The EU should rebrand itself as the protector of its nations
If one image can sum up the paradoxes that increasingly lie at the heart of the European project, , this may be a good one. Last month, hundreds of thousands of Romanians demonstrated against corruption. As night fell, they used the lights on to form the national flag. Then, with equal enthusiasm, they used the same lights to form the star-studded blue and gold EU flag. Both flags mattered; both were dear.
National populists across the continent, including in Britain, must have gaped. What? A symbol of the dreaded EU brandished with passion by people who clearly take pride in their sense of national belonging? How could that be?
I spent my teenage years in Alsace, on the border between France and Germany, and was taught in school that as Europeans we should tirelessly work to overcome the nation-state, because of the devastation it had wrought on the continent. This was in the 1980s, when Jacques Delors and others introduced the single market and the distribution of – which played no small role in bolstering the European project’s popularity. In those days, there was something almost theological about the belief that a new European identity would emerge. Some of that survives today, within a small circle of federalists, and it is hard to fault them for being utopian. But it hardly squares with the priorities and anxieties that currently animate most Europeans.
It all boils down to one question, perhaps: what can truly bind people together? Pro-EU liberals think it’s best to set aside a staunch attachment to one’s nation if we want to have any hope of living in harmony. “Sovereignists”, on the other hand, see the EU as a wrecker, a diluter and the antithesis of what people genuinely identify with first and foremost, which is their cultural or ethnic belonging, defined geographically.
We have become accustomed to the latter narrative getting prevalence. That isn’t to say there isn’t pushback, as , as well as in gatherings expected in Rome this weekend to celebrate the EU. But the antics of , in Hungary and hardline Brexit ideologues have made many more headlines.
This line of thought doesn’t just exist on the right. Remember how Greek nationalism – not just neo-Marxism or radical socialism – was at play when impoverishing a small, proud country. It felt as if Europe was going down a rabbit hole.
Suffice to say, the question of nationalism is far from simple. When the Poles and the Balts revolted against Soviet control, or anti-colonialists waged their independence campaigns, only those who wanted to keep entire peoples under oppression faulted them for their national aspirations.
How do you bridge the gap between a natural desire for national pride and a commitment to the EU as a freely chosen project of shared sovereignty? Well, the Romanians managed to do just that, there on the street. What they did, in effect, was neutralise the populist narrative. Whether it was calculated or not, they appropriated part of its rhetoric by showing that fighting for a nation’s wellbeing and image of itself can comfortably sit alongside believing in a European project – and that these two things are deeply intertwined.
This is precisely what stood at the heart of the European construct from the outset. It was nationalism of the right kind, or patriotism if you prefer, that motivated the founding fathers. This will sound counterintuitive to many who, like me, were taught to memorise ’s words about “not forming a coalition between states, but a union among people”. It’s worth reading Tony Judt’s 1996 book An Essay on Europe, which sheds light on the EU’s genesis – and anticipates some of the nation-centric trends we witness today.
The historian makes some key points. In the early 1950s France saw that its clear national and, yes, selfish interest lay in setting up the European Coal and Steel Community (the EU’s ancestor). It needed access to German raw materials for its economic rebuilding (which Monnet had a major role in). And West Germany’s chancellor fully grasped that it was in his country’s interest to join an internationally accepted scheme (“This is our breakthrough,” he said).
Meanwhile, the Dutch and the Belgians needed a revived German economy as a market. Britain stayed aloof because it needed neither German raw material nor markets (at the time), nor did it need international recognition, which it had in abundance.
As Judt puts it, “It was not idealism that drove Europeans in those years, nor an inevitable coming together.” Nor, he noted, was anyone at the time talking of “giving up sovereignty”. It was in essence a hard-headed evaluation of how a commonly built structure could benefit separate nations.
There is arguably no better time than now to revive this calculus. However justified it is, saying the EU is a values-based entity for peace and stability (and there will be much of that in the official speeches this weekend) only goes so far these days, because that’s not always where most people’s emotions lie.
Nations form the rich, unique patchwork of Europe, as much as other diversities do. Strength in numbers, the usual formula that EU institutions promote, may be usefully complemented by another message: far from being a threat to them, the European project can protect them. This could help debunk populist myths – by stealing from them. Why not do so unashamedly? After all, it’s true that protects its nations – it is a key shield from the chaos of the outside world though, granted, one that needs to be much improved.
Europe faces unprecedented challenges. Terrorism, conflict in the Middle East, migration, war in eastern Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea and China’s growing global ambitions, not to mention Donald Trump, the trend towards authoritarian strongmen and, soon, full-blown – the list has only grown.
Nationalism can produce nightmares, and Europe must never forget that lesson. But one way of defusing the evil it can nurture may be for the EU to rebrand itself as its member nations’ best defender.