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In the age of the politics of emotions, the feeling of belonging has a lot to do with individual experiences. Confidence in the future, or the perception of lack of opportunities, can be a determining factor in a citizen’s relationship with their community or the level of trust citizens have in the institutions governing their lives. These lived experiences also shape the feeling of belonging to the European Union - particularly within the context of European crises. 

Every recent crisis that affected the EU since the early 2010´s – be it the Euro crisis, the so-called refugee crisis of 2015, or the Covid-19 pandemic – has left an imprint on European politics and on citizens’ experiences. Each one of these periods of distress and urgency surfaced a growing awareness of the increasing inequalities and lack of opportunities affecting citizens in the EU. In every one of these moments, at least some Europeans felt left behind and othered. 

Crises have made existing divides more salient. Often, they have been explained through geographical divisions, feeding the long-extant narrative of the EU’s internal divides. The North-South divide has been used to explain differences on economic or material issues; the East-West divide explains divisions on post-material values such as openness to migration and defence of democratic principles. In opposition to developing a sense of unity, these unwritten dynamics of internal clashes and cleavages ended up feeding discontent.

Periphery ... reflects the distance between some countries or regions and the core of decision-making power

At the same time, in every one of these crises, political entrepreneurs promoted exclusionary narratives that challenge the consensus and the complex links connecting citizens with opposing identities, and within multiple institutions, societies, and territories. These divisive narratives, used strategically for short-term political gains, also triggered processes of othering among Europeans – with the effect of pitting groups against each other. It is in this context, for example, that far right parties across the EU have used othering narratives that instrumentalise migrants as scapegoats for political gains. 

However, the process of othering goes far beyond the far right’s discourse. This article points to the unequal relations affecting not only citizens, but also at the level of governance in the European Union. These unequal relations can be seen at different levels of this multiscale Europe. For that reason, the authors use the notion of periphery not only in a purely geographical sense, meaning a divide between the core EU (Germany, France and the Benelux) and Southern and Eastern Europe. Periphery, as used here, also reflects the distance between some countries or regions and the core of decision-making power, taking into account other factors like demography, economic prospects, and rights or inclusion, to highlight communities that may feel excluded or alienated within a society. 

According to Kukovec (2014), even if “the position of the EU’s periphery is not reflected in the existing EU legal discourse”, there are economic, social, and development level differences influencing hierarchies and dynamics of domination among EU Member States. This relationship between the centre and the periphery can be reproduced also within every EU country.

How are EU institutions responding to this? The Covid-19 pandemic could be considered a turning point after a long inward period of multiple crises. In the wake of the pandemic, there is a new narrative emerging at the EU level in favour of a “just transition” that aims to mitigate the impact of the economic, labour, and digital changes ahead–with a view to reducing the feeling of being left behind. This discourse has been reinforced with new financial tools. Can this process help to rebuild a feeling of belonging to the European Union for those at the social or the geographical peripheries during more than a decade of crisis?

Building on the othering and belonging framework

According to powell and Menendian (2016), othering is “a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities”; and clarify that “dimensions of othering include, but are not limited to, religion, sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (class), disability, sexual orientation, and skin tone”. Moreover, “‘othering’ is a broadly inclusive conceptual framework that captures expressions of prejudice and behaviours such as atavism and tribalism, but it is also a term that points toward deeper processes at work, only some of which are captured by those terms”. They recognize that “‘othering’ is a broadly inclusive term, but sharp enough to point toward a deeper set of dynamics, suggesting something fundamental or essential about the nature of group-based exclusion”.

This article embraces this definition but aims to add another layer to the framework in order to go beyond the differences based on traditional group identities. The authors want to explore how geographical and social divides can activate an othering process, and whether a mutual feeling of being left behind can actually be a foundation for building a notion of common destiny – even among diverse social groups.

The EU’s political identity is always in-the-making, and with every interregional divergence this multilevel construction is affected by the imbalances and the political disruptions that they may bring.

For powell and Menendian, “the term ‘belonging’ connotes something fundamental about how groups are positioned within society, as well as how they are perceived and regarded. It reflects an objective position of power and resources as well as the intersubjective nature of group-based identities” (2016). Belonging is “perceptual, laying in the eye of the beholder. (…) [It] contains a psychological component — an affective component, which shapes the way social groups regard whatever it is they are regarding, an institution, a city, or even society writ large” (2022). This means that “if someone feels like they belong, then belonging exists; and this works the other way around”; but as the authors recognize, belonging demands agency and it is “realized fully when included groups (…) are actually able to reshape the institution together with existing stakeholders” (2022).

