The European Nation-State Is Here to Stay

By Ulrich Speck

In a 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.

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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.

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Ulrich Speck is a foreign policy analyst in Heidelberg, Germany. He is an associate fellow at Spanish think tank FRIDE, senior analyst at Wikistrat, and editor of the Global Europe Morning Brief.

The article was originally published on Carnegie Europe and is republished here with permission.

(AP Photo)

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