Against the False Dichotomy on Europe

, by Marijn Nohlmans

Against the False Dichotomy on Europe

People who believe that the choice we face in Europe today is between the nation-state and European integration are wrong. There is a third way between an American style ‘’melting pot’’ and the nationalism that has persevered in Europe over the past two hundred years and which has caused havoc for so many generations.

In all of the public debate on European integration that has taken place over the last years, one issue has stood out to me more than all the others. The fact that public debate around the nation-state and Europe almost always presents us with a false dichotomy: either we pick our national identities, or we pick Europe. Either we show our solidarity with our nation, or with Europe. (Professor Nicholas Boyle of Cambridge wrote a brilliant piece on this dichotomy in England for The New European.) We have seen this dichotomy in full force with the Brexit campaign, and we see it with Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

Proponents of this dichotomy argue that democracy is necessarily based on a state with one people. Even though I agree that having a common identity is crucial for a well-functioning democracy, there is no reason why that identity cannot be a European one. The cultural differences, although substantial in some regards, are not so great when it comes to the essential values like freedom and solidarity. In fact, they seem to be much larger within the nations nowadays due to the far-reaching polarisation. Take as an example a Dutch Wilders voter who will probably feel more kinship with a French nationalist Front National voter than with me, a left-wing progressive. That points us to something very important: that European identity is already there, even with the nationalists in Europe.

A Common European identity

I always like to ask nationalists that I discuss the EU with: would you still be so against it if the EU were putting their policy ideas into action? Most answer no.

A common identity, or “peoplehood”, is essential for a democracy, but we might not be as far off that European peoplehood as it is often assumed. The more interesting argument about Europe’s diversity that I want to address, however, might be even more important.

The claim is that the strength of Europe has historically been the diversity that, they argue, is now undermined by the EU (and, by extension, any form of political integration in Europe would) through harmonization and centralization. See the dichotomy here as well: either we harbour Europe’s diversity, or we become a melting pot a la the United States through which the beauty of Europe’s diverse cultures gets lost. I agree that the diversity of Europe is something to cherish and protect, and that it is part of Europe’s strength.

The beauty of Europe, this small speck of dirt on our planet, is its multi-layered diversity. All the different nations, cities, languages, histories, customs and cultures are precisely the reason why people from other continents revel being in Europe. It is also the reason why I, when I finished high school, travelled through Europe every summer discovering new parts along the way.

The diversity that critics say dooms long lasting European integration is precisely what makes Europe the beautiful continent and cultural centre that it is. European culture, in all its splendid diversity is something to be proud of as a European. As a Dutch citizen (but prior to that and more importantly, a European), I am proud of the whole of cultural heritage that this continent has produced. From Picasso to Daubigny, van Gogh, Munch, Homer, Goethe, Kafka, Voltaire, Picasso, Woolf: they are all part of the magnificent cultural heritage that our continent has given us. It has produced the art, music, literature, philosophy and science that have shaped our lives for the better.

This cultural diversity, besides being something to value for in and of itself, is also an enormous potential for solving problems and cultural rejuvenation. The different ways in which we look at the world and our problems is our strength because solving them always takes multiple ways of analysis.

Stronger together

At the same time we can do much more together as well. Countries acting alone have much less influence when it comes to such important issues as economic policy (global capitalism sees to that), geopolitics, trade, security and the energy transition. We therefore have much more influence on our destiny together. Furthermore, there are a lot of money-saving measures we can take as well: a shared military and foreign office are obvious examples.

Furthermore, whether we like it or not we will remain each other’s neighbours. We will continue to visit each other’s countries on holiday, or for work, or to study. Being part of Europe is, geographically speaking, inevitable. We will have to make things work in the end, and retreating into our own countries is not an option because the nature of the problems at play in the world of today are of such an international character.

Take for example my left-wing friends. They often see in the EU a neoliberal organization out to destroy workers’ rights. I agree (and I think everyone agrees) there are enormous problems with the EU as it is. Furthermore, there will always be problems in politics; never will there been a time of utopia where everything is solved. The problem, however, with being against European integration is that those left-wing ideals will never be realized on the basis of European nation-states. That is because the cause of that, capitalism, is a global beast. Therefore, the more economic power one possesses, the more influence one has. (This is why people on the Left in Britain who were in favour of Brexit will come out horribly disappointed.)

Nationhood- a defining part of our identity?

Another point to address at this point is the falsity of the idea that nationhood is the one defining element of one’s identity. People have a very diverse identity that is made up of a whole host of identities like what sport one plays, what town or province one was brought up in, what profession one has. That is not to say that the identification with the state is not important, especially in a democracy it is, but there is no reason why that identity could not also have an additional layer.

For me personally, if I am in Berlin I am conscious of my Dutch upbringing. When I am in Spain I realize that I am from Northern Europe in my attitudes and the way I live. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t also realize that I am still in Europe and can’t feel European. It also doesn’t mean that I can’t love Germany and Spain in their own right for their uniqueness and what they add to my European consciousness. Identifying with where one is from is completely OK; it is also not something that any European federalist (like myself) claims should be abandoned. We just want to argue for another layer as part of our identities: a European nation based on our shared positive values of freedom, equality and fraternity.

I want to see a federal European republic that finds the delicate balance between two extremes. I want a European republic that reaps the advantages from solidarity and cooperation, and which at the same time recognizes the different European cultures as something valuable in and of itself.

In other words, I want European integration that goes beyond the false dichotomy and provides all European peoples with a safe, prosperous republic where everyone can enjoy their own regional cultures and live with the realization that we are all, in the end, European brothers and sisters that share a common identity, history and future.

This can be the chance to culturally and economically rejuvenate our aging continent and give it a bright future. We need to rediscover ourselves in Europe. Culturally and economically we aren’t moving anywhere. Economic growth is stagnant and even when there is growth we rarely see a rise in real wages nowadays. Europe risks becoming solely a tourist destination for others, and if we don’t take the next steps into the future, there is nothing to prevent that. Now is the time to move beyond the dichotomy and secure Europe’s future and place in the world.

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