Last week on Europp Blog, Martin Eiermann argued that European liberals ‘are retreating into a compartmentalised world of nation states.’ I disagree, but he nevertheless makes an interesting point. Not interesting in the sense that European liberals actually are retreating back into the ‘compartmentalised world of nation states’ – because they are not – but about his assumptions regarding the concept of the nation-state, which are illuminating.
European liberals are currently behaving like depressed hippies. A decade ago, they were rocking and rolling. They looked to a world a world where the ‘European Dream’ – their dream – would take hold; where Europe would come to ‘run the twenty-first century’ through their favoured ‘post-modern’ methods. Advocating international law and ‘effective multilateralism’, ‘transformative power’ and the ‘comprehensive approach’ to ‘crisis management’, European liberals hoped to change the world for the better. They imagined that the nation-state would be moderated by forms of regional integration and ‘global governance’, and that war and conflict would cease forever.
Granted, this is a caricature, but not that much of one. Unfortunately for them, their ‘dream’ has gone sour. Rather than delivering untold prosperity, their pet project par excellence – the Euro – has become increasingly unpopular among the European people(s). As Eiermann grudgingly points out, ‘within a few short years, the Eurozone [European integration’s primary achievement] has come to stand as a proxy for misguided integration, expanding bureaucracy, unrestrained debt, and global crisis.’ The European Union is now increasingly unpopular both within and without. It has become less ‘sticky’ and ‘magnetic’ as surrounding countries begin to question the merits of accession (such as Turkey and Ukraine); and even its own people have come to question its utility. Thus, European liberals are currently lost, trapped in a terrible bind from which they cannot escape.
Let’s get one thing straight: the Financial Crisis did not cause this problem (insofar as anything can be caused). Rather, the Financial Crisis acted as a trigger. It revealed a terrible but papered-over dislocation, which, in so many ways, was just waiting to reveal itself. This dislocation is the ‘problem’ of nationalism, which the supporters of the European project cannot – indeed, do not want to – confront. This is because they want European integration to be incarnated with only one element of modernity – liberalism – but they are unable to accept that liberalism must be ‘grounded’ in a demos, a social and political community (modernity’s other element). The depressed hippies see organised power as inherently dangerous and unpredictable; for them, organised power – best symbolised by the nation-state – must be ‘disciplined’ through undemocratic supra-national structures, like a Benthamite Panopticon.
This is clearly reflected by the latest ‘buzzword’ articulated by European liberal elites – ‘citizens’. It now appears at least once or twice in every speech made by a senior official. As Herman van Rompuy recently proclaimed:
For decades now, European leaders have strived to bring Europe “closer to the citizens”. Yet, paradoxically, one of the reasons why Europe is being questioned today is precisely because it has become so close to its citizens! (Finally!)
Indeed, while Europe has become closer to Europeans, they do not feel any more European. In the past in Europe – and in the present, in other countries, such as the United States – ‘citizens’ was qualified with an identity, i.e., European or American citizens. But not now, not in contemporary Europe, where the European qualifier seems to have been dropped (in most cases). European peoples are now nothing more than ‘citizens’. We are all ‘citizens’: this is the logical conclusion of an identity constructed by institutionalised, technocratic governance (as opposed to constitutional, democratic government).
Of course, Europeans will never identify as ‘citizens’. ‘Citizens’ does not pull at the heart of anyone. No-one will ever be prepared to die for ‘citizens’. ‘Citizens’ is a hollowed-out and meaningless abstraction, the only identity left for depressed hippies to advance. The European liberal elites might as well classify us all as lemons.
The constitutional, democratic nation state – and the ideology that sustains it, i.e. nationalism (in its various incarnations) – is a much maligned concept in some parts of Europe. Among Europe’s depressed hippies, it is associated with war and genocide. But this assumption is too extreme. It is correct that some forms of nationalism – especially ethno-nationalism or Soviet nationalism – have led to nothing other than racist or class-based persecution, which led in turn to mass graves along the side of newly-built Siberian roads or in Yugoslav valleys, or piles of mangled bodies in the gas chambers of facilities in occupied Poland. But not all forms of nationalism have led to Sevvostlag, Auschwitz or Srebrenica. After all, extermination camps were never founded by the French and the British. Likewise, the Dutch and the Norwegians did not orchestrate mass executions in the forests of Eastern Europe; and the Swedes and the Danes never sent ‘undesirable elements’ to die doing heavy labour in the Gulag.
This is the point that European liberals have yet to grasp: that nationalism is not inherently bad; and that without nationalism, European integration is ultimately unsustainable. Without a powerful fantasy that promises a fullness yet-to-come – a national utopia – European integration will remain hamstrung. As the British founders of the United States realised, political liberalism is but abstraction if it cannot permanently incarnate a socio-political community, otherwise known as a nation-state. Without the two sides of the modern coin, without a glue to bind them together, Europeans will find themselves neither in control (which needs organised power) nor with a ‘grounded’ form of liberalism (liberalism incarnated into an evident socio-political community) – a situation that can only end as a nightmare, both for the existing European nations, and perhaps even for liberalism itself.