The Stubbornness of the Nation-State

June 20, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS OP-ED, COMMENTARY — The 20th century's most original and successful attempt to overcome the destructive consequences of nationalism is the European Community, now the European Union. Nationalism's domination of recent history has provoked three liberal and two totalitarian attempts to establish a new international order. The totalitarian ones were communism and nazism. The liberal ones have been the League of Nations, the United Nations and ''Europe.''

The League collapsed. The United Nations is not in a particularly reassuring condition -- doing much that is useful and admirable but remaining in all large matters the creature of the major powers.

''Europe'' promised to be something different, but it is in retrogression today. There were elections for the European Parliament -- the EC's legislative branch -- last week, and the most striking aspect of those elections was the absence of any serious European dimension. There was no issue of Europe-wide interest or Europe-wide discussion. The elections settled nothing for Europe.

These were simply national votes on national issues, their outcomes of interest only in the 12 individual countries in which the voting took place. Turnout was low, a reflection not only of the poverty of the debate but the powerlessness of the European Parliament, which has oversight authority over the Communitybudget but not much else to do.

The results were of a slight rightward shift in the Parliament's composition, due mainly to the success of Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats in Germany, the collapse of the Socialists in Spain and the approval that Silvio Berlusconi continues to be accorded in Italy. This shift has no European significance. It merely reflects domestic political considerations in the countries concerned.

The only pan-European issue the elections touched upon was whether Europe should become more or less closely integrated. The outcome was unreadable. There was an electoral fiasco for the Tories in Britain, despite a high level of hostility in that country to European integration. A new anti-European-integration movement was a notable success in France, but the established pro-European forces had an overwhelming majority of the votes.

Of the right-wing parties frankly hostile to Europe, the Republicans in Germany failed to gain a single seat. The Belgian National Front progressed in terms of votes cast; the French National Front regressed. None of this was for other than national political reasons.

The fact that there still are no pan-European parties, campaigns or even tangible issues in these European elections demonstrates that Europe as such is not a political entity either in fact or in the minds of European voters. Yet the leadership in Brussels presses on with its program of integration in the apparent belief that a European nation can be brought into existence through the enlargement of structures of administration and cooperation.

This seems a very great mistake. No one can quite define what a ''nation'' is, since it can be so many different things, but it is above all a consciousness. The most eminent of contemporary British students of nationalism, Hugh Seton-Watson, wrote that after a lifetime of study he was driven to the conclusion that a nation exists when it has first come into existence in the minds of a sufficient number of people -- when they consider themselves to be a nation and behave as if they are one.

That may seem a tautological definition, but it is much like that of the 19th-century French scholar, Ernest Renan: that ''will'' makes a nation. A nation ''is a moral consciousness.'' While the people who make up the European Union today certainly possess a moral consciousness of belonging to European civilization and to an intimate confederation of West European liberal nations, they do not possess what can be called a national consciousness as Europeans.

On the contrary, their consciousness of political attachment remains that of individual nationhood. This coexists with their sense of European commitment. The two simply are different things. People know themselves to be Europeans, and they also know themselves to be firmly and distinctively Dutch or Italian or Spanish or French.

The genius of the European movement until now has been that it respected this distinction and division of attachments and loyalty. Its error since the Maastricht negotiations has been to assume that the one should and could supplant the other. The importance and endurance of national reality has not been respected.

The nation-state has for more than two centuries proved the most effective available instrument by which societies have organized themselves and found security, and economic and social political progress. The European Community as originally conceived integrated nations without attacking their individual integrity.

More recently it has become a confused effort to replace nationhood and a constructive nationalism with something that has been neither clearly defined nor shown to be capable of functioning. The consequence is that ''Europe'' is in a crisis, inviting a return of destructive nationalisms.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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