While the European Union has been built to reduce nationalistic influences that caused so much harm in the 20th century, it seems that nationalism in contemporary times is on the rise again. There are several factors that play a part in this process and the consequences of this rise have been widely analysed and discussed. However, even though the EU seems to acknowledge the importance of individual member states’ own political and cultural power, the support for the EU is still at a historical low. This threatens the importance of the EU’s goals regarding climate change, mass migration and political and economic development, and might even lead to a downfall of the EU. Therefore, in this paper, I will argue that the EU’s attitude towards member states’ nationalism should be much more constructive, while the EU at the same time should aim at adding a second layer to nationalism to become a nation-state itself. To do so, I will firstly delve deeper into the terms nationalism, nations, nation-states and state legitimacy. Next, I will consider academic approaches to nationalism that show both the constructive and the destructive side of nationalism. After this extensive introduction, I will analyse the situation in contemporary Europe, in which support for globalisation is decreasing and support for nationalism is rising. In this part I will also try to show that at this moment the EU is not a nation-state, but rather a mere state entity. Following on this, I will describe how nationalism can and should be used as a constructive tool within the EU, and how nationalism can be equipped with an overlapping international second layer that can extend solidarity and co-operation within Europe, just as nationalism has done so within countries.

Nationalism and nations

Anthony Smith (1939-2016) has defined nationalism as ‘the ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population deemed by some of its members to constitute an actual or potential nation’ (1). Nationalism’s goal is to preserve the culture of a nation and related to that, it requires some level of pride towards the nation (2). It is often closely linked to patriotism, where patriotism in general terms is seen as one’s love of one’s country (3).
Smith has identified three paradigms for understanding the origin of nationalism and nations. The first paradigm, the Primordialist approach, views nationalism, or ethnicity, as a fixed characteristic of individuals and communities. The ethnicity of individuals is embedded in biological attributes and in the long history of practicing cultural differences and is a primary aspect of defining communal distinctiveness and individual self-identification (4). The second paradigm, the Modernist approach, views nationalism as an inseparable product of modernity. In this paradigm, the spread of nationalism is considered to be part of the broader process of Westernization and industrialisation (5). The third approach, Ethnosymbolism, has emerged as a critique on the first two approaches. It emphasizes the ethnic bases of modern nations, but also considers the cultural and symbolic dimensions of these nations. It seeks to enter the ‘inner world’ of members of a community, where it analyses its cultural elements such as memory, value, tradition, symbols and myths (6).
Following on defining the concept of nationalism, the concept of a nation is also described in various ways. However, as Hugh Seton-Watson (1916-1984) has pointed out, even though there have been many attempts to define a nation, none of them have been successful. According to Watson, there seems to be something ‘peculiarly elusive’ about the nation, as it consists of a subjective feeling of myth and illusion (7). I will therefore not aim to define a nation, but rather give a short overview of historically used descriptions of the concept of a nation.
Just as with nationalism, there is a similar distinction between the definition of a nation from the Modernist approach and the other two approaches that were discussed in the last paragraph. This distinction is characterised by the question whether nations have existed in all human history or are something that only started to come into being around the end of the seventeenth century. The first view says that modernism only tells half the story and that history is the other half, while the second view claims that nations can only exists because of the economic and scientific changes of the eighteenth century (8).
I will now consider some academic descriptions of the concept of a nation from the perspectives of both paradigms, starting with Smith, who has given one of the better-known descriptions of what is to be a nation. According to him, a nation is ‘a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members’. It is characterised by a cultural and political bond that unites within one single political community with a historic culture and homeland (1).
Joseph Stalin – while keeping his horrifying acts in mind – has also given us an interesting and relevant description of a nation. He claimed that a nation is not racially created, but rather constitutes of a historically formed community of people. This historical community is shaped by a common language, territory, economic life, social cohesion and a common psychological make-up, where the latter translates to a common culture or a national character. Stalin emphasized that the combination of these aspects is necessary to define a nation, as a nation that lacks one of them will cease to exist (9).
The different paradigms for defining nations and the two definitions of a nation mentioned above have commonalities and differences, which shows the difficulty of defining a nation. To create a wider definition that grasps all of the above, Margaret Canovan has analysed four different approaches to understanding nations: as cultural communities, as the subjective identities of individuals, as ethnic groups or as products of modernization. The first, a nation as a cultural community, logically emphasises the role of culture, but also focusses on the importance of language. National literature and other cultural expressions are here the main factors from which a nation can come to exists from below. The second approach, the nation as the subjective identity of individuals, focusses on individual consciousness. The concept ‘imagined communities’ is characteristic for this approach, which connects to the ‘peculiarly elusive’ aspect of nations. In this approach, the nation mostly exists in the mind, created and enforced by the connection between growing national feelings and the development of literature. The latter enables strangers to share this unconscious feeling. The third approach, the nation as an ethnic group, focusses on the fact that birth makes individuals part of a nation. After all, one is often not a participant within a nation by one’s own choice, but rather through the historic process that results in birth. The fourth and last approach, the nation as product of modernization, consists of different views on a nation, but mainly claims that a nation is not a standardised concept and that it is generated by features of modern society in which the original line between the elite and the common people started to vanish (7). An important aspect of Canovan’s analysis is that none of these approaches exclude one another; they rather are supplementary. It is an attempt to grasp the many definitions of nations and explanations of the origins of nations.

