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More Mobility Has Not Translated Into More Bi-National Marriages Among Europeans

Interview with Helga de Valk
Copyright: wideonet

Helga de Valk on meeting and mating in the European Union single market:


Population Europe (PE): Why is research on intermarriage relevant for the future of the European Union?


Helga de Valk (HdV): For a long time different scholars have seen intermarriage as an important indicator for openness between groups. When you see a lot of intermarriage, that would suggest that there are relatively limited boundaries between certain groups. It also means that people not only meet each other but are accepting each other as a partner.


So in that sense, it is relevant in an EU perspective where the aim has always been to integrate Europe in a way that people have free mobility and through mobility, they would also create the Union from the bottom so to say. By looking at intermarriage, we can really get a sense of whether that is happening or not, and where it is happening and for whom. And we can get indications of how social relations might look like in the future in Europe.


PE: Since we now have this greater mobility and there are hardly any borders left in the EU, should we expect more intermarriage?


HdV: No, actually although mobility has increased, we should not exaggerate how much it has increased. The “Eurobarometer” shows that it is only a small proportion of the EU population that is actually mobile. But even though we see an increase in mobility, it has not translated into much higher levels of intermarriages among Europeans. That is the case basically irrespective of where we are in Europe. So it is not that we find any divide between European regions, it is the case for all the countries that we studied so far that the number of marriages between Europeans seems to be rather stable.


PE: What are the reasons for this?


HdV: What we found mainly is that marriage markets still seem much more locally determined. So the proximity of partners is still very important. When you live in a border area with another country, the proximity of the other country makes it much more likely that you are going to intermarry with a person from that bordering country rather than a random, other European. Probably also issues like language are important: In Belgium, for example, we see much more intermarriage on the Dutch and on the French border for example between citizens from these countries and  Belgians.


PE: Did you observe this pattern in basically every European country or are there country differences?


HdV: In terms of numbers, the only exception where we saw a clear  increase in bi-national unions is Spain, where the influx in European migrants has really increased much more than in any of the other countries we studied. In the recent decade of immigration very large numbers of people mainly from Central and Eastern Europe came to Spain. So apparently, relationships, marriages are really determined by who you meet in your local context as well and that is pretty much the same everywhere.


PE: Were there other common patterns?


HdV: You can see a U-shape of intermarriage: it suggests that when there are still few migrants from one country, you might have a high level of intermarriage simply because these migrants have to find a partner and they cannot marry anybody from their own group because there are not sufficient people. As their numbers increase, intermarriage reduces and potentially, the longer they stay in a country, we than find again more intermarriage, as there is more contact with other groups. But for many European migrants, it might be a bit too early to observe this.


What we, however, also observe in almost all countries, but particularly in Switzerland, Spain and Sweden, is an increase in bi-national unions with people coming from outside the EU.


PE: Do you have an explanation for this?


HdV: Certainly legal issues are a factor: If you have a partner from outside the EU being married is still the easiest way to secure a legal status, whereas with a partner from another EU-country you might cohabit without being married. And so far our research does not cover cohabiting or dating unions because there was simply no data.


But it is possible you might be dating somebody from another EU country for a while, but that might not translate into a marriage. Dating relations or short-term cohabiting relations might be the kind of prelude of more connections between Europeans from different nationalities. In the long run, in a decade’s time, that might be reflected in having more intermarriages. So in that sense we might underestimate the future because we simply do not know anything to give us better insights. In the ongoing analyses within the EUMARR project we are covering the unmarried unions for some countries to but it is too early to draw conclusions


PE: Did you observe gender differences? Who is more likely to someone from another country, a woman or a man?


HdV: First of all, the answer would be a man, but men are more likely to marry somebody from outside the EU. Women are more likely to intermarry with a European. There might be an explanation in terms of gender relations: What we observe with men marrying third-country nationals, very often these women come from specific countries elsewhere in the world like the Philippines, Thailand, or sometimes Russia and very often these women are much younger than the men. Apparently these European men are searching for specific features and for specific women. Often it is suggested that they are looking for someone who can be typified as a more traditional housewife.


Whereas women, apparently, and that might also be reflected in the numbers, particularly from southern European countries, they might favor northern European men who are more gender equal than their southern European counterparts. So again, we do not know a lot about this but it has been hypothesized by several people, that could be an explanation for the gender differences that we find.


PE: Do you personally think there would be more intermarriage if there were greater solidarity in the EU, or is it the other way around?


HdV: It is a chicken-and-the-egg question. Interestingly enough, you are pointing at a recent paper I am writing with Christof Van Mol at NIDI where we use recently collected data from the EUMARR project studying bi-national married and a control group of uni-national married couples. For the Netherlands - we just analyzed the data for the Netherlands so far– we looked at to what extent are intermarried couples more likely to be pro-European, so whether they identify more with Europe, which is the case. But when you look at whether they are more solidary with Europe, so whether they really agree that there should be more sharing between countries, then this seems not the case.


I had expected that there would be greater solidarity because these people will think of their people left behind but it seems they are not more in favor of being solidary with populations across Europe in terms of supporting it through a kind of welfare state with redistribution according to the first analysis that we did. However the fact that partners in a bi-national union identify more with Europe might be a first step.


Personally I think in terms of solidarity in Europe the EU should be aware that the mobile European is not a kind of average citizen. It looks very much like it is a tiny proportion of Europeans that are really very mobile, highly overrepresented in the students, highly skilled workers and academics, for example, but the majority of European populations are not mobile. So how can you probably expect that this tiny fraction of society will make a big change in the short run? Probably they are the front runners in the long term, but that will take much more time.


Interview: Sigrun Matthiesen for Population Europe



Helga de Valk is Professor at the Interface Demography, Vrije Universiteit Brussel and theme leader ‘Migration and Migrants’ at NIDI (Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute) and a member of Population Europe’s Council of Advisors


Helga A. G. de Valk and Juan Díez Medrano: Guest Editorial on Meeting and Mating Across Borders: Union Formation in the European Union Single Market