Constructing the European Union – deconstructing the nation-states

European Union, nation-states, Brexit and identity are the main topics discussed by Julie Cantalou in this blog post.

On Saturday, we were celebrating the EU’s 60th Birthday and today we are losing one of its biggest and most important members. What a week….

Many have referred to Brexit as a divorce, but more than a divorce between the UK and the EU, it is a divorce between two different Englands. And I refer to England rather than the UK consciously, in view of the clear pro-European stance of Scotland and Northern Ireland. In fact, it is a divorce that is happening all over Europe. One between the cosmopolitan, mostly urban, educated population and the parts of the population whose interest have not been taken into account as much as they should have.

This has become Europe’s (and in fact America’s) trap. Political systems that have in many cases not been able to ensure the wellbeing of their population and have not given a voice to their citizens. But, what is the state’s role if not to guarantee its citizens’ wellbeing? To serve the people is the source of legitimacy of the state. If it is unable to fulfil that role, it loses its reason to exist. And of course, this applies to any level of government, including the European Union.

This has become a fertile ground for nationalists. They are spreading a simple message: The EU does not deliver, so we need to strengthen the nation-states. This nationalist rhetoric then leads to nation-states blocking the development of the EU, which in turn reinforces the claim that the EU does not work. It is so simple, yet so effective. At the same time, pro-Europeans are depicted as a bunch of delusional and disconnected idiots that want more of something that does not work. This very obstruction by the nation-states is not the proof that the European project is failing. Instead, it confirms once again how harmful nationalism can be.

As we stand, member states are often blocking the development of the Union…. when they are not deciding to leave it. I hate to have to oppose the EU to the member states, because we should have multiple layers of government and more importantly multiple identities that co-exist, or even better, complement each other. But, at this stage, the reform of the European Union will have to involve partial transfers of competences to the EU. However, we should not look at this as a transactional process of taking away from one level to place competences at another level. We should always ask ourselves what is the best way to deliver for citizens. This should be the only reason why we strengthen the European Union – because it can provide better responses to many of today’s challenges.

To develop the post-national democracy that we want the European Union to become, we will need broad support. I must say, especially today, it is heart-warming to see people finally hitting the streets and showing their support for Europe. Truth be told, I have always wondered: ‘how come the European flag is the only one that I feel comfortable flying’? Is it that I am an EU-nationalist?’ I rather think it is a question of identity. Why should I feel closer to a Swiss man of 74 who worked in the finance sector, than to a 33-year-old woman working in politics in Sweden?

This exemplifies how important it is for us to always bear in mind that political communities are constructed. That does not mean that they are not real, but they are artificial. The nation-state defined as a community that belongs together ‘naturally’ is an illusion. Identities are not inherent to us, they are constructed and so are political communities. They are the result of ideas and the social construction of such ideas. Once established that any political community is constructed, why give more importance to one construct over another?

The good thing about the EU is that we have not yet forgotten, that it was not ‘meant to be’, but is merely a building site. I do not say this to diminish its importance, but to make clear that we are still working on it. And we have to continue constructing a community that is defined by its diversity and can become a home to all of us. Let’s prove those nationalists wrong!

Julie Cantalou,  Chair of the Steering Committee 

3 thoughts on “Constructing the European Union – deconstructing the nation-states”

  1. Well said and described, Julie! But while we all gently weep about Britain leaving us behind there is good news too these days. The “Puls of Europe” movement shows that there are thousands of people who are willing to demonstrate for the European Union – also in the UK. Let us support them: click their homepage


  2. Good piece, Julie. I would even say that there will only be European post-national democracy if (involved) nation-states are dismantled.


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