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2004-04-21

Visions against the strong anti-EU position 

Here is a simple argument for why it is easier to maintain a strong anti-EU position than a strong pro-EU position. By 'strong' I mean a quality that is reflected in a high potential of popular support, for example in the context of a referendum.

Patriotism, or nationalism, is highly popular. It is a popular mythology that is not under pressure to justify itself rationally. However, EU-patriotism, a sense of "proud to be a EU-citizen" is virtually inexistent. It is frustratingly easy for the EU-opponent to play the national mythology against the lack of voter affection for the 'abstract' EU with all its disadvantages.

There is a simple pro-EU position which is quite untenable. It goes like this: "We all know what it is to be a national patriot. Well, now let's just copy that warm feeling in our guts and be EU patriots." The line never catches on with majorities because essentially nobody, not even the advocates of such a position, really feels like that. I've seen this kind of pro-EU position in young conservatives. But typically, what they really mean is this: "We are the bourgeois national elite. By extension, we have a chance to become part of the bourgeois EU elite. We will take our chance, have fun, and become rich". It's not an option for the majority and they know it.

Why is there no simple road to EU-patriotism? At first sight: because the EU is so vast and complex, there is no simple identity core. But that would hold just as much for the USA. The difference: a nation-wide popular mythology does exist in the US, for historical reasons. Nobody can afford to wait a century to watch whether something similar will develop in Europe.

The pro-EU camp needs to find a different defense against the strong anti-EU position. What is the antidote to nationalism? Of course, many substantive answers have been given: prosperity, peace, freedom of individuals, addressing global problems with globally relevant solutions - these are just some that come to my mind first. These are noble goals, and many referendums have been won in Europe based on such arguments. Yet, the nationalism weapon always remains a threat, and the pro-EU position consistently underperforms at the polls.

On the issues where nationalism is most effective, the answer the pro-EU advocates can give is complicated: common European cultural values are worth something (but how are they defined and where are their geographical limits?); exporting wealth to neighbours buys security, and so on. The matter becomes particularly difficult during periods of EU extension: How do you communicate to voters the core identity of something that keeps growing and changing in character?

This question I think is the most important for the defense of the EU. What is needed are political programs that can be explained to a TV audience in half a sentence, but that still can catch the imagination of the public. I'm thinking of easy-to-grasp visions like Jacques Delors' "concentric circles" of different levels of integration and collaboration reaching out to the Maghreb countries, or also Romano Prodi's concept of a "ring of friends" in which countries like Russia or Marocco would eventually share everything with the EU except their institutions. Of course, the issue of EU membership for Turkey is the currently dominant topic of such debates. Such visions of the EU may lose a lot of their substance by the time they are implemented in policies. But it is the simple, forceful ideas and concepts (federation vs confederation is not forceful) that are the true equals of the currency of the nationalists, and maybe we should be paying more serious attention to them as the next round of critical referendums looms, this time about the EU constitution.

Note: cross-posted at Living in Europe


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