Opinion & Analysis

The EU, nationalism and regionalism

The EU is often portrayed as a vehicle for moving beyond the divisions produced by nationalism. Yet as Hans Kundnani argues, the model of “regionalism” that underpins European integration has more in common with nationalism than it first appears.

In the first, somewhat theoretical chapter of my new book Eurowhiteness, I propose to think of the European Union as the embodiment of what I call regionalism, which is not the opposite of nationalism as many “pro-Europeans”, especially in Germany, would like to believe, but rather is analogous to it.

I argue that regionalism is actually a lot like nationalism, except on a larger, continental scale. The EU is the political form that European regionalism has taken in the post-World War II period, just as the nation state is the political form that nationalism took in the several centuries before – in both cases a concrete expression of a particular identity which both includes and excludes.

Part of why I think it is helpful to think of European identity and the EU in terms of regionalism in this way is that it means we can draw on all the intellectual resources we have from the study of nationalism to understand Europe – and the EU – more clearly.

In particular, I apply Hans Kohn’s distinction between ethnic and civic versions of nationalism and suggest that, in the long history of ideas of Europe, there has been a complex interplay of ethnic/cultural and civic elements. That in turn allows us to see the possibility – and reality even in today’s Europe – of an “ethnoregionalism” that is analogous to ethnonationalism. Drawing on the work of Benedict Anderson, I also suggest that we can think of Europe, like the nation, as an “imagined community”.

However, regionalism is not exactly the same as nationalism. Rather, there are some significant differences between them. One difference that I point to is that there is a different kind of ambiguity around Europe’s limits than around the limits of a nation state, which I think goes back to the origins of European identity in Christianity.

Of course, many nation states have elastic borders. But Europe is different. Both in the medieval period when European and Christian were basically synonyms, and more recently when thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck wrote about the idea of a “cosmopolitan Europe”, there has been an idea that perhaps the whole world could be Europeanised – a kind of hubris that goes beyond that of any nation.

It seems to me that “pro-Europeans” like Habermas have wanted to have it both ways. On the one hand, they acknowledged the similarities between the process of nation building and the process of “building Europe”. In fact, this became a source of optimism for them: if it was possible to actively create national identities, it is also possible to create a sense of European identity.

At the same time, however, they also saw Europe as being normatively superior to the nation – indeed, it is precisely because they see the history of the nation state as being so disastrous that they want to go beyond it. In doing so, they often thought of the EU as transcending what Habermas called the “territorial principle” altogether rather than simply re-establishing it at a continental level – “debordering” rather than “rebordering”.

However, since the moment in the 2000s when Habermas and Beck were writing about the idea of a cosmopolitan Europe, there has been a shift in “pro-European” thinking. In particular, many of the same people who once rejected not just national sovereignty but the idea of sovereignty in general as being anachronistic have now embraced it at the European level: “European sovereignty”.

Instead of celebrating interdependence and the blurring of boundaries between Europe and the rest of the world, they now seek to defend and protect the EU from what they call the “weaponisation” of interdependence by others. In that sense, as I suggest in the book, the EU may be becoming more like a nation in accepting its limits and its particularity.

One concrete illustration of this, which has become a matter of life and death, is the EU’s approach to borders. When Habermas was writing about a cosmopolitan Europe, it was still possible to believe that the removal of borders within the EU was a precursor to – and would help bring about – a borderless world.

But during the last decade, and especially since the refugee crisis in 2015, the EU has come to see a hard external border as the necessary corollary of the removal of internal borders. More precisely, although the EU’s eastern borders became more porous after the end of the Cold War and may now be becoming porous again with the accession of Ukraine, its southern borders have hardened and may now harden even more as the number of people making their way across the Mediterranean increases.

Yet there remain important differences between nationalism and regionalism. In a brilliant review of Eurowhiteness, Peter Ramsay spells out the implications of the argument in the later part of my book for the analogy between nationalism and regionalism that I draw in the first chapter.

He points out that the EU “has always lacked the representative structures of sovereignty that characterise a nation-state” and that, as I also argue, the EU constrains democracy at the national level without replacing it with adequate democratic processes and structures at the European level. Ramsay thus suggests that regionalism, at least in the political form it takes in the EU, has all the bad aspects of nationalism (chauvinism) without any of the good aspects (democratic control of the economy). It’s a clarification or development of my argument that I find quite convincing.

About the author

Hans Kundnani is an Associate Fellow and former Europe programme director at Chatham House, and the author of Utopia or Auschwitz; The Paradox of German Power; and Eurowhiteness, all published by Hurst. He writes regularly for The Observer, The Guardian, The New Statesman and Foreign Affairs, among others.

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@European Union, 2018