A state and the nation-state

I have discussed the definition of a nation, in which a nation can exist because of a common territory, race, religion, language, history, culture and/or political aspirations. However, a state is thought to be something else. In general, a state is considered to have four elements: population, territory, government and sovereignty. It can be said that a state is a concrete constitution which fulfils security and welfare for its people and is therefore a legal entity. This is different than a nation, which is rather a shared emotional, spiritual and psychological bond between different people. Following on this, territory is essential for a state, but not for a nation. In line with this, a nation does not need sovereignty, where a state does need this. After all, when sovereignty disappears, the state dies, but the nation can continue to exist. Linked with this is what keeps both terms together: the state uses power (or force) for preserving its integrity and unity, while a nation is rather bound by strong historical and cultural links. Just as important is the origin of states and nations: the first can be manually constructed (and with force), while the latter is the result of evolution (10).
Anthony C. Pick claims that a state is a territorial political community for which there is some independent form of organised government. This government needs a somewhat stable relationship with its subjects and the state should include the respective responsibilities. Nations on the other hand, are usually identified by single languages. Additional to language, a nation can come into being by shared memory of historic events and by a diverse range of cultural factors, which include sports, literature, social organisations and literature. A nation is also characterized by a general sense of what it is to belong to this nation and what the membership requires of its members (11).
Thus, a state is not necessarily supported by its subjects, where a nation is constituted by its people. However, these two can be combined, leading to the emergence of a nation-state. A nation-state is defined as a territory that is inhabited by a distinct cultural or ethnic group, i.e. a state formed by a nation. Or, in Pick’s words, ‘a nation state is a state whose primary loyalty is to a cultural self-identity, which we call a nation or nationality, and is the predominant form of state organisation’ (11).
It is claimed that there are three important reasons to prefer nation-states. Firstly, a nation-state is a very stable form of state organisation in which democracy is possible and where there is an absence of waging war with neighbour states. While history might give a different impression, considering the states of Napoleon and Hitler, it is important to keep in mind that these states were empires, rather than democratic, stable nation-states. Contemporary nation-states which can be found in Western Europe are a product of 500 years of state-building and are now the world’s wealthiest states. Secondly, a nation-state allows the growth of democracy. Where 16th and 17th century states were ruled by governments that did not derive their power from the people whom they ruled, nation-states possess a higher form of sovereignty and legitimacy. It does not receive its power from unfair privileges such as being a member of the Church, provinces, guilds or tribes, but rather from popular consent. This type of consent is characterized by a movement from government accountability to a small elite to the whole nation, which allows for equal rights and democracy. Thirdly and lastly, a nation-state allows for a sufficient infrastructure, good education, a strong market, efficient use of accessible raw materials and power and technological innovation, which can lead to social and economic development (11).

