European integration, leftism, and the nation state

Thomas Fazi is one of my favourite writers on European politics. He holds a leftist, euro-critical position that I may label “ambitious pragmatism”, i.e. the approach of framing a progressive agenda along the lines of what is politically feasible. This contrasts with the “conformist” pragmatism others appeal to when justifying their view of upholding the status quo.

In a recent interview Fazi elaborates on his constructive criticism of certain idealist tendencies of the political left that wish to circumvent the nation state altogether. These are euro-federalist views that aim at establishing an outright European democracy as a substitute—rather than extension—of the nation states that comprise the European Union. Fazi warns:1

But this idea that some people in the European Left have, that you can somehow skip the nation-state and change things directly at the regional or even global level, without, for example, being bothered with winning elections at home – not only do I think this is wrong, I think it is dangerous. It could be the last nail in the Left’s coffin.

I find this to be a fascinating approach. The EU is intergovernmental in some important ways. Without access to national governments no political movement in Europe can enact change at the supranational level. The only direct input European citizens have is to the European Parliament, which is not the most powerful institution. The direction of European integration can only be altered if the European Council says so, and only if its legislative equivalent, the Council of the EU, agrees jointly with the European Parliament to the introduction of the necessary legislation.

If these are common knowledge to those following EU affairs, how is it that some, including an older version of the present author, try to dismiss the national level? As a former idealist of the leftist-federalist sort, I may comment at some length on the issues peculiar to European integration and the role of the nation state in it, starting with a bit of theory.2 This is not a direct commentary on Fazi’s views, but only on some of the topics he addresses. I do, nevertheless, recommend you read the interview and follow his work.

Leftist dismissal of the nation state

On the intellectual level, the nation state is almost universally considered a social construct, an inter-subjective convention that is contingent on the prevailing historical-cultural conditions. Essentialist nationalist tenets such as the ostensible atemporal presence of the nation or its organic nature as a homogeneous whole are dismissed as ideological predispositions with no basis in fact.

The nation state is a product of modernity and, perhaps, of capitalism (an otherwise vague, polysemous concept). Advances in communication technology and methods of production enabled politics—and the concentration of interests—to move beyond the confines of feudalism and tribalism. Nationalism was the natural complement to the industrialisation of the economy. Large-scale production and consumption require “economies of scale” to be efficient and, hence,—albeit often tacitly—a level of political organisation commensurate with the scope of the market. A free market is “free” so long as it is regulated as such (e.g. via the institution—and protection—of property rights).

In this sense, a leftist critique of nationalism is mostly an indictment of capitalism and/or any racist/ethnicist theories that provide for the ex post facto rationalisation of exploitation in the workplace. When leftists dismiss the nation state they generally have no intention of launching a direct assault on the artifacts of the culture fastened upon the national construct. They mostly try to emphasise the common interests shared by the vast majority of people within and across borders: a social-class-based approach.

While such arguments may indeed be plausible and empirically informed, they do not necessarily justify inferences for dismissing politics at the national level. The fact that some presence is inter-subjective and essentially “artificial”, does not render it any less immediate for the subjects involved.

By that, I mean that the experience of it is actual even if the stimulus is not mind-independent. For example, language may be philosophically considered as an inter-subjective phenomenon, something that only exists so long as there are agents using it and being aware of its inner workings: there exists no “English” as such, but only as contingent on there being English speakers, writers, researchers, scripts, and so on. Such insight, if true in a strict sense, does not change the fact that language conveys meanings and emotions; meanings and emotions that are understood for what they stand for and are, therefore, “real” or real enough.

By the same token, the academic (sometimes academistic) advances against the nation state for its capitalist origins cannot undo the fact that individuals do partake of something that is common to their fellow nationals. They are immersed in the same culture, are aware of the same shared images and narratives, appeal to a broadly common ethical code, and so on. The nation is one of the few concepts that can mobilise people into genuinely altruistic action. Solidarity within nations is the most prevalent and indeed successful form of practical morality. Whether we consider such a bond to be socially constructed, transient, a by-product of the methods of production, or whatnot, it still is graspable and present.

The connection between the academy and the world of politics is not immediate. Not all leftists engage in such esoteric discussions. Day-to-day politics require concrete action on specific issues. At their best, ideological superstructures provide a guide for choosing between mutually-exclusive options. They do, however, become impediments to action when they force their way into the forefront as replacements of the actuality of things. Wanting the world to be in a certain way does not mean that it is. One cannot just theorise their way out of social problems.

National politics and European integration

When it comes to the European integration process, the tendency to dismiss the nation state attains the form of promoting an alter-nation: the creation a European political union. From a pro-european, federalist perspective, the greatest obstacle to the realisation of a European polity is nationalism in the banal sense: the attachment citizens have to their historical nation and, by extension, the fact that governments prioritise the national good over the European one.

If only national electorates could see beyond their borders and develop a sentiment of belongingness with citizens in other EU Member States then, the argument goes, the EU would start operating at its optimal. Deliberations between national governments would be about finding the best policy for the promotion of the European interest instead of being a competition among parochial agendas.

