A (euro)crisis of nationalism

This post is archived. Opinions expressed herein may no longer represent my current views. Links, images and other media might not work as intended.

I have repeatedly stated that the systemic crisis in the Euro area is not about economics, debt, markets, the balance of payments, the role of credit rating agencies, the austerity measures, the independence of the ECB etc. The crisis we see unfolding is one of a very peculiar and toxic kind: it is a crisis of politics, one that is deeply rooted in the banal nationalism and mercantilism that prevails in the EU.

For roughly sixty years European integration, or else the laudable idea of a United Europe, has been forwarded by high politics, complex decision-making, opaque negotiations, lengthy treaties that no single individual knows what they really are about –legal experts included–, institutions that lack democratic legitimacy, bureaucrats that are detached from the reality of citizens etc.. The lofty ideal of a unified, peaceful, tolerant and progressive Europe was falsely branded, either consciously or not, as an elitist objective. It was thus kept separated from the “national interest” of each and every state that gradually joined the European Economic Community which in the early 1990s evolved into the European Union.

European integration was peddled as a more or less regionalized version of an international organization, whereby all heads of state gather to discuss issues that are of concern to them. It was never presented as a movement away from nationalism, the nation-state mentality and the implicit competition between states and “their interests”. In saying so, I am not referring to the pompous rhetoric and self-admiration that always surrounds the signing of a new treaty or the implementation of a decision that adds yet more complexity to the EU edifice; I am speaking of how integration has hitherto been an inter-governmental, statist affair. As is the case with all such types of cooperation, the underlying principle is that heads of states are meeting together to promote their own (the national) interest, which in the case of Europe happened to be a common interest in closer collaboration.

Whatever progress was achieved thus far, was not the byproduct of some Europeanist vision, but the mere coincidence of several national interests, suggesting that it will last only for as long as these interests are aligned. This was made evident in the very birth certificate of the Euro, the Maastricht Treaty, which set to create a single currency along the lines of national cooperation. The monetary policy was unified, but fiscal affairs, as well as bank supervision remained at the national level; while the Euro area was denied of any mechanisms for collective action and tools for the mitigation of asymmetric shocks (e.g. those eurobonds that so many revile). Integration therefore remained mainly an elitist affair.

The Euro was a political project to pass federalization through the back door, with a cartel of states seeking to proceed with deeper integration that would presumably give rise to a federation within the EU rather than of the EU. The obscurity and complexity of the whole venture, the unscrupulousness of promoting a federal Europe in secrecy, together with the lack of audacity and the apparent defeatism of the architects of the Euro, meant that the seeds for the demise of the project were sowed in the first day of its existence, on the very paper that envisaged its becoming.Between the lines of the articles that established the single currency one could identify the principle of nationalism, of inter-governmental cooperation, in the profound unwillingness to put aside what was “our” (national) good.

The Hobbesian war of all against all was fleshed out in the pernicious illusion of keeping national debts completely separated from one another while fully unifying the monetary policy. The debt of Greece remained “Greek”, the debt of Germany stayed “German” and so on. It was the perfect setting for a mercantilist race to bottom over which state can achieve the most favorable balance of trade at the expense of all the rest. It was the denial to accept that monetary union must always be underpinned by a single state (a genuine political union), by a common treasury (common debt), by a coherent fiscal policy and by a system-wide surplus recycling mechanism, without prejudice to the essential need of addressing internal market rigidities.

Today we see this conflict of national interests coming out in full panoply all across the Euro area. The Greeks put the blame on the Germans, the Germans on the Greeks and so on. Meanwhile nationalism or mercantilism has become the rhetoric and policy orientation_par excellence_ of most, if not all, political parties, including the leftist, who wish to cling on to the state apparatus and become part of its power elite.

One may only be alarmed by the fact that nationalism is now mainstream. This is the harbinger of an era where ultra-nationalism and misanthropy can once again get the chance to enter the fray. In Greece for instance the neo-nazi party, Golden Dawn, received almost 7% of the votes in the last elections, while Syriza, the supposedly radical left-wing party and runner-up in the last elections, gained most of its support thanks to its anti-EU, anti-Euro, anti-Merkel palaver, together with its chimerical, megalomaniac idea of “we the Greeks” will overthrow “capitalism and neoliberalism” in Europe. Though in saying so I disturb many timid souls, the plain fact is that Syriza cultivated a different brand of a “we-they” syndrome and a peculiar type of jingoism, yet it never deviated from the path of nationalism, i.e. the folly that “we” have a collective interest against “them”.

For Golden Dawn the EU is undesirable because it threatens “the nation”; for Syriza the EU is evil because it hinders the interests of “the (Greek) people”. Just as nationalists treat the nation as a unified, ontological entity with faculties of acting, thinking and judging in and of itself (hence the “national” interest); so do Syriza-like, plonky radicals think of “the people” as a monolithic, independent agency with a definite interest of its own.

A similar pattern can be discerned in many other countries, to a lesser degree perhaps (or maybe not), and with different protagonists. For example when Mr Hans-Werner Sinn, the German neo-mercantilist economist, expounds on his opposition to eurobonds, a banking union etc. and when he stresses the importance of the balance of trade; he is speaking along nationalist (mercantilist) lines, even though he embellishes his propaganda with technical terms and professorial palaver.

The crisis of nationalism is ultimately encapsulated in two phrases: “A Europe of the Nations (or the states)” and “A Europe of the Peoples”. In both cases there is an explicit or implicit political divide between individuals on some arbitrary grounds of citizenship, place of birth, culture etc. In my understanding as a libertarian and bottom-up federalist, the only appropriate way of speaking of European integration should be along the lines of “A Europe of the Europeans”, whereby “European” is every individual –any individual– who lives on this continent. Alas, we are nowhere near that, as we seem to be erecting yet more physical and mental barriers and barbed wire between us; some on the internal borders, others on the external ones.

Divided we shall fall and be plunged into misery.

Protesilaos profile photo

Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
Full profile