The legitimacy of government

As a result of the reasons mentioned above for preferring nation-states, it can be claimed that government legitimacy in a nation-state is stronger than in a state. After all, the government in the first is formed by the people itself, while the latter is often constituted by power and sometimes even by force. In a state the ruler is not accountable to those he rules, where in a nation-state he is (11). But how exactly is this ruler, i.e. the government, accountable and why?
John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) has given us a very accurate definition in his description of the origins of nation-states and the related legitimacy of government control. His claim is that because certain groups of people share more with each other than with other groups, it leads them to be more cooperative with the people of their own group than they would be with other people. This tendency to interact with one’s own group members and help them when they are in need can create the desirability for a government. However, an important aspect is that this government, grown out of the need of the people, is governed by the people themselves or by a portion of themselves (12). Thus, in a nation-state, the government consists of people from within that state, instead of a ruling class that is separated from the community of the nation.
This is in line with what Max Weber (1864-1920) has claimed. According to Weber, the state’s subjects need a certain belief or faith in the authority of the state. This is the basis for the obedience of these subjects to the system of authority. Weber divides the source of the legitimacy of this authority in three categories. The first source is tradition, meaning that people believe in the authority because it has been there for a long time. The second is charisma, meaning that people believe in the authority because of faith in the capabilities of the leaders that hold this authority. The last category is legality, meaning that people trust the rationality of the rule of law. In all these sources, Weber considers the legitimacy of authority to be both the acceptance of it as the obedience to its commands (13).
A different view was held by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who argued that a government is necessary to prevent humanity from being in ‘a state of nature’. Hobbes’ state of nature is characterized by a constant state of war ‘of every man against every man’, in which industry, agriculture, private property or civilization in general are not possible. This state is primitive, violent and crude, and Hobbes described a life in this state of nature as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. To be able to escape this constant state of war, people will start to seek peace and security. The only way to do this is to form some kind of central power or government by putting their power and strength upon one man or one assembly. This man or assembly therefore receives the authority to rule over each person of the society. This agreement between the majority and a person or assembly creates a ‘sovereign’, i.e. a common political power. This common political power is the only way to avoid falling back into the state of nature and is therefore authorized to use force to have its subjects obey its laws. With Hobbes, political authority is absolute, and is legitimized if it can prevent human kind from falling back into a state of nature (14).
This idea of an agreement or contract between the ruler and its subjects is also found in works by John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). They argued that the protection of people’s lives and properties can be accomplished through a social contract between the people and an authority. This authority needs to be obeyed and people should relinquish some or all their rights that they would have in the state of nature to this authority. However, where Hobbes thought that the contract should be constituted through fear and pressure, Locke argued that the contract should be voluntarily accepted and approved by the subjects. In his contract, people give up their rights because they trust the ruler to protect them, and therefore consent to the enforcement of laws. This is similar to Rousseau, who claimed that giving up these rights is only valid if it does not turn people into slaves. In Rousseau’s contract, the community itself is the sovereign. This kind of ‘popular sovereignty’ will create general and unbiased laws in line with the common interests of the people, which legitimates this popular government’s authority over its subjects. In all three men’s theories, the government should protect people’s lives, property and all other rights, and protect its people from interference with these rights. Only with Hobbes, people are deprived of free will, but with Locke and Rousseau, government legitimacy is also based on its well-functioning. This means that if the government does not fulfil its obligations, citizens have the right to stand up against their government and choose another government (15).

Nationalism: constructive or destructive?

