Book review: The Cultural Realm of European Integration

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a book review in American Journal of Sociology 111(3):948-950, 2005. 

Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2005. Review of The Cultural Realm of European Integration: Social Representations in France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, by Antonio V. Menéndez-Alarcón. American Journal of Sociology 111(3):948-950. 

The Cultural Realm of European Integration presents the culmination of Antonio Menéndez-Alarcón’s long-standing research on the European unification process. The book addresses popular attitudes toward the integration of Europe in selected countries. Specifically analyzed are the perceptions about unified Europe among political leaders and laypeople in France, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Menéndez-Alarcón situates his analyses in a brief historical overview of the integration process in Europe. Throughout that history emerged the multidimensional and frictional nature of European unification as a political, economic, and/or cultural entity. Early on in this process, integration took place at an institutional level with indifference of (and toward) the population. But since the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 created a veritable European Union, the people of Europe have become much more aware of what Brussels can mean for them. Within this context, Menéndez-Alarcón’s study of popular perceptions of the idea and reality of Europe takes on considerable relevance.

The author relies on a variety of sources to investigate how the process of European integration is perceived. The author specifically analyzes the opinions of members of the political elites, who are involved in steering the unification process top-down, as well as the attitudes of the general public. Methodologically, Menéndez-Alarcón relies on multiple techniques, including document analysis to investigate sources on European integration retrieved from various documentation centers across Europe, content analysis of important newspapers in Europe, and some 400 in-depth interviews that were conducted with political leaders and lay citizens during multiple research visits over the past eight years.

The author narrates the research results per country examined. Briefly reviewing the major findings, attitudes toward European unification in France are dominated by a strong sense of French national sovereignty. The French political elite is split among a mostly pro-European left and a very anti-European extreme right, with various opinions in between. Among the laypeople, a more positive trend toward Europe emerged during the 1990s. Still, most strong remains the notion among the French that the national state is a reflection of, and protection for, popular sovereignty.

Spain has traditionally been among the countries most positively inclined toward Europe’s integration, yet support has become more conditional since the late 1990s. Spanish political leaders remain mostly positive about Europe, but there are concerns about Europe’s social policies. The Spanish populace is generally positive about Europe in an abstract sense, but remains committed to the idea of the nation-state in more specific circumstances.

In the United Kingdom, sentiments about European unification have traditionally been less than favorable. While politicians from the leftist parties tend to be somewhat more pro-European, the conservatives are more strongly opposed to Britain’s inclusion in a political union that is associated with the Continent. British laypeople similarly betray an ‘“us-versus-them’“ mentality and remain skeptical.

Menéndez-Alarcón also probes into the attitudes toward Europe since the enlargement process that in most recent years has extended the European Union to include 15 member states. Most people in Europe tend to favor a slower, more gradual approach to enlargement. And while the creation of a bigger market is generally seen as favorable, a deepening of unification in various sectors of society is also considered necessary. In conclusion, Menéndez-Alarcón notes that across the examined nations there remains a strong identification with national symbols, traditions, and history. However, he also contends that this nationalism takes place within an increasingly international setting, a context where the nation-state has objectively lost some of its sovereignty.

Compared to the existing scholarship on European unification, this book primarily stands out because of its focus on popular perceptions and its methodological approach in relying on a wide variety of data collected over a lengthy period of time in the context of three national states. In particular, the many interviews Menéndez-Alarcón has conducted with a usefully broad range of respondents provide a rich complement to the relevant surveys that exist. Theoretically, this book is useful, if somewhat underdeveloped, in breaking with a hyperrationalist approach to European integration on the basis of a study of institutions in favor of adopting a cultural orientation that focuses on the nonrational and subjective factors that affect the political structure of Europe.

Menéndez-Alarcón’s book provides not only a useful addition to the European studies literature, but also a fine contribution to the sociology of political cultures. Although the sociology of European unification is still not well developed, there have now suddenly appeared two books on this topic in the English language. Besides the book here under review, Juan Diez Medrano’sFraming Europe: Attitudes to European Integration in Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom (Princeton University Press, 2003) provides a similar cultural analysis of popular opinions about unified Europe. As most of the European studies literature is institutional in orientation and dominated by political scientists, it is much to the credit of sociologists to have provided a useful antidote to such works by bringing out the relevance of Europe’s cultural dimension.

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