We posit that political parties, governments, and also supranational entities such as the European Union, are agents that (can) foster belonging. According to Arias Maldonado (2016), no political community is capable of enduring solely on the rational agreement of its members, and those communities that have somewhat tried, such as the European Union, have seen its architectural stability tremble when tensions between the national and continental dimensions arise.

The EU’s political identity is always in-the-making, and with every interregional divergence this multilevel construction is affected by the imbalances and the political disruptions that they may bring. This is aggravated if the EU’s normative discourse on belonging and common identity falls short in delivering meaning and comfort in moments of great vulnerability and emotionality.

Critical discourse is needed. But as Koschut (2018) states, certain uses of emotional words or emotion-generating-referrals delineate social circumstances of belonging, inclusion and in-group affiliations – while others acknowledge animosity, otherness, and exclusion. This is why governments and political parties are agents and subjects of both othering and belonging. As with fostering ‘othering’, belonging can also be mobilised in an exclusionary way to gain political benefits by calling out the wrongs of the other while reinforcing the cohesion and loyalty of the in-group that one belongs to. For communities that feel left out, political entrepreneurs might attempt to create a feeling of belonging that is built on excluding and attacking an “other.”

We argue that national governments and governing political parties in the European Union have been playing a rhetorical game instrumentalising othering process towards other EU Member States, and also against EU institutions, in order to obtain national political gains. This was evident during the confrontation between debtor and creditor countries during the financial crisis, and in the clash between the Hungarian government and the European Commission about the reallocation of refugees who arrived in the EU after the summer of 2015. In these cases, the framing of a certain belonging narrative was, at the same time, a divisive discourse reinforcing disuniting views and alienating certain political camps and citizens.

For communities that feel left out, political entrepreneurs might attempt to create a feeling of belonging that is built on excluding and attacking an “other.”

In this framework, the othering process of one group reinforces the feeling of belonging in another, and the other way around. Triggering belonging will not necessarily mean a positive outcome and will not always be intended as a solution to revert othering processes; on the contrary, it is used as a political strategy. However, this does not mean that fostering belonging cannot be an optimal solution to heal ever-increasing divided societies. Fostering belonging can also be promoted by supra-national organisations, governments, and political parties even if it is not intended to target a particularly marginalised group.

The Left-Behinds

In recent years, a series of crises (Euro crisis, solidarity-refugees, Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic) have exacerbated divisions that had never been reconciled: religion, race, citizenship status, age, or the rural-urban and central-periphery divide. This aggregation of different cleavages has been reinforcing what we call the new-old social divide; a cleavage that goes beyond the traditional class divisions and brings together those who perceive themselves as left-behinds – those fearing lack of opportunities or leaving in so-called “places that don’t matter” (Rodríguez-Pose, 2017). 

Without being fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis, the left-behinds, also referred to as the “invisible class”, the “precariat” or “the popular working classes”, had to face the unequal impacts of a digitization process that has been rapidly changing labour markets, commerce, and access to education. The Covid-19 pandemic, on both the health and economic fronts, accelerated this transformation, affecting households with lower incomes particularly badly. For more than a decade, fears have been overlapping.  All of these changes fuelled individual and collective uncertainties, like the fear around the obsolescence of certain types of jobs, about unequal recoveries, and the uneasiness towards the future. 

Meanwhile certain actors, such as far right political parties, governments trying to introduce unpopular measures, or technological companies, feed and stoke fear, instrumentalise it politically, or take advantage of it economically. All these are strongly felt in Southern Europe, but not only. 

This paper aims to explain (a) the othering and belonging processes around territorial and social divides; and (b) how shared experiences of vulnerabilities and opportunities in Southern Europe could help to build a common approach of belonging to the EU.

[T]he left-behinds ... had to face the unequal impacts of a digitization process that has been rapidly changing labour markets, commerce, and access to education.

Geographical divides as the discursive explanation to crises

The EU has experienced or is experiencing a series of crises that have questioned the very core of what it means to have a shared sense of belonging. Starting in 2008, the financial crash evolved into a debt crisis that resulted in a profound chasm inside the single currency area. 

