A veil has been lifted from Estonia. At least, that is what it feels like for this West-European walking around in the country after the European currency has been introduced to its citizens. Somehow, Estonia suddenly appears more ‘visible’, as if a thin fog was covering the small Baltic nation up until the first of January 2011. Taking the Netherlands roughly as my geographical reference point of ‘home’, Estonia now feels a little ‘closer’ in the geographical sense (or less remote, whichever way you prefer to put it). It has finally become a part of Europe as I apparently implicitly conceive it.
Edit: WARNING: This post contains irony here and there.
My research is on varying conceptualizations of ‘Europe’. That is, I’m interested in Europe as a social construction across geography and social groups, and that goes beyond ‘just’ the political integration of large parts of the continent. Doing a PhD at the EUI, I am naturally often confronted with exactly this misconception. If you’re doing research on how people feel about Europe, then fellow researchers quickly default into thinking this means Euroscepticism and political support for the project.
I don’t blame them: the vague notion of ‘Europe’ and the relatively concrete European Union project have become strongly entangled in our day-to-day speech and within our frames of reference. So much, in fact, that it is hard to really separate the two without consistently emphasizing that you’re not only talking about the EU and European political integration, but about people’s rather vague notions of Europe more broadly.
As a result, I think I have been downplaying to others and myself just how important people’s imaginations of ‘Europe’ have been to political integration, and more importantly the other way around: how important political (and in this case monetary) integration has been to people’s conceptualization of ‘Europe’.
Partly as a result of working on my research topic, partly perhaps due to presumptuousness, I used to think of myself as reasonably detached from ‘Western-Europe-centric’ thinking. I used to think of myself not primarily as Western-European, and recently probably not even as (just) ‘European’ (and ‘Dutch’ has never really applied to me, but that’s for another blog post). I have spent quite a lot of time in Central and Eastern Europe (mostly in Poland and Estonia), and always find myself trying to redefine people’s Western-centric worldviews when I’m back in the Netherlands.
However, as my feelings after the Euro was welcomed to Estonia have shown me, the political integration of Europe clearly has shaped my conceptualization of what ‘Europe’ is. And though I am ashamed to admit it, it has affected my implicit ideas on centre and periphery. The Soviet Union collapsed, the EU expanded to the East, Estonia joined Schengen, and now the country finally became a full member of ‘Europe’ with the introduction of the European currency. Now, as I watch the Estonian shopkeepers and coffee vendors clumsily count their first Euro’s, the country slowly starts to demystify before my eyes and somehow feels more and more like ‘home’.
Jeroen Moes is a PhD researcher at the European University Institute, Florence. His research focuses on conceptualizations of ‘Europe’ across the continent with in-depth case studies in Estonia, Italy, and the Netherlands. He employs a methodologically mixed approach by combining large N statistical analyses with small N in-depth qualitative research. More on his research project can be found on the ‘Imagining Europe’ website (www.Imagining.eu).