Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Philosophicae Nasalis larvatus*

Even with the reduced readership brought by the recent switch to a new address, two largely contradictory posts on the [tag]EU[/tag] within the space of a few days have caused some concern. Personally, I’d have called them cynical and idealistic rather than “pessimistic” and “optimistic”, but still…

Perhaps an explanation is due… Though I’m afraid that, due to the rampant inconsistencies in my approach to politics, my utter lack of a unified value system, and the fact that I haven’t really thought it all through properly (the following will be written entirely off the top of my head), there’s no way in hell that it’s going to be anywhere near as well considered as this laudable creed… But still, worth a pop. It will, however, probably end up rather lengthy, I’m afraid…

1) I have no firm political beliefs. At all. Although I am currently a small-“L” liberal and largely [tag]pro-EU[/tag], I used to be a small-“C” conservative and entirely [tag]anti-EU[/tag].

– The only constant has been my hatred of the party system – which is part of the reason why I seem to keep voting for different parties at every election I am eligible to vote in, based on the individual candidates’ policies and my own (usually transient) concerns on polling day. Hence having voted for (in no particular order) the Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP, and a couple of independents in my time (and using each of my three votes in the last local elections to vote for a different party, thanks to the three candidates I liked the look of most not having a rosette colour in common).

– As such, my opinions on any given topic frequently change. Sometimes, as with the latest new EU member states, within the space of a few days, as those posts demonstrate. (And now, a couple of days on again, I have reverted to having precisely no opinion about them or their accession.)

2) The vast majority of politics is insanely short-term. Four/five year terms of office are absolutely minute. As such, the day to day business of government is largely irrelevant.

– This is why, though the names Gladstone and Disraeli may ring a bell to most people interested in politics, few people – even those who have studied the period – would be able to name those two Prime Ministers’ Home Secretaries, Foreign Secretaries or Chancellors (other than those who went on to become PM, of course).

– If even the holders of the great offices of state become forgotten, and the political winds ensure that policies are soon reversed, Acts soon amended, and if every politician has to look to the next election and the will of the (often politically short-sighted) public to maintain power, little in the way of longer-term planning can realistically take place without a broad cross-party consensus. This remains very rare and – when it does exist – is usually broken within a decade.

3) By “long-term” I generally mean centuries. It took the best part of three centuries for England to form and vaguely stabilise following Alfred the Great’s first attempts at unification. It took the best part of three centuries after the conquest of Wales before that principality became a stable part of the union, and (thanks to the Jacobite threat) a good two centuries after the union of the crowns of England and Scotland before they were able peacefully to coexist (and many questions brought by the formal union 300 years ago this year have still not been settled). The switch from Catholic to Protestant likewise took a good three centuries. Meanwhile, fifty years ago we were allied with Germany and France against Russia; fifty years before that, with Russia and France against Germany; fifty years before that, with France against Russia; and fifty years before that with Germany and Russia against France. Some things take a long time, others change more rapidly.

– The biggest mistake of the originators of the EU project was to think that it could all be acheived in their lifetimes. It takes, at the very least, decades to shift ideas on something as fundamental to most people as national identity, and that is what the EU is, at its most basic level, trying to do.

– Forcing a shift in national identity is near impossible – especially in Europe, where the concept of the nation state was largely invented. Even in [tag]Britain[/tag], which has been legally unified for three centuries, “Welsh” and “Scottish” remain at least as important as “British” in terms of self-identifiers (and the Welsh national identity arguably only arose following the English conquest of Wales in any case, underlying the pitfalls of an attempt to forcibly create a sense of belonging).

4) Support for the EU can ONLY be justified by idealism and hope. The reality is currently simply too shoddily organised, too wasteful and too self-satisfied to be deserving of anything approaching enthusiastic support, and is often extremely difficult to defend against the anti-EU lot’s accusations, even when they are entirely unjustified. But the idea of the EU – the long-term idea – is worth striving for

5) Rejection of British membership of the EU can also ONLY be justified by idealism and hope. Where my pro-EU stance comes from my conclusion that Britain (and the majority of other western European countries) are past their prime and likely to continue to decline without banding together for strength in numbers, the “let’s pull out of the EU” case is based on what I’d argue is an even more shaky premise: that despite losing the Empire and the industry which made her the greatest economy in the world, Britain will somehow manage to maintain her position amongst the world’s leading economies and powers ad infinitum, even while existing in splendid isolation.

6) [tag]National identity[/tag] is one of those things that is pretty much fundamental to the vast majority of people (at least in Western Europe, in Eastern Europe, ethnic and religious identities are arguably more important – as shown during the breakup of Yugoslavia), and cannot simply be broken down through (the decidedly unpleasant concept of) re-education. After only fifty years, little wonder that such a relatively small proportion of Europeans would self-identify as “European” first and foremost. (In fact, an interesting study would be to see how many Scots identify as “British” first, rather than “Scottish”, three centuries on.)

7) National identity is usually defined in a negative sense. “I am Roman because I am not a barbarian”, “I am British because I am not French”, “I am Scottish because I am not English”, “I am American because I do not want to be dictated to by George III”. To try to manufacture a shared sense of identity based on similarities (of which, across Europe, there are many) is far more difficult than to create a sense of identity based on differences.

