For Better, For Worse, For Richer, For Poorer

111027-european parliament-h
By Mario Battaglini

The persistent economic downturn has increasingly affected confidence in European integration and offered compelling arguments to eurosceptics voicing their discontent. Should the European family of nations resist its poverty and sickness until death breaks it? The process of regional integration was deemed necessary to overcome national interests that had sparked conflict for many centuries, lay the foundation for peace and bring about the prosperity and well-being of its people. What went wrong? 

Trade and monetary integration have proved necessary but not sufficient in bringing about cohesion and solidarity. One may argue, therefore, that the top-down approach has missed a basic dimension that could empower European citizens and make them agents of a bottom-up lead: nation-building through mass education. A strategic tool, education could help create a European national identity, supersede national interests and turn a marriage of interest into a marriage of love.

Trade and Monetary Integration: A Partial Success

Historically, trade integration has increased the well being of Europeans and was deemed a success for combining integration and the interests of a heterogeneous and expanding aggregate of states. By contrast, a more nuanced interpretation of monetary integration ought to be upheld. Initially, the Euro and the free movement of capital made poor European countries richer: reducing their interest rates; bringing about a surge in investment; raising aggregate demand. As a consequence, the strategy was conducive to high levels of growth in countries like Portugal and Greece, among others. However, in the long-run the Euro has proved a double-edged sword insofar as higher real exchange rates have made these countries’ exports uncompetitive vis-à-vis their northern counterparts. It suffices to say that the Eurozone is not an optimum currency area. One result of this has been the growth of Euroscepticism. While, legally, there is no clause that would allow for a state to reverse monetary integration, high unemployment, withdrawal of socio-economic entitlements, and social unrest in many countries constitute a compelling argument for those voicing their discontent towards Europe.

To Little Europe …?

Yet, how should such protests be framed? More pointedly, is it a problem of too much Europe or too little Europe? Although interpretations on the issue vary, one way of seeing it focuses on the lack of cooperation and deeper integration among EU countries. Germany could increase its internal demand, the ECB could loosen up its monetary policies, Europe could be provided with a federal budget so as to absorb asymmetric shocks, labour (citizens) should be more mobile across countries, and so forth. After all, not unlike marriages, if differences exist and are persistent, it is difficult to go through hardships. As one looks after his own particulare, there is a risk that the current European institutional structure allows for political elites to seek (and obtain) consensus nationally to the detriment of the wider Europe. Such a rational behaviour allows, therefore, political elites to be big fish in the small national pond. But, how could those scattered ponds compete with the incoming oceanic wave of global giants? Back to the family analogy, Woodrow Wilson used to refer to the international community as a family of nations. It proved quite a troublesome family. The same reasoning applies today to the European family of nations, but in an even more stringent way. What is important to stress is the link between the deficiencies of a system that still massively relies on governments, on one hand, and the limited participation, let alone European self-awareness, of the people, on the other. 

… or Too Little Europeans?

An acute observer would suggest that governments reflect the moods of the people. Hence, governments would hesitate, and national interests prevail, because of the lack of a fully-fledged European citizenry. This is, however, only one side of the truth. In fact, one should never underestimate the national political elites’ incentive to preserve state sovereignty. Yet, it ought not be overlooked either, the fact that, while there exists a broad European identity, the fragmentation of identities into national, regional, and municipal affiliation constitutes an issue. To a large extent, collective imagery continues to reproduce the Manichean dichotomy between “us and them”, “light and darkness”, “civilised and savage” on a multi-level basis.

With the aim of enhancing cultural exchanges a series of initiatives, programmes and projects have been put forth by the EU: the Erasmus Programme, the European University Institute, the European capitals of culture, and so forth. This is too little. If Alexander Hamilton referred to monetary and foreign policies to create a federal state, theorists of nationalism, within the modernist approach, highlighted education as a way to create the nation. This is not to say that differences should be obliterated; rather, to assert the need for the European identity to grow. To put it rather bluntly, our history books reiterate and aggravate the divisions rather than emphasising the commonalities. There is, as a consequence, a wide portion of the European society that does not share the idea and the ideology of Europe: unaware of it, segregated in a local ivory tower, confined in a national paradigm, unable to partake of its social, physical and cognitive domain. Mass education and greater intra-European mobility would be powerful tools to overcome such deficiencies.

In fact, “modernists” like Ernest Gellner place emphasis on polity-formation, rejecting the “primordialist” understanding that nations are natural givens dating back from time immemorial. But the modernist-constructivist intent of identity formation through the manipulation of national symbols is still a long shot in Europe. Gellner’s original insight was that the key to civic participation rested on education, language, and mass media. Boiling down to just the field of education, integration enthusiasts have repeatedly attempted to introduce a “European dimension” to the national curricula. Yet, such proposals have fallen on deaf ears. On the one hand, the institutions of the EU are already seen by many as lacking legitimacy: it is likely, therefore, that their involvement in such a core national competence would be deemed a direct interference in the educational systems of the member states. On the other, education ranks as one of the policy areas with the lowest popular support for Europeanisation. It is hardly surprising, anyhow, that cultural localism resists a European - wide social engineering. But it is discouraging that it may do so as a consequence of the EU’s political fragility.


Let me conclude by restating that, in order for the European family of nations to uphold cooperative strategies, even though hardships, it is essential that a deeper European identity be fostered, engineered, or constructed. A bottom-up approach is needed if European integration is to overcome national interests. However, a top-down approach would be instrumental in raising awareness of the European identity as the way to provide people with the emotional and ideological tools to mobilise and advocate for a federal state. Yet, the clash between the strong cultural dimension and the weak political one perpetuates inertia Europe presents a strong cultural heritage that ought to be considered a strength rather than a weakness. Nonetheless, insofar as national interest and identity take precedence over the European one, the process of integration will lead to ambiguous results. The wedding vow could not have been more appropriate to describe Europe’s current situation: only strong families, who put the organic interest before the selfish one, can endure crisis. Before achieving such an organic understanding of themselves, the European people will need to be nurtured into it. By no means is this reasoning  intended to justify the inertia of European politicians who should be held responsible for the failure to provide the EU with the instruments of deeper and more solidarity integration. It is even more so in light of the fact that the demise of the EU would bear grave consequences, not only for its people but for the international community too: isn’t Europe, after all, an example that could lead to even wider integration worldwide?


Mario Battaglini holds a MSc in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics. His research interests include nationalism, federalism, European integration, human rights and refugees. 


9 October 2013