I am writing this article motivated mainly by my European Economic Policy professor of the Università Comerciale Luigi Bocconi.
As a result of the last article I published, Nations and States: The smaller, the better? (Nacions i Estats: Com més petit millor? , available in Catalan), an anthropologist friend recommended I read a true master piece called “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism” of Benedict Anderson. On the first one, my teacher stated a commonly repeated misleading idea which I will reply to here, the second one, the B. Anderson’s work, gave me useful insights which I will use in my response. Indeed, this article will mix different Social Sciences such as Economics and Anthropology, so I recommend to all purists and anyone who doesn’t like interdisciplinarity to stop reading here.
“EU has to deepen its political union in order to compete and protect itself against the other big powers”
This is the mainstream idea among the mistakenly called Europeanists (Note 1, at the end of the article) that I am going to discuss here. Indeed, the defenders of EU and its empowerment also give other arguments in favor of it which I could not easily refute and I might even agree with. However, to focus on a single topic, I am not going to debate whether the EU existence prevents wars within Europe (certainly does) or other political and economic issues. Either way, some of them will come up during this article in order to clarify ideas.
Above, we can observe the current ranking of the richest States (and the EU) in absolute terms. Including the EU as if it was a normal State allows us to understand the political importance of the Union in International Policy. Its existence draws a world with three main superpowers, where the Europeans are the leaders of these three. Inversely, without the EU, the world would be ruled by US and, in a level below, China. However, Europe couldn’t be neglected even in this case, since Germany, France and UK would still have a relative good position in this ranking.
Nonetheless, this equilibrium of superpowers is likely to change in the next decades, as we can see in the graph above. Still, the USA and China will lead the ranking but the so-called New Industrialized Countries will surpass the European economies. In this hypothetical future world, the role of Europe would be insignificant. If instead, European countries unified in a single economic and political union, the Old Continent would be a crucial actor in the international sphere:
(Source: Bocconi slides, data from Eurostat)
Voilà the argument on why the EU should deeper its political union, ending up in the USE (United States of Europe).
Indeed, this last graph presents a more stable world, since the top 3 don’t change in 25 years and “dangerous” countries like Russia remain under the shadow of Western Europe. Moreover, in my opinion China won’t be the leader, since it might collapse as a result of a lack of deep institutional reforms (D. Acemoglu and J. A. Robinson, 2012); this would imply an even more stable future, at least for the Western World.
Nevertheless, what pro-EU ignore when arguing this is that the cure could be worse than the disease. Although deepening the political union may have benefits, it could have secondary effects which may destroy Europe. In fact, the first symptoms of this are showing up in some countries.
Europe, nations and sovereignty
“Nation: A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory” Oxford Dictionary
Since the XIX century, the European political organization has changed from empires and kingdoms to nation-states. This was possible thanks to the rise of nationalisms, which implied a dramatic change in the paradigm: the sovereignty didn’t lie in an only person (king or emperor) anymore, but on the Nation, defined as the population. Thus, the idea of national sovereignty overthrew the Old Regime. In fact, modern democracies are based on the concept of national sovereignty, which is the framework where we apply the democratic game of minorities/majorities through suffrage.
However, not all democracies are nation-states without kings. For instance, there are 12 sovereign monarchies in Europe. In 11 of them (all but the Vatican) the sovereignty lies in the nation anyway, and kings/queens have just a symbolic role. Moreover, since all rules have exceptions, UK cannot be considered a Nation-State but a Nations-State. That is, although it is a democratic state, the scope of the sovereignty goes further than just one nation; it includes three nations (England, Wales and Scotland) and part of another one, Ireland. This isn’t a particular case because more than one national identity coexists in the same State, but because all national identities are recognized. I will retake the UK case later on. Its specificity can help us to understand better the problem which is facing the EU and how to deal with it.
Europeanism and social identification
The Social Identity Theory and the Social Psychology in itself taught us how individuals identify with a group (in-group), reinforcing the trust in its members while reducing it towards those who are not in their group (out-group).
(Source: Social Identity Theory, Age of the Sage)
Linking this with what I explained before, Nations are the strongest social categorization we can find. Hence, distrust between different in-groups is something normal according to the Social Identity Theory. This is one of the main factors explaining why Europe has been immersed in continuous periods of war.
