Johanna Nyman’s first political memory is joining her grandmother in the voting booth during the Finnish referendum in 1995. She was five years old and, as she recalls, quite nationalistic.
“I was fiercely opposing Finnish EU membership, really fiercely, and I went into the voting booth together with my grandmother and we voted against,” she said, “and I was so furious with my parents who voted for EU.”
Nyman changed her mind as she traveled with school groups and camps throughout Europe. Now 25, she serves as president of the European Youth Forum, a platform that represents 99 youth-focused organizations in Europe.
“This generation is the most European ever,” Nyman said. “Looking at a lot of young Europeans doing exchanges, studying in a different country, knowing people from different parts of Europe,—all of these things, being very mobile—it’s crucial that there are people who are not locked behind national borders.”
Across Europe, stories like Nyman’s abound. Everyone I interviewed speaks at least their native language and English. Many speak three, four or even five languages in varying levels of fluency, picking up terms and phrases here and there with an enviable ease. Even those who claim their national origin as their primary sense of identity readily and easily pass between geographic borders for work, leisure, and love.
Like many Americans, who identify themselves by their state when in the United States or by their country when traveling abroad, many young Europeans use multiple identifiers, depending on their audience, with a concept of identity that expands and contracts contextually.
“I like to identify globally, or as a citizen of Earth,” said Vanja Smailović, 27, an IT engineer at Ericsson, and a PhD Candidate at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. “But if I must, I’d like to identify as an European first and finally, Croatian.”
“Whilst in Poland, I identify myself as the citizen of the world,” said Lidia Przybysławska, 32, a senior marketing & account manager for a travel social network company. “Although whenever I travel, I do like to highlight my country origins, despite Poland being still recognized mostly for vodka, cold weather, and long years under German and Russian influence and communism.”
Przybysławska said she personally hates vodka and can’t remember a winter less than negative five degrees Celsius, but the stereotypes remain. “I find it funny and a result of narrowed thinking.”
Fabian Weiss, 28, a freelance photographer from Germany, has lived and studied in Austria, Denmark and the UK. For the past year and a half, he has been living in Estonia and travels frequently throughout the continent. He speaks multiple languages, but Estonian is not one. This language barrier has made it difficult for him to feel he is truly part of the culture.
“I’ve thought about that question (of identity) before over and over again,” he said. “And I guess that I come to the conclusion that I am both European and also Allgäuer, the region where I grew up and a term for the geographical area. I guess this is because the place is just so beautiful and I identify a lot with it in terms of outdoor activities and culture and food.”
Scott De Buitléir, 27, is a public relations and media professional in Dublin. Except for six months living in Northern Ireland, he has lived in Ireland his entire life and travels frequently to England, where his Irish partner lives.
“I identify as Irish first and European second, though I believe that identity would be quite relative,” he said. “For instance, Irish vs. English, or European vs. American, etc. I’m British-born, though I wouldn’t use my birthplace as an identifier.”
More than these narrow categories, De Buitléir also identifies with the gay community and with a community of Irish-Gaelic speakers.
Asking people in their twenties and early thirties if they consider themselves European or nationals didn’t yield simple answers, and few people who identify nationally first consider themselves locked behind borders.
Those interviewed who identified the most strongly as European were, not coincidentally, the ones who traveled the most frequently or had lived or attended school in a country not their own.
“If I put myself into the condition of a young person from Italy who has never got out of his region – and this is probably the majority of people, especially in the south – I can see that, in his perspective, Europe doesn’t mean anything, as he has never actually seen any of it,” said Fabrizio Varriale, 31, an architect and PhD student.
It is one thing to be exposed to different countries in Europe due to schooling, job opportunities, or travel with friends or colleagues. It is another when someone is forced to leave their country due to a common problem affecting many young people. High rates of unemployment, underemployment, or unpaid work such as internships are examples of causes of forced migration.
“The EU, as an economic entity, seems to have not understood the whole consequences of this phenomenon,” he said. “Also I really believe that all the positive aspects of the EU don’t count for nothing, if then we have to witness the decline of countries such as Greece because of badly planned economic integration at the EU level.”
Ivana Stupar, 26, is a software engineer and PhD student in Croatia, the EU’s newest member state, although not yet in the Schengen area or on the euro.
