Why Europe Has Its Own Holiday

Courtney Withrow
5 min readMay 9, 2022

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Today is Europe Day. What is Europe Day? It’s a celebration of “peace and unity” in Europe, according to the European Commission. It’s a day for the European Union (EU) to promote the idea of a single Europe, to educate EU citizens on what EU institutions do, and to make everyone feel like they belong to the same union.

For a long time, the EU has tried to crystallize the notion of a European culture or identity. The very idea of the EU transcends nationalism, to prevent competing identities from pitting Europe’s citizens against each other. But a group of 27 different countries, with different languages, geographies, and cultures, is not easy to cobble together into a single “European” identity.

Nevertheless, the EU tries to tell the European story through events like Europe Day, buildings like the House of European History in Brussels, and funding for cultural storytelling initiatives across the bloc. Many of these efforts aim to highlight lesser-known communities and their heritage to educate and ultimately contribute to a wider European Heritage. The purpose of Europe Day is to unite all these stories and heritages by focusing on a common history. If the EU can trace its roots to a specific beginning, its story is much easier to tell.

With Europe Day, the EU is saying, “We may be different, but we’re all part of the same pan-European community.” So, does it work? Do Europeans feel like a single community with a common identity, or are all those cultures and heritages simply too different for the EU’s carefully structured narrative to overcome?

Photo by Guillaume Périgois on Unsplash

What Is Europe Day For?

The EU’s Europe Day is May 9, the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration. On this day, various EU institutions open their offices to the public across Europe, letting citizens participate in visits, debates and concerts. It’s a “behind-the-scenes” look at what the EU does. At times, the EU can feel faraway to its individual residents. By showcasing what the European Parliament, Council of the European Union, European Commission, and various other entities that govern the Union do, they help people feel closer to the notion of Europe and European identity.

The anniversary of the Schuman Declaration

Europe Day commemorates the signing of the Schuman Declaration, named after Robert Schuman. He was a French foreign minister who proposed the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in a speech delivered on May 9, 1950. The precursors to the EU (the European Union as we know it today wasn’t established until 1993) officially recognized May 9 as Europe Day in 1985 to commemorate this momentous speech.

A bust of Robert Schuman at Parc du Cinquantenaire/Jubelpark in Brussels. Varech, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Do Individual Countries Celebrate Europe Day?

Countries craft their national histories carefully, choosing certain dates as national holidays to reinforce the idea of a common narrative. The EU attempts to do the same.

European countries didn’t catch on to Europe Day until after the creation of the EU in 1993. Germany has celebrated European Week since 1995 and the Polish Schuman Foundation has organized an annual Schuman Parade in Warsaw since 1999. May 9 became an official public holiday in Luxembourg as of 2019 and is a public holiday in Kosovo. It’s also a legally recognized day in Croatia and Lithuania. And, of course, it’s a public holiday for all EU institutions and its employees.

Some countries have bought into the EU’s common narrative by recognizing Europe Day but what about on an individual level? What do Europeans themselves think of a shared identity? Can that be reconciled with all the different cultures found throughout the EU?

A European Sense of Belonging

When the people who live in the EU feel more European, it makes the whole idea of a united Europe stronger. That’s why the EU regularly asks people about their European identities. A 2020 survey by the European Commission, the Special Eurobarometer 508, asked people if they identify with being European. Here’s what the respondents said:

  • 56% identified with being European
  • 28% were noncommittal
  • 14% did not identify with being European

A little more than half of Europeans consider themselves European, which seems pretty good. But the same survey also showed that European identity is not the most important one for most people living in Europe. Family identity (81%) and national identity (73%) were the primary identifying factors among respondents.

So what does all this mean?

Europeans seem willing to buy into a common identity and may have no problem celebrating Europe Day. People seemed to enjoy themselves at the early Europe Day festivities put on by the European Parliament this past Saturday. The EU’s narrative will most likely never supplant national identity and the sense of belonging Europeans feel to their home countries.

Fortunately, the EU’s story and national stories can coexist. A crucial part of the EU’s narrative is welcoming diversity and promoting cultural differences. To be “European” can mean so many different things.

Why This Matters to Me

I’m not European, I’m from the US. As I’ve lived in Europe since 2017, though, can I still say that with such certainty? For now, yes — but that’s a good topic for another time.

If I’m not European, you ask, why do I care so much about European identity? I find the jumble of languages, foods, customs, dress, music, art, literature, and cultures on this continent fascinating. How could people who are so different come together as one bloc? What makes that 56% say, “Yes, I am European”?

Identity and belonging are interesting topics and I find myself enthralled with the idea that what we call ourselves — what a group of people calls itself — can have political ramifications. If you belong to something, that means you exclude yourself from something else. When it comes to nations and borders, is it possible to belong to more than one place at the same time? For me, that’s one of the biggest questions the EU and Europe Day try to answer.

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Courtney Withrow

Writer based in Belgium. I write about language, culture, and politics.