How Europe’s Nationalists are Beating its Federalists

The European identity has every bit as much a right to exist as the nationalist, and the European people have every bit as much a right to defend their identity and sovereignty as the British.

The European Union isn’t working. Spain and Greece have had unemployment rates over 15% for nearly a decade now. France is stuck implementing labour market reforms in a bid to make its economy more competitive with Germany’s. The European Union is supposed to help Europeans decide their common destiny together. Instead, it’s become a vehicle for imposing the Germanic economic model on a resistant population. Germany’s Hartz reforms made its labour markets more “flexible”. By pushing down German wages, Germany was able to get a competitive advantage over other European countries, and those countries couldn’t protect themselves because of the single market. Cheap manufactured goods flowed from Germany to the rest of Europe, and the rest of Europe’s money flowed to Germany. The German firms dumped their profits in the German banks, and the German banks re-injected the cash into the south so the southerners could buy more German imports.

Debt piled up, and when the American housing crisis hit the German banks ran out of cash to throw at the south. The southern economies contracted and their tax revenue plummeted. They needed debt relief, but the European Union couldn’t give it to them without Germany’s say-so, and Germany wanted its banks to get paid. Germany would only agree to bailouts if the southern countries agreed to make their economies more like Germany’s. The EU couldn’t compel Germany to be more compassionate. So the south was left with a choice – stay and Germanify, or leave and embrace chaos.

nationalists, brexit, EU
If Britain leaves the EU relatively disaster-free, other European countries may have a re-think

Most chose to stick to the devil they knew. But then Britain, a northern country – not one of the states burdened by debt, not even one of the states on the Euro – decided to leave the EU. If Britain leaves and if leaving isn’t a disaster, other European countries may have a re-think.

The thing is, there’s a third choice beyond staying or going. Europeans could create something new. As it stands, Germany increasingly exercises a veto over other countries’ economic policies. But Europeans could build federal institutions and decide their economic future together, where the views and priorities of each European citizen would count every bit as much as those of the folk who live beyond the Rhine.

It’s not as if no one argues for this. Yannis Varoufakis wants it. Thomas Piketty wants it. Even Martin Schulz is into it, and he’s German. It hasn’t gone anywhere. Why? Because who has the authority to create it? European political institutions are set up as nation-states. This is true even on the European level – nation-states like Germany make the key decisions. The European parliament has almost no power. The nation-states’ claim to authority is grounded on this notion that they represent specific national peoples. The British state conceived as the sovereign is representative of the British people. The German state represents the German people, the French state the French, the Italian the Italian, and so on. When Europe runs into trouble, Europeans try to use their nation-states to help them, but the nation-state frames everything in its own terms. When Britain has a referendum on Brexit, it claims the referendum is legitimate because it represents the will of the British people. Insofar as Brexit is democratic, the “demos” which rules is the British demos.

Federalists want to argue that there is, or should be, a European people with its own set of sovereign institutions. Insofar as European institutions are democratic, it must be because the European people rule. The European people cannot rule through nation-states, because the nation-states don’t represent the European people. When Germany makes decisions about the economy of Greece or Spain, it cannot act on behalf of the European people, it can only act on behalf of the Germans. Because there is no European institution which speaks for the European people, the EU becomes an oppressive system in which the stronger nations exercise economic dominion over the weaker.

Federalists want to argue that there is, or should be, a European people with its own set of sovereign institutions

Nationalists exploit this. They tell us we should leave, and they tell us it’s democratic if we vote to leave through our nation-states. But the act of voting on the European question through the nation-state itself presupposes that the national people is the relevantly sovereign people. If there is or ought to be a united European people with a sovereign federal state, the decision to hold a national vote on membership is secessionist, because the very concept of a “national” vote denies the existence and sovereignty of the European people. British nationalists have no scruples about imposing this view on the rest of us. They insist over and over that national votes are democratic because the British people are making the decision. To them “democracy” and the nation-state fit together seamlessly. But if we believe that the European people are the relevant demos, a national vote can never be democratic. It can only be secessionist.

nationalists, brexit, EU
Nationalists tell us it’s democratic if we vote to leave through our nation-states

Nationalists and federalists have different conceptions of the people which ought to rule in a European democracy. The nationalists are willing to impose their conception by hook or by crook – the federalists are unwilling to speak up for theirs. If the entire people of Europe voted on Brexit, it wouldn’t be close.

The nationalists attempt to avoid being bound by this logic by insisting on the principle of self-determination. If some group of people get it in their heads that they don’t belong to the larger group, the nationalists believe this smaller group has an infallible right to secede and create new institutions which express its will. How dare the Europeans try to make Britain stay! Doesn’t Britain have the right to determine its own future?

The trouble is that they apply this logic selectively. When a region wants to break out of the nation, nationalists don’t take kindly to that. Spanish nationalists didn’t think Catalonia should be allowed to go. They said Catalonia was part of Spain, that it was undemocratic for Catalonia to attempt to decide the question on its own, without the input of the Spanish people. Those who would support Catalan independence or Scottish independence have to ask themselves how far this principle of secession goes. Can London vote to leave the UK? Can the city vote to leave London? Can a single billionaire family vote to leave the city, thereby making itself immune to taxation? If all that matters is whether the people in question feel that they are culturally distinct and would be better off on their own, why not? The principle of self-determination makes it very easy to break communities apart, but very hard to put them back together again. In a world with global problems like climate change and rampaging inequality, fragmenting our institutions makes them weaker and makes corporations and oligarchs stronger.

The principle of self-determination makes it very easy to break communities apart, but very hard to put them back together again

If we want to fight the nationalists, we have to fight back against their claim that the national people is primordial, that it takes precedence over every other conception of the demos we might devise. That means rejecting the democratic legitimacy of the Brexit referendum because the very concept of a national decision about EU membership is itself prejudicial (not because people were poorly informed, or because Parliament should have taken the decision). To regard secession as a right is to deny the existence of the European people and the sovereignty of its institutions. It is to deny the identities of millions of Europeans, both inside Britain and throughout the continent.

When nationalists and federalists face each other, the federalists are not the only ones trying to take an identity and a culture away. The European identity has every bit as much a right to exist as the nationalist, and the European people have every bit as much a right to defend their identity and sovereignty as the British or the French or the German or the Spanish or the Greek. Nationalists don’t have a monopoly on the concept of democracy.

The differences between the nationalists and federalists go all the way down to bedrock–they go all the way down to who is sovereign and who is entitled to decide the form of the state institutions. Nationalists and federalists understand “the people” differently and consequently they understand “democracy” differently. This means that there are no institutions which can resolve the disagreement among them which both can recognise as sovereign and legitimate, because there are no institutions which can simultaneously represent a national people and the European people as a whole. However the crisis in Europe ends–with a return to the nation-state or with the creation of a federal state–one group of Europeans is going to brutally coerce another, destroying a culture and a way of life.

Nationalism or federalism. Whose side are you on? The nationalists know. Do we?

Benjamin Studebaker

Benjamin Studebaker

American PhD student specialising in politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge.

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