“I see the Europe and the EU as two distinctive terms,” she said. “For me, the term Europe is primarily referring to a geographic region — a continent together with all the non-EU countries — and its culture. A great example would be Switzerland, a non-EU country at the very heart of the continent for which I wouldn’t even think for a second if it is Europe or not. The EU, however, has strictly political and economical connotations for me.”
She says that Croatia joining the union in 2013 has not changed her perspective, or for that matter, had much of an impact on her at all.
“I feel that it is slightly easier to get a job in EU countries — from a bureaucratic aspect, at least. On the other hand, I personally don’t see any drastic changes from a perspective of a person working in an IT field. For us, it has always been a bit easier to find a job abroad,” Stupar said.
How she identifies herself depends on the context: “Within a group of people from Europe, I will identify as Croatian, but when talking to someone from USA, I commonly identify as European.”
While Croatia joining the EU may have brought the state closer to its fellow members, it also served to highlight the differences between Croatia and its former Yugoslav neighbors.
“It may be idealist to say so, but I think the only way to have peace in the Balkans, lasting, true peace, is to eliminate all the borders,” said Sebastian Serifovic, deputy mayor of the municipality of Gracanica, a small town twenty minutes outside of the national capitol of Pristina. “When the borders are closed, it fosters an unhealthy sense of nationalism.”
Serifovic is a proud Roma and works with the local population on housing, education, employment, and social justice issues. He said an exaggerated sense of nationalism has isolated the Roma community, which is already ostracized, disparaged, and suffering from higher levels of unemployment, a lack of education, and a sense of belonging. For them, choosing a national or international identity is a luxury they are not allowed.
“I feel like I belong to my parents, my family, my community,” Serifovic said. “But do I feel like I belong to Kosovo? No.”
That sense of isolation, of not belonging to a country or a continent, is common among Romans, who often must decide between living openly as Roma, and facing discrimination and prejudice, or choosing not to identify as Roma and living apart from their community.
“Talking in general for the both groups, Roma youth more often and often are choosing to leave the country in which they face this discrimination and to start living abroad where no one would be interested in his or her identity and would not be able to recognize the Roma-roots only by seeing the color of his or her skin,” said Viktoria Petrova, 36, the national coordinator of the Hungarian Roma Education Fund in Bulgaria, and Bulgarian by birth. “So, the new challenges are how these people become part of the new societies in which they go live.”
Like Nyman, at age five, nearly everyone wanted to provide input on their country was represented at the broader European level. Almost everyone interviewed, who was entitled, said they participate in European elections, citing a desire to have an impact, however small. However, this is in marked contrast to the overall voter participation in the most recent election in 2014, which saw low turnout in the youth vote.
According to a report from the League of Young Voters called “Addressing Youth Absenteeism in European Elections,” 64 percent of 15 to 34 year olds abstained, of which 71 percent of those under 25 abstained, falling to 58 percent for those between 25 and 34. Also, according to a report by the European Parliament’s public opinion monitoring unit, the youngest Europeans are more positive about the European Union than the oldest, even though far fewer of them turned out to vote.
“As Bulgarian, for me, it is very important who will represent my country on the EU-level,” Petrova said. “who will speak out for the important issues in Bulgaria and the people who will put the minorities topic on the European Parliament agenda.”
“Basically I voted because I think that I would like to vote where ever possible, as I cannot stand the people just complaining and then not going to the polls,” Weiss said.
“I voted simply because every vote counts,” Przybysławska said. “If we have the right to vote, we should.”
“I see voting as a civic duty, especially when many had to fight for their right to vote,” De Buitléir said. “I see the voting for the European Parliament as of equal importance to voting for the Irish Parliament.”
Nyman, whose vote at five years old had no impact in the Finnish referendum, said the beautiful thing about young people today is their ability to change their mind, as she did when she embraced Finnish membership in the EU.
“I do believe that young people can change a lot when it comes to their perception of the national or the European identity, and many people do have multiple identities. Meaning, not only that they are European, or in my case Finnish, you can have a regional identity, and then all of the other aspects as well,” Nyman said. “To say either European or national, I think for today’s youth in Europe, it is not really the case.”
Molly McCluskey is a freelance foreign correspondent who lives in Europe and the U.S. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.