European Identity in the European Year of Youth: Who are the young ‘Europeans’?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has fuelled debate about who is ‘European’. Yet, European identity is an elusive construct. A European identity can offer a sense of belonging to a group larger than the nation, prompting solidarity with a larger collection of people. Youth are more likely to identify as European than their older counterparts; moreover, childhood and adolescence are crucial periods for identity development. Here, we synthesise research on the development of European identity across childhood, adolescence and young adulthood.

We conducted a Rapid Evidence Assessment of European identity in 4-25 year olds, to understand (1) how to measure European identity, and what (2) predictors and (3) outcomes are linked with youth’s European identity.

The REA included 11 papers from disciplines such as psychology, education and sociology. Across the studies, five themes summarised how European identity is defined and measured in young people (Figure 1). The Complexity of European identity is reflected in the lack of a consistent tool to measure European identity, and permeates the other themes. European identity is also Ascriptive, as youth choose to identify as such, in search of the sense of Belonging that it may bring. European identity is closely related to the EU motto, United in Diversity, as we see both Similarity – such as a shared culture, history, desires and political identity, and Difference – as national subgroups under the ‘European’ umbrella have different historical, cultural and linguistic roots; there is variation in who identifies as European.
But, how is a European identity fostered? What implications does a European identity bring for those youth who hold it dear?

School-based interventions and tailored curricula can contribute to stronger European identification among youth, though effects vary based on group membership and statusArtistic programmes give insight into European identity construction among younger children. Knowledge about Europe and the EU give rise to stronger European identification, though political trust and the benefits of EU membership are stronger influences. Cross-border experiences through travel and friendships, and higher socio-economic status contribute to stronger identification. In terms of the implications of European identity in youth, two main benefits have been identified: more positive intergroup attitudes and political participation.

There is a small but growing body of research on European identity among young people. Developing a measurement tool which taps into the complexities of the development of European identity is a fundamental next step in this research. Furthermore, only one study focused on youth under age 12, pointing to the need to study childhood. Given the promising findings of school-based interventions, and the effect of such a (potentially) unifying identity on social inclusion and political participation, this is an exciting area for future research for the 142 million young people living in Europe today.
Post by Isabelle Nic Craith and Laura K. Taylor.
Published on the Social Change Lab

*While working on this project, Isabelle Nic Craith was supported by an Enterprise Ireland grant [R23442] and a UCD Seed Funding grant [SF2025] to Laura K. Taylor