In public discourse (media and politics), the economic crisis was always framed as somebody else’s crisis and explained by internal divides: North and South, debtors and creditors, core and periphery (Müller, Porcaro and von Nordheim, 2018). The North-South divide was, above all, based on economic issues but also rooted in a moral superiority that triggered an othering process from the countries in Northern Europe towards the South of Europe (Morillas et al., 2022). Hien (2017) quotes former German Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schäuble saying that Southern Europeans lived beyond their means, spent too much money, and had too high social standards. Governments in Athens, Rome, and Madrid were unable to construct a common front to challenge the austerity policies imposed on them. In fact, they fled desperately from each other, trying to avoid being affiliated with the patient next door. The official discourse was differentiation (Colomina 2020).

Unlike their governments, however, citizens in Southern countries had a shared collective feeling; shared experiences of social crisis, street protests, and labour migration, oftentimes forced by circumstance (for example, see the special issues of Zamora-Kapoor and Coller; 2014; or Serapioni and Hespanha, 2019). Discussing the influence that ordoliberalism1 had in the German mentality and policies during the debt crisis that affected Southern Europe, Hien claims that “Northern European (crypto-)Protestant demands triggered a cultural resistance in Southern European countries. Countries that were at the forefront when it came to endorsing the European project were pressed into a siege mentality that triggered a monolithisation of Southern European national identities” (2017: 120). Hein proceeds to illustrate this by a series of examples that show how public media in Southern Europe responded to this mindset of the North with one of their own.

These parties were in part responding to the pain of being othered and the citizens’ need to belong – defining a new we by othering refugees and migrants. They use both othering and belonging processes for political gains.

Some narratives in Northern European2 countries framed Southern Europeans as lazy, spendthrift people who should be expelled from the Euro. Mainstream political and economic doctrine boosted these narratives, reinforced by all kinds of institutions like JP Morgan, which claimed that Southern European constitutions were unfit for further integration within the Euro because they had a tendency towards socialism (Barr and Mackie, 2013).

Hien (2017) implies that by strengthening Northern and Southern identities, that is to say both feelings of “belonging”, there is a chain reaction that triggers a feeling of cultural otherness and moral superiority as well: the impulse to other. In Hien’s words, this led to an immunisation of one’s own thoughts against the arguments of others, preventing one from seeing the other as a valid political interlocutor with whom to find a compromise that respects some of the opposite’s demands. As a result of these processes, breaking along these lines became stronger and bridging far more difficult.

The economic crisis was the first deep scar, altering traditional political majorities and leading to a fragmented and more polarised scene. Since then, the feeling of ‘otherness’ and the lines of exclusion have become stronger and deeper within the European Union; but also, specifically, in Southern Europe. Southern Europeans were othered. But Southern Europeans also engaged in othering processes of their own: their ‘others’ were, for example, migrants arriving to the Greek islands or through Ceuta and Melilla, singled out by the harsh rhetoric of far right parties gaining electoral support all along Southern EU member states. These parties were in part responding to the pain of being othered and the citizens’ need to belong – defining a new we by othering refugees and migrants. They use both othering and belonging processes for political gains.

In a similar fashion, the East-West divide was also promoted for political interests. Migration policies and values like solidarity and openness have been strongly politicised in the European Union. In the summer of 2015, Eastern European member states refused to collaborate in a joint European solution to manage the flow of people escaping to Europe. Instead, some of these governments promoted disinformative narratives that involved framing migrants and refugees as terrorists, or implying that migrants and refugees were being brought to Europe thanks to the money of George Soros, with the abetment of European cosmopolitan elites.3 These governments were deploying us-vs-them narratives against the people coming to their borders and the EU governments that were trying to impose a joint reallocation scheme. On their part, Western European countries called out eastern European states for violating European values without truly trying to understand the reasons behind their behaviour or behind Eastern citizens’ fears (Krastev, 2017).

Othering & Belonging Narratives as Political Strategies

In fact, this division was not simply geographical but ideological and included non-Eastern European states. It was also reflected in the rivalry between the far right soul of the Italian government at that time (June 2018 - September 2019) represented in the figure of Matteo Salvini and the most pro-EU leaders such as the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, and the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez. The dispute was merely a representation of what was called politics of symbolism and its only objective was to gain influence on the narrative side of the situation, to foster belonging within their respective political camps.

