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Is nationalism compatible with European integration?

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A general description one can make about the European integration process is that it consists of a series of gradual sovereignty transfers from the national to the supranational level. Powers that were once exercised by national authorities are conferred to institutions that are common to all European Union Member States. The justification for this distribution of competences is, for the most part, outlined in functional rather than normative terms.

Though the EU may be trying to emulate national symbolism, such as in having a flag, an anthem, a “Europe day” etc., what truly bestows legitimacy on European institutions is its primary corpus of law, which takes the form of two international treaties that have been ratified by all the Member States. Those are the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Whether citizens feel any emotional attachment to the EU architecture is secondary to the practical benefits it is thought to deliver. European integration is, for all intents and purposes, the means to the end of reinforcing Europe’s position in the world.

The supranational and intergovernmental nature of the EU offers plausibility to theories of state that attribute togetherness to an implicit social contract. The Union exists, in the way and to the extent that it does, because national governments have agreed to it. In the absence of such an accord the legal-institutional architecture of the Union would not be present, while the notion of “Europe” could no longer attain the signification of a political entity.

If we compare and contrast the supranational with the national level, we notice that the sense of belonging generated by nations extends beyond the narrow confines of a technical agreement codified on paper. Modern nation states can be understood in civic terms, as cultural constructs giving rise to constituted republics, yet that alone is not sufficient to describe their actuality. It does not explain how an agent, say a European citizen, gets to exhibit preference for their national “imaginary” over the supranational one. Perhaps it is due to a difference in familiarity, with the national milieu being more intimately linked to one’s daily experience. Or it may be that the ethnic underpinnings of nations, such as the common culture, language, historical experiences, shared myths and images, do indeed inform the otherwise secular conception of the nation state. A person may feel closer to their national identity than to the European one, as the former can be considered organic whereas the latter seems technocratic and artificial.

Whatever the analysis of the phenomenon may be, the fact is that both national electorates and governments have historically been somewhat sceptical of “Brussels”, or at least of an omnipotent centre for Europe-wide policy-making. It is no coincidence that the Union still is a derivative organisation where intergovernmentalism reigns supreme. The constituent nations of the EU have always thought it preferable to keep a considerable amount of sovereignty in their hands and to preserve the status of the nation state as the irreducible element of this polity. The Union is there to furnish the “added value” to what the nation already delivers, at least that is the main idea. Europe is not a state in its own right, while the European identity—or generally the European constitutional order—can only complement and functionally extend the normative achievements of the nations it encompasses.

The Union’s intergovernmental modalities of rule formation can be understood as an emanation of nationalism and its adaptation to the practical needs of the present. The telos of any consistent national foreign policy is to promote the national interest. On balance that also is true for the kind of national long term strategy that willingly participates in the European integration process, even if that entails transferring a certain degree of authority to institutions and bodies outside the immediate control of the nation state.

If intergovernmentalism can be interpreted as the external expression of banal nationalism, then the titular question is misleading and presumptuous. It is not a matter of theory whether nationalism is compatible with European integration, but of fact. From day one the European project has been about inter-state agreements, the rhetoric of uniting peoples rather than forging coalitions of states notwithstanding. The European Community’s raison d’être was to increase the collective [bargaining] power of its Member States. Its default propensity being to achieve “more Europe”, to maximise its effectiveness over its competences and to eventually broaden their scope in line with the idea of achieving “economies of scale” or similar efficiency gains, actual or perceived.

Against this backdrop, nationalism, positively understood as one’s commitment to the normative achievements of the nation state and the set of values and significations it fosters, is at the heart of the European integration process. Sovereignty transfers from the national to the supranational level are preferred for their functional value, without ever deviating from the objective of serving the national interests. Participating nation states do not forfeit their sovereignty, but pool it together in an effort to amplify their collective influence on the global order.

Europe as an end

In what sense then may the leading question of this article be valid? There are two broad justifications:

  • Transnationalism: Day-to-day problems aside, people’s understanding of Europe has changed significantly over the past decades, courtesy of the integration process, suggesting that the original idea of the supranational level as a common bureaucracy is out of sync with the times. A modern EU can, at least in theory, become a fully fledged democracy beyond the nation state.
  • Constitutionalism: European constitutional law has evolved in such ways that it can stand on its own merit, while delivering a genuinely “European” res publica. This would entail thinking of European integration as an end in itself, i.e. as not being the extension of a certain compromise between conflicting national agendas. If each state can justify its presence on the peculiarities of its own constitutional identity, then the EU qua aspiring federal republic can appeal to its own constitutional achievements as distinguishing it from its founding states.

Both views would require a certain interpretation of events in order to cast aside the nationalist/intergovernmentalist view outlined above. Their idealism may be rooted in evidence, yet they neglect—or wish to obfuscate—the truth that any impulse for reform of the EU edifice has to come from a collective decision by the Member States. Intergovernmental politics are the default option. Still, for the purposes of this article we may note the plausibility of these alternative theories.

On transationalism, it is the case that we can now experience “Europe” as a political space; as a polity in its actuality. There is such a thing as “European politics”, having its own institutions, rules and procedures, multiple levels of participation in decision-making, and so on. While many may want the content of such politics to be different, the point of fact is that they do exist. What we have is a far cry from the kind of continental power struggles that dominated Europe in ages past. We may take this for granted, though less than a century ago it was something only visionaries among our forebears would seriously consider.