This narrative is not without merit. It does, however, conveniently omit the crucial detail that the EU is a derivative organisation. It is contingent on the collective will of the Member States. A European political union would also partake of that principle in that it would be a union of [nation] states. The real difference between the two is in the specifics of their constitutional order and the res publica instantiated therefrom.3

A union between states is not just a description. It is the abstraction of a certain approach to policy-making that recognises the divergent path dependencies of the emerging polity’s constitutive parts. For the EU to function as an integrated whole, supranational legislation is needed that harmonises the laws between the Member States. Each nation can still keep its own traditions and peculiarities, but it needs to couch them in terms of a legal-institutional framework that enables cross-border interoperability with the other Member States.

Rule harmonisation is the quintessence of the European integration process. It is initiated at the supranational level, but must always pass through the various intergovernmental arrangements of the EU. If, for instance, national governments do not want the EU to have its own fiscal capacity, then it will not. There is no workaround.

In this light, the European integration process proceeds in accordance with a set of negotiated results—compromises—that unfold on two levels:

  1. rule-forming: an agreement between nation states at the European Council;
  2. rule-making: an agreement between the Union and the Member States via the ordinary legislative procedure that culminates in the promulgation of EU secondary law (the Commission and the Parliament are not intergovernmental entities).

The overarching theme is that European politics are an extension of—or complementary to—national politics. The supranational and national levels are not trapped in a loop of competition over power and control. They rather agree on the distribution of competences and on the ends to be pursued. For example, national governments do recognise that a single market is better than a fragmented one and, hence, agree to delegate the necessary sovereignty over competition policy to the supranational level. The transfer of power may on a micro scale seem like a relative enfeeblement of the national level, though the macro view is that of a win-win situation.

Ambitious pragmatism for EU reform

“Pragmatism” is all too often used as a substitute for “conformism”. Things are kept as they are because that typically is the safest course of action. But pragmatism need not be the equivalent of political inertia. It is about recognising the prevailing conditions in the legal-institutional order and the constraints they impose on any given initiative.

In this regard, I very much agree with Thomas Fazi’s thesis: the reform of the EU may only happen with national governments, not against them. This is about the means to an end. The leftist, euro-federalist tendency to ignore the nation state is self-defeating: it deprives itself of the capacity to realise its ambition, as it blithely avoids any effort to exercise control over a set of key factors.

In idealist terms, citizens should establish European democracy—a European federal republic—by agreeing on a codified corpus of primary law, a constitution. They would have no need for inter-state treaties or indeed for intergovernmental politics. The EU’s executive would be directly elected by the European demos, while the Council of the EU would also be comprised of elected representatives.

Where such a narrative falls short is on its disconnect from the actuality of the EU. It does not offer a way to either (i) break free from the current path dependencies in the European integration process, or (ii) offer a realisable alternative that is contingent on as few assumptions as possible (i.e. that applies the epistemological principle of parsimony).

The ideal of an outright EU-wide democracy created directly by a European body politic makes a whole range of assumptions, with the most obvious ones being that:

  • citizens have a cosmopolitan mindset that makes them think in cross-border terms, always prioritising the common good over their collective local/regional interests;
  • national constitutional traditions, and the magma of attitudes and significations attached to them, are or have become irrelevant, substituted by a common ethos on European-federation-building;
  • whatever heterogeneity in the existing legal order of nation states can be overcome with little logistical work, by simply replacing everything with a new legal standard to be agreed by the European demos.

Does the European demos exist as a self-conscious whole, and can it behave as such without any implication on national politics? What transpired for the citizens of the present, who are not overwhelmingly cosmopolitan, to change their worldview? When did national constitutional traditions become superfluous and, most importantly, in what sense did effective legislation turn into a matter for constitutional-level, Europe-wide deliberations?

Rather than start from the ideal and work backwards to make the facts fit the case, the facts should be the starting point with the intention being to align the ideal with them. An absolutist position usually translates into irrelevance in policy-making. Whereas the pragmatic approach would see things in relative terms, take even an incremental improvement over none at all, while remain adamant that more progress be achieved.

Thomas Fazi’s position makes few assumptions. To influence European politics a political movement must also exert influence at the national level. This is how the EU is designed to work. Whether such method contributes to an ideological purity, to a “true” leftism or euro-federalism, is of little significance. Things are what they are and they can only change from what they are. Reform will not come out of nowhere nor will it be the outcome of a political movement’s conflict versus all interests at both the national and supranational levels.

  1. The Idea You Can Skip The Nation-State Is Dangerous. Interview of Thomas Fazi for the Norwegian political magazine Manifest Tidsskrift. English version published in on April 5, 2016. ^

  2. I commented on my fairly recent change of mind in my 2015 yearly review. In short, I came to appreciate the importance of working within the constraints and of not allowing the ideal to be the enemy of the good. Let the ideal be the guide of the good instead. ^

  3. European constitutional order and res publica. Seminar published on April 3, 2016. Here I analyse the specifics of the European Treaties and the common good they instantiate. I basically suggest that the EU already is a constituted polity in some important ways, while it conforms with the model of a republic on a range of issues. Where it falls short is on the specifics. ^