Pietro Naj-Oleari

Cultural differences between the people of Europe might constitute the main obstacle to the creation of a homogeneous European society. Historically this makes sense. Many leaders have tried to unite Europe and failed, for example Attila the Hun, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. Naturally, these leaders faced other challenges than the European Union is currently facing. However, all of them had and have to deal with a large amount of countries with different heritages, basic assumptions, values, and artifacts: culture.

What is culture?

“Cultural differences between the people of Europe might constitute the main obstacle to the creation of a homogeneous European society”

According to Schein, culture can be defined as a pattern of basic assumptions that have been invented, discovered, or developed by a given group. As the group learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, these assumptions have worked well enough to be considered valid. They are therefore taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. Problems of external adaptation refers to the manner in which external influences are handled, while internal integration refers to the internal processes within a group, including communication, language and group boundaries.

The definition of Schein theoretically explains the way culture is created and developed. Besides, the definition could provide insight into the reason why cultural differences within the European Union exist. To illustrate, as a specific country within the European Union solves a given problem that has arisen within that country, the manner in which the problem is solved worked well enough to be taught to new members of the group (i.e. newborns within that specific country). As a consequence, culture is created and strengthened because of the success of the solution and associated method or procedure. However, other countries within the European Union were no part of solving the problem, and were therefore not part of the learning curve. These countries face and solve problems in a different (successful) manner, causing the development of a different kind of culture. Naturally, the distribution of information and increasing cooperation within and between European Union members decreases the differences in learning curve, and thereby decreasing the cultural differences between countries of the European Union. However, changing culture is a slow process. Besides, being actively part of the learning curve is more effective than merely being informed about the learning curve.

In an international study, Hofstede found that differences in attitudes and cultures could be explained using four dimensions that are labeled: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism and masculinity. Power distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of a country expect power to be distributed equally. Uncertainty avoidance represents a country’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Individualism involves the degree to which individuals in a culture are expected to act independently of other members of the society. Lastly, masculinity refers to the extent of society expecting men to be more assertive and women to be more nurturing. The study of Hofstede is outdated, so precise values of countries within the four dimensions could have changed (Figure 1). However, the study and figure do show that cultural differences between countries exist.

Cultural differences eu commission

Figure 1 (Source: Hofstede 1983)

Change is difficult. Changing culture is even more difficult. In general, there are two reasons why people don’t change. First, people don’t know that they need to change: lack of knowledge. Second, people don’t care enough to change: lack of willpower. The way culture is created adds to these two basic premises. As described, culture includes basic assumptions concerning solutions to problems that have always worked in the past. Therefore, people will assume these basic assumptions will be just as effective in the future. As a consequence, one doesn’t have the knowledge of basic assumptions and solutions of other cultures, nor the willpower to explore these basic assumptions and solutions of other cultures.

In a 2006 study, Beugelsdijk, van Schaik and Arts show that two extreme points of view exist concerning the theoretically cultural changes in Europe. On the one hand, modernization theorists predict cultural convergence. On the other hand, culturalists argue that cultural differences between European regions are path dependent. The authors used existing measures of culture, and concluded that economic development is an important driver for changes in value and culture. However, cultural and/or religious heritage of countries leaves a permanent imprint. Besides, the research found that historical shocks such as economic crisis’s and wars influence the process of cultural change.

The study of Beugelsdijk et al. confirms the notion of the European Union that economic rationality facilitating the emergence of common views in other domains would logically lead to the creation of an entity resembling a United States of Europe. Economic downfall and recession did not contribute to the creation of common views. Rather, they questioned the performance and effectivity of the European Union. Therefore, one could argue that economic development is an important driver for changes in culture in favor of a collective European Union, whereas economic regression could lead to changes opposing the unification of European countries. Overall, the economy within the European Union have been steadily growing since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Cultural changes in favor of a collective European Union can be found. Still, a lot more progress could be made.

Implications for EU

“A mere 31% of people tend to trust the European Union”

Cultural differences play a key role in the creation of trust. Trust is built in different ways, and means different things around the world. Cultural differences and associated habits, assumptions and values can create misunderstandings between countries, reducing the amount of trust. According to the standard Eurobarometer 81 of July 2014, only 31% of people tend to trust the European Union (figure 2). The same document reports that 56% of the respondents do not trust the European Union at all. Changing culture is not easy. As described above, there are several ways to change culture. The Education, Audiovisual and Culture Agency Executive Agency (EACEA) is responsible for the management of most parts of the EU’s culture.

Schermafbeelding 2015-02-09 om 4.33.50 PMThe culture programme has been established to enhance the cultural area shared by Europeans, which is based on a common cultural heritage, through the development of cooperation activities among cultural operators from eligible countries, with a view to encouraging the emergence of European citizenship. To illustrate, the proposed EU spending on culture, or so-called ‘CreativeEurope’, is a modest €1.8 billion for the period 2014-2020, while the effects of those investments are unclear and hard to measure. It is questionable whether the benefits of creating a strong, new universal European culture would outweigh the costs and efforts that are needed for creating such a culture change.


Figure 2 (Source: European Commission, Spring 2014)