Salvini, minister of Interior, adopted the rhetoric and policies of governments from Eastern Europe and closed up the maritime ports of Italy to prevent landings by rescuing ships, despite this being against international law. This action embodied the othering of refugees and migrants arriving to Italy and signalled to his electorate, specifically, his loyalty to the predefined in-group.

On the other side, Pedro Sánchez, with a clear electioneering motive, allowed one of the ships rejected from Italian ports, the Aquarius, to land in Spain. The Spanish PM was aimed to present himself as a progressive option in front of his electorate. This did not represent a significant change in migration policy in Spain; instead, it served the purpose of drawing dividing lines with the other political side.

The new-old divide

If there are geographical divides deeply rooted in the European Union’s unequal reality, these continue to grow because of persistently low levels of regional growth in some parts of the continent, and the effects of post-industrial decline in others. 

While economic growth has been mostly concentrated in some countries (Ireland, Estonia, Luxemburg, Poland and Slovakia) and in some cities (Bucharest, Budapest, Helsinki, Ljubljana and Madrid), low growth has persisted in Bulgaria, eastern and southern Hungary, most of East Germany, central Greece, southern Italy, and in declining industrial regions like the north-eastern part of France (Rodríguez-Pose, 2017). The electoral results in many of these places help us to draw a clear geography of discontent in the European Union. Divisions within societies are still very present. 

... those who started to perceive themselves as losers in the globalisation process slowly turned invisible.

When in 2017 Emmanuel Macron declared the death of the left-right axis on the French political scene, he could not have imagined that five years later, more than a third of 18- to 24-year-olds who went to the polls on April 10, in the first round of the French presidential elections, would vote for the radical left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France Insoumise. Among those between 25 and 34 years old, Emmanuel Macron was third behind far right leader Marine Le Pen and, again, Mélenchon. In the territorial distribution of the vote, far right and radical left dominated together the industrial north and the Mediterranean coast, some suburbs of Paris, and France’s overseas territories. The first round of legislative elections in June gave a very similar result.

In France, the far right and the radical left perform best where discomfort prevails where uncertainty about the future continues to be felt, and where there is a perception of being far away from the political elites who govern the country. What these two political forces had in common was the critique of the process of globalisation and the proposal of protectionist policies, in the case of Le Pen with a clear exclusionary sign. In addition, part of the gains of Marine Le Pen in this election were due to her strategy of rebranding her party, The National Rally (Rassemblement national), as a working-class party.4

Socioeconomic disparities have been on the rise for decades. In fact, continued crises have resulted in the rich becoming richer, the dismantling of the middle classes, in the loss of faith of middle-class workers in progress and in the future, and in the poor becoming poorer. The Covid-19 outbreak that brought the economy to an unprecedented halt, with GDP dropping 4% globally in 2020 and over 10% in places such as Spain, has exacerbated the gap between rich and poor. In this context, there is an old division, class, that has become more evident as inequalities grow. As Marxist frameworks were discarded as proper analytical tools to describe reality and were cornered in mainstream debates in media and academia, those who started to perceive themselves as losers in the globalisation process slowly turned invisible. They received little attention – until recently.

The state, the fundamental actor who had been acting as mediator within societies to distribute the burden of progress more or less equally, has seen its capacities curtailed by big companies and rich individuals manoeuvring to pay as little tax as possible; and by a political-economic doctrine that became mainstream and underestimated the role of the public goods and those who distribute them. According to the EU Tax Observatory, 11% of the EU's total wealth has gone to offshore paradises; the equivalent of the total GDP of France.5 Among the tax evaders figure former prime ministers, heads of state, and ministers who for a long time were managing the public goods of European citizens. This situation has generated significant frustration and mistrust.

The political discourse that has tried to answer this surge of discontent has at least two different approaches. On the one hand, undemocratic or pro-authoritarian political forces have contributed to deepening and amplifying the othering process of certain groups in society. This narrative goes against political leaders, the allegedly cosmopolitan elites, and migrants who conspire against the “good people”, the “hard-working people”, and “the good patriots”. In this sense, the “good people” are not only the “left-behinds” but also the forgotten. Social unrest has been mounting in the European Union, even during pandemic lockouts. The Yellow Vests movement, for instance, is a child of the discontent fuelled by the cost of green transition demands – one that populist political forces tried to harness, as they also did with the anti-vaccination movement.