Nonetheless, the social behavior has not been taken into account during the formation of what currently is the EU. Unfortunately, the strategy has been based on economic integration in order to align interests and thus, reducing incentives to any kind of conflict. However, overlooking the social psychology and the strong influence of the idea of nation in intergroup relations within Europe could lead to an implosion of the European supranational institutions when the economic incentives differ due to slumps or any kind of economic instability.
In other words, EU will not be able to successfully deepen its political union unless a European Identity exists. This would enhance the connection between European citizens and their institutions, creating a true demos. Indeed, social unity is required previously to political unity.
Even though it is difficult to prove that a European demos is inexistent or very weak, since it is a psychological matter, data about the turnout in the European Parliament elections indicate a negative trend and a huge disaffection compared to the interest that national elections arouse.
(Source: UK Political Info)
As it can be seen in the graph, the average EU turnout has decreased continuously to very low levels. Despite this low turnout and the negative trend, it cannot be inferred directly from these data that EU is regarded as a distant institution. A comparison between States and the EU will give us more accurate information about the strength of the European demos.
(Source: own elaboration, data from The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance)
Above, we have the EU turnouts compared to the State elections of the 4 most important members. Data show how big is the gap between both types of elections, meaning that EU arouses little interest compared to national issues. It can only be explained by the Social Identity Theory approach. In fact, regarding Economic theory the effect should be the opposite. Since the EU decides more than the 70% of the laws of its members States, citizens should have more incentives to vote in the European Parliament than another one.
Even in the European Parliament elections, citizens still vote thinking in national terms. For instance, in my country, Catalonia, there was a big turnout increase between 2009 and 2014 in the EU elections, from 36.94% to 47.63%. This dramatic increase was not due to European political factors like an increase of Europeanism (aka social identification with the European framework). It was due to the “national debate”, where indepedendentists saw EU elections as a way to show the social support of the independence (note 2).
Therefore, the gap in turnouts is not the only proxy of the lack of Europeanism. A more detailed analysis should be undertaken in each country to test whether citizens vote regarding European framework or the national one. However, the heterogeneity of the European Parliament within each group indicates it is so.
The risk of deepening the political union: My EU-Skepticism
What will happen, then, if the EU political union is deepened having these low levels of European social identification? The consequences can already be observed: Syriza (Greece), Front National (France), UKIP (UK), Podemos (Spain)…
The common denominator of all these parties is the recovering of sovereignty. Even though their discourse diverges politically, they are all a consequence of the same nationalistic wave. In the worst hit zones, South European countries, this idea of recovering national sovereignty has been viewed as a “re-empowerment of people” (sic) and thus, carried out by the leftist. In richer countries like France and UK, the flag of Euroskepticism has been hoisted by right wing parties, appealing to the more conservative idea of Nation as something metaphysical.
It definitely doesn’t matter which form the EU-Skepticism takes because they are all symptoms of the same disease: the imperfect construction of the European project.
Unfortunately, EU has always been a technocracy, a supranational institution ruled by a bunch of bureaucrats: enlightened despotism. Despite all attempts to truly democratize EU, it hasn’t been enough to achieve social unity. Therefore, without social unity but political unity, it was just a matter of time to reach this critical point.
However, the past cannot be changed and complaining about bad decisions won’t lead to a better situation. Moreover, if these internal tensions become greater, the break-up of Europe will be unavoidable.
A European demos
At this stage, what can be done to repair these mistakes? Actually, the answer is quite straight forward: creating a European demos. Nevertheless, achieving that is not so easy.
As I said in the introduction, the B. Anderson’s book “Imagined Communities” gives some insights about how nations were created and spread all over the world. Those key factors which once served to build up Nation-States could be useful to reinforce the European social identity (demos).
In his book, Anderson uses the term “imagined” (not to be confused with “imaginary”) because any member of the community cannot really know all the other members. Therefore, his community is based on his beliefs; he trusts that within the geographical limits of his community another person believes in this community, and both trust in each other although they have never seen one another and probably never will.
And why does this happen? The highlighted factor by the anthropologist is the media. Indeed, the proliferation of printed press, specially the newspapers, had a crucial role in the awakening of nationalisms. It allowed the generation of a sense of social unity among readers, who were concerned about the same issues (those which appeared in the news). Moreover, the idea that in another part of your community there are people reading exactly the same as you creates a strong imagined bond between members of such community.
