“The new united Europe is hoping to prevent the repetition of its own past by curbing the role of the nation and its sovereignty as the primary line of division among European peoples. The history of Europe, so torn by nationalist struggles, suggests that as ideological experiments go, the European Union may be a truly worthwhile attempt. And yet, the peoples of Europe remain reluctant for the fear of losing their national sovereignties, contaminating their purportedly historical national identities, and hence the real obstacle to European unity remains nationalism” (Erika Harris: Nationalism: Theories and Cases).
Nationalism is arguably one of the most important political doctrines of the past few centuries (Poole 1999, p.1). But what is nationalism? What are nations? And why has the belief in nationalism achieved such universal validity that its principles are co-opted by political leaders from countries as different and distant as the United States, China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy etc.? Is nationalism, in theory and practice, a set of ideals that can ensure peace, stability and economic development? Or is it a destructive force that inevitably leads to chaos and conflicts?
In this article I shall argue that nationalism is inherently disruptive. It is based on a concept – the nation – that cannot be rationally defined, a belief in an intangible and dangerous human construct. It is per definition an ideology of exclusion, derived from the fear of the other, from intolerance, and prone to be exploited by demagogues eager to politicize the anger, fear, sense of insecurity of the citizens.
Nationalists have been trying to destroy the European project since its inception, because they do not believe that all humans are created equal, that all humans can live, work and exist peacefully side by side despite differences in religion, race, or culture. They believe in barriers, in the politicization of human differences, in the fear and distrust of the other.
I believe – as do many in Europe today – that the European idea is fundamentally good, and that it is necessary that it should be promoted. The European Union is to a certain extent like the League of Nations. It is a necessary, beneficial international organization. But, like the League of Nations, the European Union, too, is beleaguered by nationalists and isolationists who are not ashamed of sowing the seeds of hatred.
If we want the European idea to succeed, we must first and foremost oppose the principle of nationalism, promote the principles of freedom and democracy regardless of race, religion, gender or nationality.
What Is Nationalism?
In his seminal work on nationalism, Benedict Anderson defined the nation as “an imagined political community—and imagined as inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 2006, p. 6). Using Anderson’s definition, Ross Poole characterizes nationalism as “the principle that the nation is the ground of political sovereignty and that political sovereignty is the right and destiny of the nation.” This principle is fulfilled when nation and state “come together as the nation-state” with state borders that “coincide with what are conceived to be the boundaries of the nation” (Poole 1999, p. 9).
I want to provide here a slightly different definition of nation and nationalism. I shall argue that nations are imagined homogeneous communities of people that share the same heritage and have a common destiny. Nationalism is the belief in the existence of these communities and in the nation-state as the most perfect form of political organization.
Anderson’s definition shows that nations are human constructs. They do not necessarily exist, and I shall argue that nations in most cases are artificial inventions. Therefore nationalism is comparable to religious beliefs. To nationalists the factual existence of nations is irrelevant. What matters is their subjective belief and feeling.
If one looks at most nations in the world, they are not and have never been homogeneous. Austria and southern Germany are very similar in terms of language and culture, but they are separate states. The United Kingdom is made up of communities that could be described as different nations. Italy has large communities of French-speakers, Slovenian-speakers, German-speakers etc. Spain has various groups such as Basques and Catalonians that often identify as separate nations. The list goes on and on.
There is no real reason why Canada should be an independent state, but Quebec shouldn’t, why northern Italy and Sardinia should belong to the same country, why Switzerland should be one country instead of three or four separate countries. As a matter of fact, there are sovereign states as small as San Marino, which has roughly 30,000 inhabitants, and Singapore, a city-state of about 7 million people.
The ancient Greek city-states were independent although the Greeks felt they belonged to the same civilization. The Romans created a vast multicultural empire where state and nation did not coincide. We can clearly see that the concept of a nation-state is extremely contradictory.
Against this backdrop, is nationalism a viable political doctrine?
I believe that nationalism is a disruptive ideology because it imposes on human societies abstract, dehumanizing, artificial standards constructed by individuals arbitrarily. Nationalists hold that individuals exist only as members of their nation. They believe in the politicization of differences, that people who are supposed to belong to different nations cannot live together in the same state. They argue that generalizations are legitimate ways of judging individuals despite each individual’s personality, merits and flaws.
But there is nothing in human history that proves that individuals cannot live in the same state and thrive despite having a different heritage. Large corporations employ people from many countries. Multicultural states like Singapore, Switzerland, Canada etc. have been extremely successful. The Catholic church, by definition international, is one of the most powerful, longest-lasting organizations in the world. So what is the evidence that people cannot co-exist as individuals in a multicultural context?
We need to understand that nationalists do not want a multicultural Europe regardless of what facts show. They want homogeneous nations with largely the same race, the same language, the same culture because they believe in nationalism as a religion. They have no facts to prove that this is necessary. They simply cannot accept religious and racial diversity. We will see in the next articles three examples of how such principles were implemented in the past.
Why is nationalism a disruptive and dangerous ideology?
First of all, nation-states are incompatible with democracy. Democracy presupposes the respect of basic rights and freedoms “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status” (UN Declaration of Human Rights, quoted in: Weitz 2003, p. 16). What if citizens marry people from other parts of the world? What if a citizen voluntarily adopts foreign customs or religions such as Islam, Buddhism or Rastafari? How can you have economic and human exchanges with other states without allowing people to come into a country and, if they choose to do so, stay? The only way a nation can be kept homogeneous is simply by denying basic rights and interfere in the lives of the citizens.
Second, heterogeneous communities seldom exist in practice. Ever since nationalism emerged in the late 18th century, ethnic conflicts have marred Europe, especially its border regions. People seem to take peace in Europe for granted because post-WWII European institutions have defused such conflicts. But Europe remains a potential cauldron of ethnic tensions. The recent example of a British politician saying that the UK Prime Minister would be willing to go to war against Spain to protect disputed Gibraltar after Brexit shows that dismantling European political unity could rekindle old conflicts.
Third, nationalism leads to instability and chaos. If we assume that every community where a 51% majority may identify as a nation could seek political independence, then there will be no end to civil strife. Europe has states as small as San Marino and Malta. Could we then go back to the city-states if the people so choose? Should borders be redrawn multiple times each year according to the moods and feelings of each community? Is this the solution to Europe’s social and economic problems? As Margaret Moore explained as far back as 2001:
State-breaking is one of the most destabilizing consequences of a successful nationalist movement. The issue of the justifiability of state-breaking, or secession, has become very pressing. In the post-Second World War period until 1989, superpowers were committed to upholding existing state boundaries. While decolonization was permitted, the borders of states were treated, in international law and practice, as permanent—non-negotiable—features of the international state system.
But, with the collapse of communism, national divisions have tended to rear their heads, and the multinational states of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Ethiopia have disintegrated along national lines. The process may not be completed, since many of the successor states are as multinational as the states they left behind; and there are other serious secessionist movements in many parts of the globe—from Quebec to Kashmir, Scotland to Chechnya (Moore 2001, p. 1).
The only way to pacify Europe and create a strong, stable continent is to complete the process of political union, embrace democracy and multiculturalism, oppose nationalism and intolerance, and promote economic development. While nationalists are free to express their views, progressive forces need to organize themselves in order to have a bigger impact on public opinion in Europe.
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