Digital and Green transitions/divides

The Covid-19 crises staged the digital divide. As activities moved online, households with less access to the Internet (be it because they did not have enough computers or because their connection was not good or stable) suffered to keep up. Low-paid workers that were essential to sustain societies had to continue working under stress and were exposed to the virus because they could not telework. 

With the EU prioritising the European Green Deal and the digital transition, Ursula Von der Leyen managed to offer a political and strategic narrative for the new Commission and, at the same time, exposed two vital internal risks for the Union. Both agendas have a direct effect on European territorial cohesion, on geographical gaps, social inequalities, and on the confrontation between urban and rural areas, which today already stresses the EU politically. In response, the European Commission has also set up the Just Transition Fund, to ensure no one is left behind by these societal transitions. Such initiative seeks to foster belonging among EU citizens and disarm the narrative of political entrepreneurs that feed on othering for political gains.

However, fear and imbalances will need much more than an initiative to be overcome. On top of the old class divide and long-perceived inequalities, there is a strong feeling of impotence generated by the changes and uncertainties (about the future) coming from the digital and green transitions – creating a sense of double exclusion. 

Addressing the challenge 

There is a rising awareness that the old class divide is still present in modern societies and that it has not been paid the deserved attention. There is also a rising awareness that new divides broaden and add to old ones. In that regard, politicians and society have realised that the feeling of being excluded or left behind needs to be addressed and hopefully reversed. It is in this context that the new German Chancellor, the social-democrat Olaf Scholz, spoke of the society of respect. 

[T]hey could not move to the digital world during the worst phases of the pandemic ... thus falling behind

During the German elections campaign of September 2021, Chancellor Scholz often spoke and referred to those who usually consider themselves, or are considered by others, as second-class citizens because they “lack technical knowledge or labour authority, are uncomfortable in the public or bureaucratic sphere, or do not command respect” (Martínez-Bascuñán, 2021). Scholz referred to the society of respect, as he wanted to restore a sense of belonging of what remains of the progressive middle class, the old working class, and the new precariat, especially the young, while recognizing the dignity of all jobs, thus their dignity. In fact, it is not a coincidence either that in the last elections held in Portugal, which saw an absolute majority for the socialists, Minister Pedro Nuno Santos, one of the architects of the Geringonça and one of the potential successors of the actual Prime Minister, also demanded respect for manual workers and urged we value what they offer to the society.

It is precisely in Portugal that the government has put in motion Eu sou digital (I am digital) – a capacity-building programme focused on elder people who are taught how to navigate the Internet by young volunteers. This programme aims to capacitate around 1 million people who live without the Internet, so they are not excluded from the digital transition. In Lisbon, there are around 35.000 people above 65 years old who live alone or with other elder people – they could not move to the digital world during the worst phases of the pandemic, clearly becoming thus falling behind. Before Covid-19 forced everybody to stay at home, 23% of the population of Portugal had never navigated the Internet.6 The European Commission labelled the Portuguese initiative as a “best practice” within the Action Plan for the Digital Transition, which aims at not leaving anyone behind. However, although it has great potential, not all the capacitation centres are accessible to everyone since they concentrate in populated areas. 

The urban-rural divide also contributes to the sentiment of being othered for those who live in more isolated areas where public resources are less accessible. The challenge of transitioning to the new digital and green worlds cannot be done without citizens. It is key for democratic societies to ensure just transitions that uplift all members of society; otherwise, the increase in inequalities and lack of opportunities, as well as the territorial imbalances that could occur, would be socially disruptive and politically unmanageable. The people who would perceive themselves as the others, who would not belong to this new socio-economic reality, would be more inclined to support disruptive political options. There is a risk of widening this new-old divide even more if fostering belonging is not a conscious social and political practice that intentionally recognises and addresses disparate inequalities and socio-economic fears, because those fears are based in reality – and can therefore be exploited.

For example, according to the Bank of Spain, 24% of the investments made by financial entities in Spain were in sectors that are going to be impacted by the green transition: refining of fossil fuels, transport, or the whole energy industry.7 This means that if public investment is directed towards somewhere else through green taxation, green bonds or green investment facilities, investments in such sectors – usually employing low resources and low-skilled workers – may gradually disappear. The fear this may cause can increase feelings of exclusion, making those appeals of political entrepreneurs who redirect that anger at those “others” more attractive.

