Careering around Europe- National identity and the EU referendum

I am currently working in Kosovo on a project to develop the use of ICT in education. Working in an international team is always interesting but this time I have been asked about the UK’s referendum on European membership by my European colleagues. There seems to be an acknowledgement that there is a strong chance that the UK voters may vote to leave. I have been asked about my own views.

As a researcher, teacher and consultant in the field of career development I spend some time thinking about identity and a recent project on national identity teaching in Abu Dhabi gave me cause to reflect on my own national identity. It was put to me whilst in the UAE that my national identity was clear. I disagree. I think my own identity is far harder to pin down than you might imagine. I have wondered whether thinking through my feelings on my own national identity might help me think through my views on the EU referendum. Here goes!

What is national identity?

National identity is a social construct. One’s national identity refers to a sense of belonging to one state or one nation defined by shared culture, values, language and politics. It is not the same as nationality which is about one’s legal status.

Certainly working in Kosovo raises one’s awareness of the struggle that some countries have endured in order to define themselves as a nation and to develop a sense of national identity. Kosovo at various times in its history has been occupied by Greeks, Romans, Ottomans, and Communists and most people will be aware of the recent conflict with Serbia. The New born installation in the centre of Pristina is a testament to this struggle and the newly defined nation which is still yet to receive global recognition.

New born installation in Pristina Kosovo


What is my national identity?

This is a complicated question. I am all of the following:

  • English
  • A UK citizen
  • A resident of both Great Britain and the British Isles
  • A European

In fact my passport suggests that I am a citizen of the European Union, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. These all shape who I am. If I am asked to describe what group or groups I belong to I would be tempted to say one or all of these depending on who is asking the question.

Much of the rhetoric about the EU referendum focuses on our differences and not on our similarities. My sense of belonging as a European often focusses on my love of music, food, literature, and the Arts. On arriving in a new European country I always make a beeline for the local museums, music venues and restaurants and I often bring home recipes and ways of preparing food which are integrated into my family cooking.

In terms of values, I am a strong believer in freedom of speech and democratic ideals. I describe myself as an Anglican Christian but religious tolerance is one of my tenets. I am often found visiting Synagogues, Mosques and Cathedrals in other EU countries. I never feel different from my European colleagues because of any difference in values.

My language is English but I recognise that my version of the spoken language is only one version. The United States and Europe both have their own versions of my mother tongue which have their own unique colloquialisms and spellings of familiar words. English is an international language and not uniquely spoken by English people. Nothing non-European about that then!

And politics? I find it hard to differentiate English politics from that of UK politics even though my Scottish and Welsh  colleagues have a more consistent view of Scottish and Welsh nationhood. I find it hard to see what is uniquely English about living in England.  I do believe we are stronger as an island nation together and not separate. I confess to not really ever having thought too much about the system of European politics. Brussels has always seemed a bit remote and a little bit irrelevant other than when common agricultural policy has raised its head. My European colleagues always seem to be more tuned in to what is happening in Brussels. I do understand that this is my problem and probably a symptom of being a resident of an island nation which hovers around the edge of the continent rather than at the heart of the beast. I don’t believe that political union with other European nations would give me a greater sense of being a European than I already feel.

So where does this leave me in terms of the referendum?

I think I could still be a ‘European’ without being a member of the EU. Leaving the EU would not really change the culture, values, or language which I share with my European colleagues. Leaving the EU would almost certainly alter the political structure as expressed through other elements of my national identity. Leaving Europe would inevitable change the political structure of the UK with Scotland demanding a further referendum on their UK membership. I would have to re-think what it would mean to be uniquely English. Leaving Europe would inevitable change the economy of both the EU and the UK, but we would all recover in time.

In the end it boils down to this

  •  I don’t particularly want to use the Euro as my currency.
  • I don’t particularly want to change the status of the UK and the Shengen agreement.
  • I don’t want greater political union with other European countries.
  • I do not want to lose my identity as an English woman and a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.


  •  I do want to exist in a Europe which is tolerant of my differences as well as recognising my similarities.
  • I do want to continue to enjoy a European lifestyle defined by shared cultures and values
  • I do want to continue to work with my European colleagues on knowledge transfer and developing communities of practice.
  • I do want to be more actively engaged in understanding European politics and might even revisit my school girl French and German and even learn Spanish or Italian (I have been threatening this for ages!) in the future so that I feel a greater sense of integration with other European colleagues.

I hope that the EU leaders and member of the EU parliament can find a way to give us all of these things

I will then be voting to stay in Europe.