United in diversity? The convergence of cultural values among EU member states and candidates


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27 Citations (Scopus)


The European Union (EU) is considered to be a unique economic and political union that integrates most European countries. This article focuses on the cultural aspect of European integration, which has been increasingly debated over the course of deepening and widening integration and in the context of the legitimation crisis of the EU. Among the main goals of the EU is to promote certain values, which raises the question of whether it has been efficient in (or enabled) reducing cultural value gaps among the participating countries. World polity and institutional isomorphism theories suggest that cultural values may trickle down in a vertical manner from the institutions of the EU to its member states and candidates. Furthermore, hybridisation theory postulates that values diffuse horizontally through intensified interactions enabled by the EU. These two perspectives imply the possibility of cultural convergence among countries associated with the EU. By contrast, the culture clash thesis assumes that differences in cultural identity prevent value convergence across countries; growing awareness of such differences may even increase the pre-existing cultural value distances. To test these different scenarios, distances in emancipative and secular values are compared across pairs of countries using combined repeated cross-sectional data from the European Values Study and the World Values Survey gathered between 1992 and 2011. This study finds that the longer a country has been part of the EU, the more closely its values approximate those of the EU founding countries, which in turn are the most homogenous. Initial cultural distance to the founders’ average values appears irrelevant to acquiring membership or candidacy status. However, new member states experienced substantial cultural convergence with old member states after 1992, as did current candidates between 2001 and 2008. Since 1992, nations not participating in the integration process have diverged substantially from EU members, essentially leading to cultural polarisation in Europe. The findings are independent of (changes in) economic disparities and suggest the importance of cultural diffusion as one of the fundamental mechanisms of cultural change. This empirical study contributes to the literature on European integration, political and sociological theories of globalisation, and cross-cultural theories of societal value change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)388-411
Number of pages24
JournalEuropean Journal of Political Research
Issue number2
Early online date27 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - May 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

The author is thankful for valuable comments from Torkild Lyngstad, Christian Welzel, Michael Minkov, Hans-Dieter Klingemann, Arne Mastekaasa, Joseph Hien, Cathrine Holst, Eduard Ponarin and two anonymous reviewers. The article was presented in different forms and improved after receiving feedback at several PhD seminars at the Department of Sociology and Human Geography, University of Oslo; the IACCP European Congress ‘From a Cross-cultural Perspective: Conflict and Cooperation in Shaping the Future of Europe’, July 2017 in Warsaw, Poland; the doctoral and post-doctoral seminar and conference ‘Global and Cross-cultural Organizational Research’, June 2017 in Maastricht, Netherlands; the WAPOR Regional Conference ‘Survey Research and the Study of Social and Cultural Change’, November 2016 in Moscow, Russia; and the Congress of IACCP ‘Honoring Traditions and Creating the Future’, August 2016 in Nagoya, Japan. Participation in the WAPOR conference was funded by the Russian Academic Excellence Project ‘5-100’. Any opinions expressed are those of the author alone.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 European Consortium for Political Research


  • cultural change
  • culture
  • diffusion
  • European Union
  • values


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