On the Usefulness of Nationalism (2)

by Andrew Stuttaford

It’s worth returning to Anne Applebaum’s fine article on the topic how nationalism could save Ukraine and pondering its implications for those failing democracies to the west of Ukraine known collectively as the EU.

First, her key point:

In the nineteenth century, no sensible freedom fighter would have imagined it possible to create a modern state, let alone a democracy, without some kind of nationalist movement behind it. Only people who feel some kind of allegiance to their society—people who celebrate their national language, literature, and history, people who sing national songs and repeat national legends—are going to work on that society’s behalf.

And then the reference to Europe, and more specifically the EU:

In the West, we know this, but lately, we rarely admit it. That’s in part because we remember very well the disasters that ethnic nationalism, cloaked as fascism or sometimes as communism, brought in the twentieth century. Europeans in particular now go out of their way to downplay national differences, which is usually good. Territorial disputes in Europe have dissolved, since open borders [within most of EU] make it simply less important whether Alsace is French or German. But European democracy would fail if European politicians did not also appeal to patriotism, did not take national interests into account, and did not address themselves to the special problems of their particular nations, too.

True enough, but reconciling that emotional and political reality within the context of a proto-federal union where open assertions of national interest are frowned upon and nationalism is a dirty word is a very hard task indeed. There is method to Brussels’s madness of trying to create a sense of European patriotism, but that does not mean that it will succeed in that any time soon (or ever).

I’ve linked before to this video of a 1962 press conference during which General de Gaulle explained (inconveniently in French, and, even more inconveniently, without subtitles) what he thought about the idea of a supranational Europe. The answer: not much. The idea was a “utopique construction.” The only possible Europe was the Europe of nation-states. Anything else was just a matter of “myths, fictions, parades.” True then, true now.

Even the Europhiles at The Economist understand:

The battle to save the euro has led to the centralisation of powers over banking, taxing and spending; and, while most euro-zone voters want to keep the euro, they have made it quite clear that they oppose the accretion of ever more intrusive powers to the ECB [the European Central Bank], the European Commission and the European Parliament. The EU’s abandoned constitution and its successor, the Lisbon treaty, were together rejected in three out of six referendums; ten governments broke promises rather than hold votes on the final version. In France, a founding member, the EU today attracts even more resentment than it does in famously Eurosceptic Britain. The populists’ appeal in the European elections is based largely on rising hostility to interference by Brussels.

This is an issue of democracy, not of economics. Voters are not impressed when they toss out an incumbent government only to be told by the EU that its replacement must stick to the same fiscal rules and economic policies. Since the transfer of powers to the centre has come about as a result of economic failure, and not of broader political debate or of resounding success, the chances of its being meekly accepted are slim.

Voters’ resentment suggests that giving the European Parliament more power has not been a reliable route to democratic legitimacy.

You don’t say. Giving the European Parliament more power was always a reliable route away from democratic legitimacy. No demos, no democracy, that’s how it goes, and that’s how it went.

Back to The Economist:

The parliament has failed in its 35-year strategy of persuading voters to take it seriously by winning an ever growing role….

If the EU is to gain democratic legitimacy, it will do so not through the European Parliament but through national parliaments. That means giving powers back to them wherever possible, including greater fiscal flexibility and more national control over social policy and employment rules.

At one time Europe seemed to be moving inexorably towards “ever closer union”—and many federalists hoped the euro crisis, like previous crises, would mean another leap forwards. Yet in the wasteland left after the crisis, voters are shaking their pitchforks at the notion of a United States of Europe. Rather than seek to expand the role of the EU’s institutions, it would be better to reinforce the nation-states where legitimacy lies. Europe’s broad strategic direction should be set by heads of government, not by the European Commission, even though that body proposes the detailed laws. The European Parliament should be downgraded, with more democratic control given to national parliaments. If the EU is to survive, it must hand powers back to the people.

All true, but it’s not going to happen, as The Economist knows very well: To pretend such (worthwhile) reforms are even remotely possible under the current set-up (“ever closer union” and all that) is to go along with the Brussels deception. In fact, the EU will continue to grow “as is”: Tumors are tough. Radical change will take a radical shock (in the EU elections and then some) of a type that The Economist would no more endorse than it would the only other realistic alternative: departure by those countries that want to take back their democracy.