Work Performed:
A comprehensive study of Euro symbols has not been performed, and existing academic studies are either connected to the politics of the Eurozone more broadly, or are interpretive studies of what symbols might mean. My research began with analysing the Europe-wide competition held in 1994-5 to decide a set of new symbols for the new currency. Beginning with an analysis of what the early Commission’s objectives and parameters for entries were, I performed a qualitative documentary analysis of minutes of meetings and EU white papers from 1994-5 on the desired focus and parameters of the new currency designs. I then examined not only the submissions to the contest, using a critical semiological methodology, but also examined the data from a Eurostat poll conducted in 1996 to determine public responses to the winning design. The project and its early theoretical findings were communicated through several written papers, a number of speaking engagements to academic and civil society audiences, and finally to a Brussels conference uniting academics, policymakers, think-tanks, and civil groups.

During this first phase of the project, no personal data was gathered and the research focussed on textual analysis of documents and statistical data.
"Socio-Economic Impact and Societal Implications:
This project focused on reforming the Union’s symbols to better reflect what it means to be a “European” and encourage greater emotional identification with the pan-European project. The current iconography on Euro banknotes was designed to appeal to a sense of “Europe” being everywhere, through maps, unreal architecture, and abstract symbols. This iconography has not been reformed in 15 years. In an era of austerity and Euroscepticism, the Euro itself has become a symbol of problems, and with no “real” cultural symbols with which people can emotionally identify, the Euro has moved further towards what Fareed Zakaria called “Money for Mars”. With European citizens’ trust in the legitimacy of the Union shaken by economic crises, perceived political impotence to internal demands and international insecurity, and the social impacts of austerity, the EU’s legitimacy is increasingly challenged. If the EU is to win back public support and trust in the face of public hostility and growing euroscepticism, the relationship between EU and citizen must be reformed. This relationship is built not through EU legal procedures, but through visual communication in everyday life. Simultaneously, the expansion of communications technologies is enhancing the ‘ocularisation’ of European society, constructing an imagined community created via visual communication. As all communication is symbolic, composed of abstract sounds and arbitrary pictograms which convey meaning (meaning which is established only through social convention) the EU’s symbols convey distinct political meanings. However, the meaning conveyed by the EU’s current symbols is not agreed through social convention but imposed from above. For EU policymakers, these symbols communicate the very concept of a united Europe. But for Europeans who interact with these symbols in everyday life, different meanings can influence political behaviour among EU citizens. The intention of this project is no less than to recommend a new set of symbols which express the full diversity of what it means to be a ""European"".