– The European project (largely) progressed during its first few decades due to the realisation amongst the initial members that they were not Communist, and that Communism posed a threat. For the last decade and a half, the identity crisis has grown once again with the removal of that threat, and a strong enough new negative reason for being “European” has yet to arise – at one stage it seemed to be about to become “We are European because we are not American, and America poses an economic threat”. Now it could be shifting to be “We are European because we are not Muslim, and Islamic fundamentalism poses a threat”. Neither are yet strong enough incentives to band together – and the latter is especially problematic for the status of European Muslims, who should also come to identify with the whole for the project to work.

8) All (Western) European states are currently well enough off to not have much to worry about in the short term. We all enjoy good standards of living, our economies are all (compared to other parts of the world, and compared to how they were in the past) healthy. The poor in (Western) Europe are far better off than the poor in most other parts of the world, and infinitely better off than their forebears of even a century ago. Improvements on the current situation are likely to be minimal to the extent of being unnoticeable to the majority.

– As such, any alterations made to the status quo are likely to be met with opposition, lest they damage the comfortable lives we currently enjoy. This explains most anti-EU complaints.

9) Longer-term, we all face serious problems. Fossil fuels are likely to run out, and we (as yet) have no viaible alternatives. Climate change may or may not exist, and may or may not bring with it major alterations to the way the continent functions. Countries like India and China may rise to dominate the world economy. Europe’s time as the leaders of the world is over.

10) Most individual nations are simply too damned small to have much chance of surviving on their own in the long term. Throughout history, the general trend has been for states to grow larger and larger, until some kind of limit (either geographical or geopolitical) is reached, because the larger the area you cover, the more versatile your production and the more self-sufficient you can be.

– This is my primary reason for being pro-EU: I simply cannot see how a country as small as the UK (or, indeed, any European country) can survive on its own in the longer-term. Just as I see national identity being formed largely from negatives, so too is my pro-EU stance.

– I am not dreaming of some wonderful European utopia or political and cultural unity (especially not the latter, as Europe’s diverse cultures are – and are likely to remain – the continent’s greatest strength and greatest contribution to humanity), as Phil seems to worry. I am simply worried that, if the various countries of Europe don’t band together, they will all, eventually, die as individuals in the face of the (likely) new threats.

– Yes, this could be seen as extrapolation so broad as to border on [tag]teleology[/tag], just as the communists (at least, the true ones) aspired to their own version of a harmonious mass society, and my deliberately vague time-scale over which I would like to see this happen could seem similar to [tag]Marx[/tag]’s predictions of successive modes of production. Teleological approaches should, pretty much without exception, be dismissed as little better than gazing into a crystal ball, as no one can read the future.

– But of one thing I am certain – the status quo cannot be maintained indefinately. Things are going to change at some point and – considering how well off Europe as a whole is at the moment – the chance that that change is going to be for the better is minimal, as things are currently so good in the grand scheme of things that it is far more likely that they will get worse than improve.

– As such, my pro-EU stance is, if anything, small-“c” conservative – or rather, “preservative”. I see the idea of a continent-wide banding together as the best way anyone has yet devised to help maintain and preserve as much of our current lifestyles and cultures as is possible. It is not a perfect solution, just as democracy is not a perfect political system; it is, however, the best I’ve yet seen anyone come up with.

– In my vision of the EU, we would all remain as British, French, German, Italian, whatever, just as the Scots and the Welsh retain their own national identities under the umbrella of the United Kingdom (only more so). We would not even necessarily need to become politically unified in sense used by the union’s originators, and certainly not in the sense envisaged by some of the harder eurosceptics, who seem to imagine a single central parliament and continent-wide political parties, with the EU becoming one big nation state along the American model. To preserve as much as possible of the cultures of the individual nations and regions, a far, far looser banding together is the only solution – a confederation, not a federation, if you will.

– If anything, the EU has already progressed beyond the stage necessary to provide the centralised support necessary to bolster its member states against the likely new threats. Power attracts more power, and Brussels has frequently acted like a power magnet, drawing ever more – often unnecessary – areas into its remit.

– At the same time, the sense of being “European” amongst the populations of the member states has not progressed far enough for this continued increase in centralised [tag]supranational[/tag] power to be tolerated for much longer. Already the French and Dutch have expressed dissatisfaction over the proposed constitution, the Danes over Maastricht and the Irish over Nice. If the EU does not slow down its advance – and slow it rapidly – it could lose all faith and all chance of creating a pan-[tag]European identity[/tag] (and the pan-European sense that we should all be looking out for our fellow Europeans which is the essential factor in ensuring our long-term viaibility that comes with it) before it has even fully formed.

– Therein lies my often inconsistent approach to the EU. I like the idea, I see the potential, but I worry about the reality. I am both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time, both cynical of the chances of and idealistic in my hope for its success. The only thing I am certain of is that the people who are currently providing the guiding hand for the union seem to have an even less clear idea than I do of what it is actually for, and what it should be aiming to be. The whole thing needs to be re-thought – and needs to be re-thought before the remaining good-will evaporates. For that way lies disaster.

* Nasalis larvatus, for those who are interested…