In his recent post, Jan Techau argued that the euro crisis makes it necessary that Europeans separate “state” and “nation” in order to move towards a substantial new step in the European Union’s integration. He says: “The survival not only of integration itself, but of Europe’s ability to create and maintain wealth, stability, and freedom at the current unprecedented level, will depend on whether Europeans are able to think state without nation.” In Techau’s view, “nation” is a mainly cultural phenomenon—identity-creating—while “state” encompasses everything political, namely sovereignty and legitimacy. In the process of turning the EU into a federal entity, “existing allegiances and identities” can remain in place “while something additional is created on top,” says Techau.
Having studied some French history, I have a different view of the modern nation—as something created by and shaped by politics, and therefore inseparable from the modern nation-state. It was during the French Revolution that the French nation invented and defined itself as the subject of politics and took possession of a state that was, under the monarchs, still weak, always struggling hard to get ordinary people to pay taxes and serve in the army, and permanently challenged in its rule by self-confident, powerful nobles and wealthy bourgeois in the urban centers. The pre-modern state possessed very little sovereignty and legitimacy. Only when the nation—the political body made of citizens—came into being and overtook the state did the state became strong, united, and centralized and the only legitimate political expression of the will of the people, the holder of sovereignty. Nation, state, and citizenship became inseparable, the indivisible nation—la nation une et indivisible—was born. Not as a cultural superstructure, not as folklore, but as the force that has created the modern state. On these foundations, laid by the revolution, Napoleon could consolidate the modern bureaucratic state and export it during his wars in continental Europe. From that moment on, nation and state were two sides of the same coin. The modern democratic nation-state was born, and in the two centuries that followed it, conquered the world making empires stumble and fall.
It is hard to see how the combination of legitimacy, identity, solidarity, and efficiency that makes the democratic nation-state so irresistible and successful can be broken up into pieces, or separated into functions that can be assigned to different levels.
The modern nation-state is and is likely to remain the political space in which citizens recognize each other as equals and as some kind of distant relatives, an enlarged family. It is in the nation-state where political communication takes place, where people share arguments and passions. It is the nation-state where the grand narratives are being shaped about the past, present, and future of the common shared lives of citizens. And it’s this feeling of belonging to a larger community of shared destiny that makes citizens ready to sacrifice for one another by supporting the weaker with transfers and by ultimately being ready to sacrifice their lives when the nation is being attacked.
Even after decades of European integration, the role of the nation-state as the epicenter of political life in Europe remains unchanged. The entire political life of the EU’s constituting entities, the member states, plays on a national level. Political communication across borders remains rare, and even the creation of a European Parliament hasn’t led to the development of a common political space in Europe.
From the standpoint of economic logic, the solution to the euro crisis is evident: the eurozone is not an optimal currency area, therefore it has to become one—to develop into a federation (or political union). And for federalists, the crisis is a once-in-a-generation chance to reach a breakthrough towards the creation of the long-awaited “United States of Europe”. But what looks evident from an economic or a federalist perspective has very little support from citizens.
There is no political movement pushing for the transfer of key elements of sovereignty to the EU or eurozone level. The introduction of the euro did not bring Europeans closer together, it did not create a common political space in parallel to the economic space. Narratives about the euro crisis remain strikingly national, and they are worringly diverging. Euroscepticism is on the rise. It looks rather as if the limits of integration have been reached.
The only major player in the eurozone that is pushing for a closer union, besides the Brussels institutions, is Germany. But Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to go down that road is built on weak support at home. Germans support Merkel’s EU policy not because they want to turn the EU into a federal state, but because Merkel presents herself as the relentless fighter against foreign pressure to make Germans pay more for crisis countries. And the way “fiscal union” and “political union” are understood in Berlin is built on sand: they are perceived as an instrument to give Germany more power and control over other eurozone states. But of course in a real federation, Germany would not play a bigger role than Bavaria in Germany. This is certainly not what Germans want—neither voters nor political elites. Political observers therefore are suspicious of Merkel’s newly-found love for federalism; they see it either as poorly thought through or as a mere short-term tactic directed towards the financial markets sending them the message that the eurozone is on the way to becoming an optimal currency area.
If it’s true that the limits of integration have been reached, that there is no political support for moving the eurozone towards a closer union, then the only option remains to improve EU governance without building new institutions. Creating new central institutions that are weak and cannot fulfill their job because they are not backed by political will in the member states can only backfire. Instead, the eurozone member states should try to become better in what they did relatively successfully in the past: managing a common currency by pooling sovereignty. There is ample room to improve inside the current framework.
And they must focus on improving the structural conditions for growth, to get out of the downward spiral. Liberalizing markets, cutting back state bureaucracies, creating opportunities for entrepreneurship, pushing through free trade agreements, opening up for new technologies—this is what needs to be done to bring Europe back on the path to growth. Not only in the South, but also in surplus countries such as Germany. It will be the ability of European politicians to make the case for a liberal Europe and to push back against the heavy lobbying of strong and well-organized interest groups that will ultimately decide the fate of Europe. But this is of course much harder work than to simply meet at a summit and talk about utopia.