The return of identity politics and nationalism has put the postmodern Europe that sought to dilute and mitigate national and regional identities on the ropes.
In the essay ‘Europe: The Grand Illusion’, written in 1996, Tony Judt argued that the myth of Europe was built on the fortuitous alignment of a series of distinct interests and national political cultures – necessary given the circumstances of the post-war era and rendered possible thanks to the prosperity that flourished in Western Europe after its reconstruction.
On the agenda of Europe’s elites, certain national interests had coincided at a given moment of time. The US took care of the security problem posed by the Soviet bloc on the other side of the Iron Curtain, behind which lay that other half of Europe, exotic and unknown. In the beginning there was little of the pan-European idealism that characterised the 1990s, before a new millennium brought economic and social crisis, the rise of Europhobia and a deterioration of relations between the 28 states that comprise the EU.
In this sense, it had been an illusion to think that the circumstances that gave rise to the Union could project themselves indefinitely into the future, insisting on a sort of manifest destiny of continual expansion. Judt anticipated that the stitches of the corset around the myth of Europe would end up bursting in an expanded Union, with its unequal economic levels and divergent interests. Achieving a close union of European peoples would prove “impossible in practice”, while continuing to promise such a panacea would be an “imprudence”.
He was essentially right. Like all collective human projects, the EU is contingent on history. Without wishing to fall into determinism or alarmist prophecies, all such collective projects tend to enter existential crises when the circumstances that facilitated their creation peter out owing to a mixture of internal and external transformational factors. Random chance is often an element, too.
Something of this nature is happening to the EU. It is clear that today’s circumstances are not the same as those which gave rise to European integration. The profile of the leaders and elites in member states and institutions has also changed. Today’s average European leader and decision-maker is utilitarian, pressed ever harder than ever by the agenda of the day and short-term interests.
Even leaving aside obvious cases such as Britain and Poland, there is widespread scepticism concerning the benefits of acting within a common European framework that is seen as having lost legitimacy. According to this perception, the advantages of collective action often fail to balance out the sacrifices involved.
The EU and its nation states are in a tricky position amidst political projects based on borderless global villages, on the one hand, and local tribes in favour of borders and drawbridges, on the other. The return of identity politics and nationalism has put the postmodern Europe that sought to dilute and mitigate national and regional identities on the ropes.
In the international realm, the rule-based and multilateral Europe provided a post-Westphalian geopolitical model that now seems old-fashioned in a world of authoritarian leaders and crude geopolitics played out between great powers. Thucydides’ logic of the strong prevailing over the weak reigns, and in this Hobbesian environment, and with the US cut adrift, we Europeans are not well positioned or sufficiently united to defend our interests as a bloc.
To do so would require more decisive policies of strategic unity, with a high political cost that seems unbearable for domestic focused politicians. But the fact remains that neither are we strong enough to compete on an individual basis.
Continuing to bang on about “more” or a “better Europe” may be necessary in the bid to re-legitimise an embattled project, but it is not enough. Nor are the dynamics of autopilot and gradualism that have held sway for years now, wriggling through the gravest moments of crisis.
The dilemma is greater in that any Great Leap Forward towards quasi-federal integration is almost impossible due to the weight of national divergences, bureaucratic immobility and vested interests (which exist also within the EU’s institutions). In any case, would it be the answer to all of these challenges?
I doubt it. Almost a year ago I wrote about what would happen if the EU managed to contain nemeses such as Le Pen and Wilders. I posited that the fault-lines that produced this style of politics would remain, and urged caution against the idea that Brexit and such nemeses were the wake-up calls Europe needed.
Today we are still waiting for the Franco-German axis to resolve its differences surrounding the euro, and the rollout of so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation among 26 states might fall short of the inflated expectations of a joint European defence force. After the hiatus caused by Germany’s elections come the Italian elections, then the 2019 European elections, and so on, and onto another loop like those of hamsters in their wheels.
George Santayana defined fanaticism as redoubling your efforts when you’ve forgotten what your goal was. This is a bit like part of today’s pro-European discourse; obsessively fixated on form over content, and on integration as the antidote to all ills, many still seem to hope that the magic of their small steps will defeat the giant strides being taken outside the EU. We cannot simply keep waiting for the dawning of a Great Union that may never arrive.
And yet the myth of Europe has worked, albeit not in the absolute sense that is often asserted. It has done so especially when interests within the EU have converged (such as in the salvaging of the euro). On the outside, Europe still represents a narrative and a model that, while imperfect, inspires progress in some Balkan countries or in Ukraine, for example.
Herein lies the other paradox: the “Europe” that fights against authoritarianism and for democratisation and casting off the yoke of history and geopolitics – the Europe of the Mind that Judt talked about – is felt with greater intensity amid the effervescent politics of Belgrade and Kyiv, and generally on the EU’s borders, than in Brussels and other Western capitals.
For this reason, we Europeans must ask ourselves the big questions once again and listen to Judt, so as to avoid a situation whereby “Europe” becomes an obstacle to the resolution of problems and tackling underlying dilemmas. Yes, issues like security will require more Europe, without prejudice to some national strategic autonomy and new alliances with other actors.
Other issues, such as the crisis of democracy, require a more robust democratic discourse and collective mechanisms against abuses of populist majoritarianism, within and without the EU. It is necessary to seek broad political consensuses based on constitutions and revamp national projects, such as that of my country, Spain.
What’s more, we have a key dilemma between contraction and expansion: the former would lead us to attempt to construct a merely euro Europe, a fortress of limited ambitions; while indefinite expansion is simply not politically palatable.
Perhaps an intermediate point between voluntarism, short-term pragmatism and a strategic (and selfish) retreat is to commit to the creation of a public space for democratic countries with common institutions, values and rules, promoting economic growth and competitiveness, and with differing security link-ups among its members.
Such a space would have substantial connections with neighbouring states such as Tunisia, which aspires for closer ties with Europe. It would be a flexible and modernised network of various nodes, including an EU with nuclei of greater political integration according to rigorous criteria, and from which other Europeans who meet these standards would not be excluded.
This would represent a substantial step towards a ‘Great European society’ fit for the 21st century.
An earlier version of this article was published in Spanish by El Mundo. Translation by James Badcock
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.