The people who would perceive themselves as the others, who would not belong to this new socio-economic reality, would be more inclined to support disruptive political options.

Those fears are echoed in the experience of the digital transition in Spain. At least 10% of children were forced out of school during the first phase of the pandemic. To solve connectivity problems, the Spanish government promised to improve the speed of the Internet to 100 MB per second by 2025 for the whole population, and extend Internet towards rural areas. However, the rural-urban divide caused by the digital transition is not even the most difficult problem to solve. Fifty per cent of elder people in Spain do not have digital skills and the socioeconomic divide affecting cultural habits will also take a toll in the digital transition.

The urban-rural divide already has a political translation in Spain. La España Vaciada (Emptied Spain) is a peculiar phenomenon that attempts to echo the grievances felt by the most depopulated areas in the centre of the peninsula; it is ideologically ambiguous but it has a strong shared feeling of abandonment that serves as a relevant engine of political competition that directly challenges the capital power, Madrid. In recent times, the populist authoritarian party Vox has been making inroads with people in these communities.

Building belonging from the periphery

As Kukovec (2014) explains, there is a deeper structure at play in the European Union that goes beyond the boundaries of particular countries or regions; it is a specific constellation of social and economic structures where there is hierarchical subordination and structural disadvantage to actors on the peripheries. Thus, to generate new forms of belonging the focus must be on overcoming inequalities and preventing the emergence of new ones. To do this, new economic thinking is needed, and new, encompassing narratives need not only be spoken, but permeate to the core of how people think and behave. Politics and social movements – and, specifically, also the European Union – need to find ways to implement belonging identities.

From Macron’s slogan L’Europe qui protège (the Europe that protects) to the present narratives and programmes for a “Just Transition”, the EU has been trying to regain the support of its citizens. Watching some of the latest, current and future Presidencies of the Council of the EU, it is possible to appreciate an effort to counterbalance the impacts triggered by the transitions in progress and address some potential fears. This has been a sensitive issue especially for Southern European member states, but it is also an acquiescence by other member states from centre and eastern Europe. Even if it was under the German Presidency of the Council of the EU (January-June 2020) that the historical NextGenerationEU funds came around, Spain and Italy pushed very hard for this to materialise (Morillas et al., 2022). Notably, they were the two member states most affected by the Covid-19 crisis and had already been two of the most affected during the financial crisis. The messages that both countries emphasised were two-fold. On one hand, Covid-19 was an asymmetric shock whose blame could not be placed on irresponsible decisions made by individual states and, on the other hand, the only possible way to overcome such a deep blow was with unity and commitment. The claim for togetherness was answered, this time, by Germany, sending a powerful message of common belonging to the EU project. The sense of othering that Southern European states felt in previous crises was replaced, this time, by a strong shared feeling of vulnerability among all EU members.

[T]o generate new forms of belonging the focus must be on overcoming inequalities and preventing the emergence of new ones.

The Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the EU (January-June 2021) took another clear step towards fostering politics of belonging, making the development of the Social Pillar of the EU – the so-called Social Europe8 – one of the fundamental pillars of their presidency. In that regard, Portugal hosted a Social Summit in the city of Porto in May 2021 where member states adopted an Action Plan to implement the Social Pillar of the EU (it had only been a mere declaration since 2017) by keeping record of the progress of the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, through an evaluation of social rights implemented by a Social Scoreboard in the European Semester. They set an ambitious target for 2030 that includes: at least 78% of the population aged 20 to 64 being employed; at least 60% of all adults participating in training every year; and a reduction in the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion by at least 15 million. The Social Pillar had been part of the narrative for a long-time, but without the political will to implement it. The need to foster belonging among Europeans and deactivate the impulse to other has generated the necessary consensus to see it through.