There are very distinctive views on whether nationalism is a good or bad thing. In general, two sorts of nationalism can be separated. On the one hand, there is a form of liberating nationalism which is connected to the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie. This kind of nationalism is characterized by the hope for a better future, economic prosperity, universal values such as human rights, equality and justice and the constitutional democratic rule of law. On the other hand, there is a kind of nationalism that is characterized by imperialistic domination, intense aggression and expansion, horrifying racism and exclusion, aggressive authoritarianism, rightist radicalism and a blind cult of one’s own culture. This kind of nationalism has caused international conflicts that were legitimized in the name of the nations’ borders or the ‘homeland’ (16). In the next section, I will further analyse the views of different scholars on nationalism and separate their views on the basis of the distinction given above.

Positive approaches to nationalism

In line with the liberating nationalism discussed in the previous paragraph, philosopher and politician Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872) claimed that nationalism can cause ‘harmony and brotherhood between countries’ (17). For him, nationalism was not an end but a means to an end, i.e. it has an instrumental value. The goal of nationalism was therefore not to strive for autonomy of ethnic groups, but rather a tool to pursuit democracy (18).
Political scientist Ross Poole (1938) states that a necessary condition of the operations of a modern state is that it provides some level of nationalism to its citizens. In this kind of nationalism, emphasis is put on the role of culture and identity. This identity is required for citizens to feel connected to the nation, just as the state needs to bring sufficient cultural resources to ensure the commitment of its citizens (19).
Another political scientist, Shlomo Avineri (1933), is positive as well. He considers nationalism as perhaps the ‘strongest human mode of communication’, as it relates directly to language and modern communication. He claims that it is not possible to perceive and grant legitimacy to historical entities only based on universal criteria. Even though nationalism first and foremost focusses on the individual, this individualistic approach can be ‘woven into the universal realm’ (20).
Philosopher Ernest Gellner (1922-1995) considered nationalism as an important aspect of modernisation. The first reason he gave for this was that, as labour became much more technical, context-free forms of communication and a higher level of cultural normalisation became more urgent. This created a need for cultural homogeneity within nations, i.e. nationalism (21). The second reason for Gellner was that, as modern economy constantly required new kinds of jobs with higher requirements, workers needed to adjust themselves to be able to participate within this economy. This resulted in a higher level of education in which culture also became more important (22). For these two reasons, Gellner considered nationalism to be highly necessary to replace the agrarian society culture and as a fundamental condition for modern society to function well (23).
Just as Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm considered nationalism as an ideology in which the political and national units should coincide. This fusion could cause the emergence of a nation-state, powered by nationalism. Hobsbawm divided this emergence in three phases. The first is a preliminary phase in which the nation only exists of cultural and folkloric aspects. The second is a pioneering phase in which political campaigners come together and try to raise awareness for mobilizing and creating a nation. The last stage consists of the national movement gaining mass support which can lead to the birth of the nation-state. To successfully pass from stage two to three, the nation has to be an ‘imagined community’, which involves (1) a historic association with the state, (2) a long-established cultural elite and (3) a capacity for conquest. Concluding from the nation-building power of nationalism that Hobsbawm described, he considered nationalism as a constructive force in which the imagined community is key. This leads back to Canovan’s description of the approach to nationalism that focusses on the ‘peculiarly elusive’ aspect of nations. However, at the same time, Hobsbawm embraced the view that nationalism is bad in its essence, as he considered it to be characterized by difficulties, cruelties, anguish and disorientation (24). This leads us to the next part of this paper: which scholars are critical of nationalism?

