Lessons in community building: the European Union

The EU’s identity seems fractured, and its future isn’t clear. What have we learned from one of the most ambitious community development projects in history?

An edited version of this article was published by Apolitical.

We’re now 100 days out from the first of the 2019 EU elections. For the first time in my adult life, I’ve realised two things. One, as a Brit, I’m not qualified to vote. And two, the purpose, identity and future of the EU has never been such a hot topic. It got me thinking.

The EU is one huge community.

Perhaps this is an obvious thought, but we’re so often conditioned to see communities as small collections of people focused on very specific things. Both the vast scale and seeming complexity of the EU makes it appear as something other.

At its core, however, a community is defined by a group of individuals with similar interests, gathered together around one purpose. We seek out bubbles in which we feel comfortable and safe, where we feel we can learn and grow in a controlled way, and where we feel we’re working towards the same goal.

The EU was formed for a single purpose: to end the frequent conflict between neighbouring states. And that is a goal most people can stand behind.

So why is it that, over 60 years on, the EU now feels like such a loaded concept, and we see groups of people pushing back on the idea of European identity?

To get to the bottom of this, it’s worth investigating how successful communities operate, and to consider what we expect from communities and why we want to be a part of them.

Why communities?

The notion of belonging and having a shared identity is wired into human DNA. “Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’” (Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari); this is why we have a compulsive need to be part of communities which resonate with us. Historically, these communities have been our family, our village, our nation etc, and have evolved as society has changed, for instance, communities focused on Jivamukti yoga, Italian food or ethical fashion.

When we think of communities in this way, we accept that they aren’t perfect, but we still actively engage with them and work to improve them where we can, noting that belonging is still valuable to us. The EU is simply a scaled up version of any of these, and we should treat it accordingly.

At Civocracy, we have worked hard to outline the key factors for building and maintaining local communities, and these principles are applicable for communities of different sizes. So what can the EU do to regain its members and close the developing cracks?

In our experience, there are four key pillars which every successful and sustainable community needs to actively nurture: community purpose, transparency, collaboration, and the ability to adapt

Community purpose

Feeling we have a purpose is essential for human wellbeing. In Lost Connections: uncovering the real causes of depression — and the unexpected solutions, a book by Johann Hari, the author highlights that a disconnect from meaningful values plays a strong role in decreasing our happiness levels, and that we are wired to seek value in the communities we belong to.

On some minor Googling, I am directed to a document titled “The European Union: what it is and what it does”. It makes clear that the EU’s core value is to “protect, empower and defend” its members — effectively, it aims to bring prosperity to the continent while allowing member states to retain their own sovereignty, ultimately improving life for all. Not bad as far as a community value goes.

Having a strong value is great start, but work is needed to implement and guide purposeful actions is also needed. Every project, policy change or research project must answer to this core community value; the community will then be able to defend its actions and to better engage its members.


This leads me onto the second pillar of community maintenance: transparency, which is essential for two reasons.

1. to humanise the community, and
2. to build real trust.

If you knew the EU’s key goal was to ensure you, as an individual, had a better life, would you be more proactive in maintaining this community? The answer is yes, right?

The EU seems incredibly opaque. The website is difficult to use, and the media spins us tales about how ineffective and pointless it is.

But I have to disagree with this superficial assessment. Yes, the EU isn’t as effective as it could be, and there are processes which need updating, but it does provide an incredible array of opportunities and benefits for EU community members (both at a national and individual level) in an attempt to improve society. Finding out about these benefits, however, is a nightmare.

Did you know that, in 2017, the EU gave €52.6bn for creating jobs, reducing economic gaps, developing agriculture, and combating terrorism? It also gave hundreds of grants and contracts to small organisations and researchers who are working for the benefit of EU development. Because of the EU, we can cross borders without a visa, our food has to be up to a high standard (no chlorinated chicken like in the US), and we have a human rights charter that gives us the right to rest periods from work (aka weekends and holidays).

Yes, member states pay the EU a fee, but they get a lot of that money back in subsidies alone.

In increasing its transparency through improved communications, the EU could do wonders to increase peoples’ trust in it.


A 2017 study titled The State of Communities by co-matter found that only 13% of community experts believe that monetary rewards are an incentive to join a community. We need to see our impact, and to connect with others in order to feel that impact. “As humans, we’re conditioned to be rewarded for our achievements. However, these rewards don’t necessarily form the basis of a community. What makes us join a community is the promise of new and meaningful relationships, not monetary incentives.”

In our work at Civocracy, governments have seen that opening problem solving up to the whole community leads to new idea generation and increases community happiness (as measured by the McKinsey Smart City quality of life indicator) — money is not the incentive for this, having real impact is.

This is helped by increased transparency: by being open and honest about community problems, members can help find solutions. In our EU community case, being transparent that citizens’ are concerned about migration, climate change and unemployment, or that the EU is facing problems of clarity and modern communication, and calling on members to help share ideas, would lead to the creation of sustainable and efficient solutions. Two heads (or, in this case, 512.6 million EU heads) are better than one, especially when they can bring in expertise from different sectors, cultures and educational contexts.

“We have to change Europe and make it more effective by answering citizens’ concerns and building upon what we have already achieved.”
Antonio Tajani, European Parliament President

The ying to this yang is showcasing impact. On asking for collaboration, you, as the head of that community, need to highlight what impact these collaborations have had. This, in turn, drives both the level and quality of contributions, leading to even better idea creation and solution development, as members can see just how important they are for the development of the community.

The ability to adapt

It’s undeniable that we live in an ever-changing world. We’re facing challenges from globalisation and migration to new technologies and data protection concerns, as well as from climate change and populism. Communities can help us break down these hugely complex issues, and — as previously mentioned — make us feel that we as individuals can do something to combat them. But in order to do this, communities must be adaptable and ready to incorporate new ways of working to keep up-to-date with these continually evolving issues.

In most communities, members meet on a semi-regular basis to share their feedback and new ideas to improve their community. They also communicate through digital channels, trialling which platform works best for the group. They test new innovations; I’ve been part of a community who have toyed with the idea of implementing blockchain…! And they look to develop their governance structures to better serve the majority.

This is something the EU needs to have a better handle over. A lot of their systems are outdated. The way they communicate is outdated. But we know that they are open to change — as shown by the Brexit process — they are not an irrevocable community.

The other pillars are key here too. By being transparent about the difficulties of adapting themselves for the 21st century, the EU can collaborate with their members on solutions, be that new governance structures or an improved use of technology etc.

Time to build

In focusing on and strengthening these pillars, the community of the EU would be transformed, engagement would increase, and we would see the benefits of the community’s purpose.

So yes, the EU isn’t perfect, but it is a community that is worth belonging to. It’s a large and complex organism, but its desire to maintain cultural differences, improve our quality of life, and maintain unity while enhancing prosperity are core values which benefit us all.

We are all responsible for pushing our EU community to get better (remember the power of collaboration) — we have to work to improve our structures, we can’t just reject them. The first — and simplest — step is to make sure you vote this May.

If you’re interested in learning more, get in touch: contact@civocracy.org

Civocracy is a CivicTech organisation who empower local governments to better connect with their communities.