As for European [constitutional] law, it does indeed have a very high standard and is protected by a much respected institution, the Court of Justice of the EU. European law cannot be understood as merely intergovernmental for it receives input from sources that are purely supranational, such as the European Parliament and the Commission. Furthermore, European law cannot be seen as a mere amalgam of national legal codes, but as a distinct category that does, nonetheless, partake of certain universal principles that are present in national constitutional traditions. While the origin of the EU may be traced back to its nation states—the contracting parties of the Treaties—this polity has since grown into its own entity, even if it still has ways to go in terms of reaching a high standard of republican values. Practical reason suggests that for the EU to remain relevant it can only proceed along the path of broadening and deepening its powers, while placing the interests of the citizen at the epicentre of the integration process.

If these are anyhow correct, they would suggest that European integration has a dual nature of sorts: (i) on the one hand, the EU is an assignee of its Member States, always having to work within the constraints of intergovernmental bargaining and its inherent drive for ad hoc solutions and arbitrariness in the application of the rules, and (ii) on the other the EU is a republic in potentiality or in the making, featuring all of the elements of a constituted democracy and, to a degree, showing that it can even have all of the trappings of national symbolism that make people feel a closer affection to it.

As with everything in politics, details matter, while binaries, the kind of “good vs bad” stories, can end up being rather misleading. I would like to think that “Europe” is not monolithic and that the European Union is not “just” the negatives or the positives, however understood. A more holistic approach enables us to appreciate the EU for what it is: a political milieu that may have its contradictions yet remains a greater whole. As for the [presumed] tension between nationalism and Europeanism, the truth may once again prove to be somewhere in the middle. Besides, is not the idea of a distinctly “European” state—one that remains distinct from other states in the world—an ambition that resembles the kind of political institution that emerged in early modernity, namely, the nation state? Is not the difference one of degree rather than substance?

Parochialism must be overcome

It is in light of the above that I may conclude this essay by commenting on Jan Techau’s February 23 article titled “Nationalism Destroys Europe—or Does It?”. The author is, as always, very clever and persuasive. He notes (emphasis mine):

Yet not every ism is a bad thing, and nationalism—understood as love for one’s nation—also has a profoundly positive side. To grasp the concept’s full meaning, it is helpful to realize that the nation is not an idea that narrows comprehension of and empathy for other human beings, but rather that it is wholly capable of doing the exact opposite. Nationalism can expand the space in which people care for each other. It allows people to feel solidarity with and connections to other humans outside the limiting frameworks of the family, the clan, and the tribe. Nationalism allows people to relate to complete strangers, share their worries, and feel responsible for their well-being. It also allows people to create strong identities that transcend their immediate local surroundings. This is why the nation-state and, indeed, nationalism have been so successful historically.

Mr. Techau is correct to point out the misplaced obstinance of some euroenthusiasts to outright dismiss the very idea of the nation as inherently evil. The nation as an historical construct has had its positives, especially in those cases where it functioned as the vehicle for the democratic re-institution of societies. The French Revolution was as much a matter of producing an identity out of the concepts of “nation” and “state”, as it was about abolishing the ancien régime.

Where I disagree with Mr. Techau is on the specifics. Indeed, nationalism can be understood as affection for one’s culture, people, shared experiences, etc. That is, after all, its original idea and was very common during the Romantic era. We may call this “banal nationalism”, which would be little more than an emotion that reflects the familiarity with one’s social-cultural milieu. Yet this is not all there is to nationalism, especially once power relations between states—conceived as nation states—are accounted for.

We can all bear witness to the suboptimality of results delivered through the intergovernmental method. The handling of the euro crisis was/is sub par due to conflicting national agendas obstructing a system-wide solution. The manner in which official Europe treats migrants and refugees leaves much to be desired and is, in some important respects, contrary to Europe’s stated ideals. The latest deal with the UK shows, once again, that the expedience of Europe à la carte takes precedence over the indiscriminate application of common principles, at least whenever that suits the plans of the governments involved in the deliberations.

Nationalism may engender solidarity and trust between people who share certain characteristics while being complete strangers, yet it does not necessarily produce a sense of togetherness for those who would appear to belong to another nation qua ostensibly homogeneous whole. True, with nationalism solidarity is no longer limited to the family or the clan. It still is limited though, especially once we adopt a broader view of events.

If this is a matter of definitions, of what we may actually mean by “nationalism” I am here adopting the view of it being a form of parochialism, of catering to a narrow collective interest while ignoring the general good. The European Union fails to deliver on its potential exactly because national agendas are allowed to confront each other without there being any way for the genuinely European interest to be put forward. The kind of politics practiced by such entities as the European Council or the Eurogroup do not really “destroy” Europe, though they certainly do subtract from its legitimacy, tarnish its credibility, and hamper its system-wide effectiveness.

A Europe without parochialism is not a nation-less Europe. Nations do not disappear by virtue of a new covenant. History has shown that on certain occasions they persist even when forced into extinction. What is at stake here is not one’s commitment to their social-cultural surroundings. It is the outward expression of [banal] nationalism that causes friction, more specifically the form of intergovernmental decision-making that it takes within the EU order.

To abolish the atavistic methods of intergovernmentalism is, quite simply, to reaffirm the commitment of citizens to the republican mode of political organisation, and to the centrality of parliament in policy-making. Affiliation to one’s nation is not a problem in itself. It never was. It is the instrumentalisation of this sentiment that needs to be addressed: the misguided idea that a governement’s role is solely to promote the narrowly-defined national interest, even if that comes at the expense of other peoples.