The French Presidency of the Council of the EU (January-June 2022) has gone a step further; as the motto of the presidency is “Recovery, Strength and Sense of belonging”; a sense of belonging to build and develop a shared European vision: through culture, shared values, and common history. For the French Presidency, a way to increase the sense of belonging is through focusing on research and innovation, specially targeting young people through higher education. It also mentions the need to accompany large economic transitions by supporting employment in the context of European recovery. However, to create belonging there is obviously a need for something tangible. One of the goals of the French presidency was to push for adequate minimum wages in the EU– something that could spur the feeling of belonging among Europeans. The French presidency seems to have worked out a compromise with the European Parliament to see this through.9 In the age of the politics of emotions, policies and narratives feed each other. Any policy should be accompanied by a narrative that makes sense of the policy outcome, fosters the feeling that such result will benefit society, and it is not perceived as a technocratic solution only; and any narrative should be accompanied by policies that reflect the narrative in place, otherwise the narrative alone does not heal divisions.

Times appear to be changing as the European periphery seems to be leading the way to a social Europe ... trying to make sure that policies are accompanied by belonging narratives that can deactivate the impulse to other.

While the next two presidencies will be in the hands of the Czech Republic and Sweden, Spain will follow from June-December 2023; and there is no doubt that it will build on the agenda set by France, and influence the agenda for the following trio of presidencies that will include Belgium and Hungary. The periphery of the European Union has made a clear stance for the need to generate social consensus to undertake the digital and the green transitions, or at least to prevent its most pernicious effects. 

For a long time, Southern EU countries have been defining their EU identity in relation to Northern countries and, especially during this polycrisis period, to their ability to gain Germany’s favour. After a decade of crises, Southern European member states are no longer seen as an obstructive bloc, as they were during the eurozone crisis a decade ago, and, with Chancellor Angela Merkel no longer in office, Germany’s dominance has been tuned. In this transitional EU in search for clear leadership (or leaderships), Southern countries constitute a fairly homogeneous grouping led by pro-European governments which should increasingly work together in a better coordinated manner as they and their societies generally share their confidence in EU institutions (Morillas et al., 2022).

Times appear to be changing as the European periphery seems to be leading the way to a social Europe, or at least strongly advocating for one; trying to make sure that policies are accompanied by belonging narratives that can deactivate the impulse to other. These policies and narratives should make clear that the Union may be in the making, but citizens from all Europe are in it together and the future of Europe depends on how much they feel they belong. For that, you also need the periphery (and its peripheries) to feel included and this is probably the next and most pressing challenge.


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Author bios:

Héctor Sánchez Margalef is a Researcher at CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs). He holds a BA in Political Science and a MA in International Relations, Security and Development by Autonomous University of Barcelona in 2012 and is PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona. In 2013 he joined CIDOB as a research assistant of the Greater Mediterranean area. Later he joined CIDOB’s expert team as researcher in his areas of study: European politics and integration dynamics, new political movements and democracy and participation. He has worked in private and public funded projects such as the Mercator European Dialogue, FACTS, EU Idea and The Raval Project. He speaks Catalan, Spanish, English and French.

Carme Colomina is a Research Fellow on European Union, disinformation and global politics at CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs), Editor and member of the Editorial Board. She is also visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, where she teaches a course on Communications Management in the European Union, and at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Graduated in Information Science from the Universitat Autònoma of Barcelona and with a postgraduate course in European Union Studies from the UOC, she has been Brussels’ correspondent and head of international affairs in Catalunya Ràdio and in ARA newspaper. As a special envoy, she covered dozens of international summits and political conflicts and she is still a frequent contributor to various media organizations as an analyst of European current affairs. Before joining CIDOB, she also worked as a consultant on various communication projects in the European and Euro-Mediterranean sphere, and was Head of Interregional Cooperation in the Foreign Affairs department of the Catalan government.

Artist bio:

Milton Pereira is specialized in the field of visual communication, working as an advisor, producer and content editor in various projects linked to the cultural sector. Currently completing an MA degree in which he is developing research on the analysis of photography collections, he also works as an executive assistant for the CCB, in Lisbon. Since 2017 he has also been collaborating with the RISE Project, designing The Ultimate Cookbook for Cultural Managers.

Instagram: @miltonpereira

Art description:

“After reading the essay, I wanted to highlight a particular aspect: how distance is key in belonging, othering and periphery. When searching for photographs, I was looking for an example where distance was evident but also linked to people.

In these images, besides our tendency to look at the center, each person could be a reference point. Although physically dispersed they are seen together so it is up to the viewer to focus on someone and how it will define the distance the others are. The goal was to think about how these concepts are changeable and depend on what is defined as a reference, a center.

The photographs were taken in the Azores, an EU Outermost region, in 2018.”

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