Even Europeans don’t agree on what the “European way of life” is

One flag, different belief systems.
One flag, different belief systems.
Image: AP Photo/Sergei Grits
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Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming president of the European Commission, triggered a controversy when she announced that she would create a new post in her administration for a “vice-president for protecting our European way of life.”

Observers were confused. Do the roughly 510 million citizens of the 28 member countries of the European Union have a common way of life?

Margaritis Schinas, von der Leyen’s nominee for the post, answered the question during his confirmation hearing earlier this month. He said:

“At its core, being European means protecting the most vulnerable in our societies. It means healthcare and welfare systems that all can access. It means having the same opportunities. It means promoting culture and sport as core elements of our systems and equipping people with the knowledge, education, and skills they need to live and work in dignity. It means feeling safe on (sic) our homes, in our streets, and all of the places we like to meet, exchange, and experience life together. Being European means being open to the world; extending heart and home to those who are less fortunate. It means standing up for these values, for these rights, for these principles across the globe. Being European means peace, freedom, equality, democracy, and respect for human dignity.”

Schinas painted a picture of a union of nations with shared values that revolve around human rights, equality, investment in human capital, and the social safety net. But is this real or wishful thinking? Responses to the 2016 European Social Survey (ESS), a biennial survey of people living in up to 38 European countries, is telling. A shared European way of life? It’s not that simple.

Protecting the vulnerable

ESS researchers asked nearly 35,000 people from 18 EU countries to rate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Gay men and lesbians should be free to live their own life as they wish.” While close to 95% of Dutch respondents said they strongly agreed or agreed, only 25.3% of Lithuanians said the same, showing there is great disparity in how Europeans feel about gay rights.

Respondents were asked to rate their response to the statement, “Immigrants make my country a worse or better place to live,” on a scale of 0 (“extremely bad”) to 10 (“extremely good”). The mean score among Swedish respondents was 6.2, but it was 3.5 among Hungarians.

The social safety net

When it comes to the social safety net, 68.4% of Finnish respondents believe social benefits lead to a more equal society—perhaps not a surprise coming from one of the most equal countries in the world in terms of income distribution. But only 27.7% of Lithuanians and about 30% of Hungarians agree.

Respondents were asked to say how they felt about their household’s income in 2016, when interviews for the survey were conducted. For clarity, the two countries with the highest and lowest share of respondents who reported feeling comfortable with their household income are included below. While 67% of Swedish respondents said they were comfortable, only about 10% of Hungarians felt the same.


Schinas said that democracy is at the heart of what it means to be European. But not all Europeans actually take part in their democracies. While almost 84% of Swedish respondents had voted in their last national election, only about half of Lithuanians, and nearly 55% of French respondents had done the same.

The ESS is funded by participating countries and managed by the European Social Survey European Research Infrastructure Consortium at City, University of London.