In order to apply these concepts of nationbuilding to the European case, the first and main obstacle we find is the language. The reason why most of States fit in linguistic zones is easy to deduce: the bounds of the media during the 19th century were the bounds of the vernacular language. Hence, a European lingua franca is required to construct a European media network.
Probably you readers are thinking that English is the perfect one, that is, the one which suits better to our case. In fact, in this precise moment English is being used as a lingua franca since I am not English-speaker and you might not be either. However, in my point of view English is far from being the best option of European lingua franca.
On one hand, English is not the most spoken language in the EU as a first language (13%) although it is if we add those speakers who have English as an additional language (51%) (Source: Europeans and Their Languages, European Comission). German, instead, would be a better option if we use the criteria of number of speakers (18% first language, 34% adding those who have it as an additional language).
On the other hand, it would be a paradox that English was the European lingua franca while UK is one of the most Eurosceptic members. The spring of 2009, only the 28% of British thought UK’s membership in the EU was a good thing, in contrast with the 66%, 50%, 48% and 71% of Germany, France, Italy and Spain respectively (Source: Eurobarometer 71, European Comission)
Moreover, regarding Linguistics, neither English nor any other spoken language would be a good lingua franca (note 3). Obviously, it doesn’t seem to be a good idea imposing a foreign language to others causing a grievance to all non-lingua franca-speakers as a first language. The unilateral (by the EU bureaucrats) adoption of this lingua franca would worsen the relations between nations within Europe, precipitating the EU break-up.
In fact, it is more feasible to create a political union in Latin America than in Europe, since the conditions to achieve a social unity are better there than in the Old Continent.
As I said previously, I retake the case of UK because it is a clear example of different nations gathered in an only State thanks to another sense of community: the British demos. That British social identity has been achieved and maintained in the same way the other Nation-States have been created and maintained throughout last decades. Therefore, the British case shows us that it is not impossible at all to create a social identity beyond the framework of nations. Nevertheless, common media network is needed and for this a common language is a must (it has not to be necessarily the first language of all citizens though).
Fortunately, there is one exceptional case in the middle of Europe which has always been regarded as the model EU should follow: Switzerland. The Alpine country doesn’t have any clear lingua franca in spite of being composed by four linguistic/ethnic communities. However, it doesn’t prevent Swiss society to be cohesive.
One of the characteristics of this cohesion is the pride and confidence on their institutions. Hence, the Swiss identity is less based in cultural homogeneity and more focused on the trust in their own system. Thus, the Swiss imagined community strengthened those things they have in common and dealt with the cultural differences. That is called “civic” or “voluntaristic” nationalism, in contrast with the ethnocultural nationalisms (the majority) (source: Hartley-Moore, 2007).
Once again, we realize that one of the possible solutions of EU idiosyncratic problems can be found outside the Europeanism and the EU. The Swiss case is interesting because it highlights how from a shared common values, history and goals, a social identity can be built. Nonetheless, since one of the crucial factors is the trust on the institutions, the real deep reforms to be undertaken should be those related to the improvement of transparency, democracy and proximity to citizens instead of a political union led by technocrats.
The mainstream idea that what EU needs is more political union is completely misleading. In fact, political union will be a consequence of a previous social unity. Repeating the same mistakes of the past, basing the construction of the European project on pure economic incentives ignoring the social psychology will inevitably sow the seeds of the EU break-up.
Although I am quite pessimistic about the EU future regarding this issue, there is still scope for correcting the way EU has been led and moving towards a more democratic, inclusive and prosperous Europe. We the Europeans have a lot of things in common (values, culture, history…) which could be used to create the so repeated European Social Identity, demos.
Quoting Robert Shuman, regarded as one of the founders of the current EU:
“Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”
Note 1: Europeanism is a term that encapsulates the norms and the values that Europeans have in common. It doesn’t imply believe in European Union as a useful tool to accomplish the European project of integration.
Note 2: From 2012, we the Catalans regard every election a plebiscite of the independence. Indeed, it is a totally wrong idea and the only good way to really measure the independence social support would be to do a binding referendum (not allowed by Spanish Government).
Note 3: Characteristics of a good lingua franca (Eugeni S. Reig, linguist):
- It mustn’t be the native language of any country.
- It must be an agreed language, not an imposed one.
- It must be a simple language, just essential lexicon, not superfluous.
- It must be a clear language. It mustn’t lead to misunderstandings.
Although English does not satisfy any of these requirements, it is still better having a bad lingua franca than not having one at all. It is a second-best situation.