Critical accounts of nationalism

There are scholars that are more critical of or even plainly pessimistic about nationalism. Carlton J. H. Hayes (1882-1964) belongs to the last category, as he considered nationalism as one of ‘history’s greatest evils’ and as the main cause of World War I. Hayes, who was a diplomat, academic, professor and historian, saw independent, sovereign national states as the ‘basic trouble of the modern world’. Nationalism, which was inseparable from such independent states, made people believe in the superiority of their country, causing war and other ills in the world (25). Hayes’ personal curiosity for the subject of nationalism is characterized by the question: ‘Why would someone devote himself to throw himself away for international disputes?’ He argued that this ‘blind devotion for one’s country’ was already enforced to children in primary schools, as here they learn that their nation is the greatest, happiest and most culturalized in the world. For Hayes, nationalism was a substitute to religion and only rationalizes selfishness, intolerance and violence (26).
Less radical was political scientist Karl Deutsch (1912-1992). He considered the nation-state as the most powerful instrument in the world to get things done, but he also plead that we should not give nation-states our ‘souls’, as basic values of civilization such as religion or philosophy should transcend nationality. The state should not set the basic values for morality and people should not see the world as their government sees it (27). In other words, nationalism should not take the upper hand over basic human values and one’s own state should not be considered as the perfect state.
Philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) argued that not only the rights of one’s own nation should count, but the rights of all nations. He condemned nationalist aggression and chauvinism, i.e. political nationalism, while promoting ‘cultural nationalism’, which was characterized by peace and by participation in the fate of others (28). In line with this, he did not focus on political unity or sovereignty but rather on energizing the spiritual, linguistic and aesthetic formation of a nation (29). Thus, Herder considered (cultural) nationalism to be a tremendous important aspect of a nation, but simultaneously argued against the negative aspects that lie within (political) nationalism.
In the first paragraph of this paper I mentioned that nationalism is often linked to patriotism. However, writer and essayist George Orwell used the distinction between nationalism and patriotism to clarify his critique on nationalism. One the one hand, he considered patriotism to be one’s devotion to a particular place and way of life of which he or she believes that it is the best in the world. However, in patriotism there is no desire to force one’s devotion on other people, while nationalism on the other hand is inseparable from the desire for power. According to Orwell, the nationalist’s purpose is characterized by thoughts of competitive prestige and therefore he considered nationalism as something purely negative (30).

Contemporary Europe

Thus far, I have described the variety of academic views on nations, states, nation-states, nationalism and the legitimacy of a government. In the next part, before applying these views on contemporary Europe, I will analyse the current situation in Europe, in which the European Union is losing support while nationalism is on the rise again. To do so, I will start with describing the impact of globalisation.

Globalisation and the EU

The process of globalisation is often described as the rapid expansion of many sorts of global interaction (31), and the moment globalisation first emerged has been estimated at around the 16th century. At this time, as argued, the Maritime Revolution opened more direct connections between Europe, Asia, Africa and the American continents. During this process, geographical barriers were broken, which resulted in new intellectual and cultural exchanges between the East and the West. At the same time, The Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and the early development of modern science also helped the further development of globalisation (32). Centuries later, during the Industrial Revolution, globalisation further expanded. During this time, Europe’s GDP increased by 563%, while this was just 363% over the previous three centuries, showing how significant the influence of the industrial revolution was for the whole of Europe (32). Because of the Industrial Revolution, basic economic conditions were improved vastly, including better transportation possibilities. This allowed people to move away from their birth town or city, while in pre-modern societies people remained at their place of birth their whole lives. It also allowed long-distance trade and investment flows. At the same time, improvements in technology and productivity allowed mass production to emerge. While the two world wars that hit Europe put a temporary stop on globalisation, further development started from the 1970’s onwards, when East Asia processed hyper growth which recovered international trade to the late 19th century level. International trade was now organised by transnational corporations and multinationals that imported and exported modern technology and millions of products to all the corners of the world. Furthermore, via new and cheaper technology, people were now able to connect to each other all over the world and travel to the other side of the globe at an affordable price. The early 2000’s type of globalisation is characterized by virtual relationships, cosmopolitan identities and worldly communities that are not bound by nations or states (31).
The European Union can be viewed as a direct result of the long process of globalisation and also shows how globalisation has found its way in political thinking. The EU describes itself as a ‘strong global force’ that strives for open markets and technological progress while protecting the rights and safety of human well-being. In line with this, the EU stated that it is ‘firmly in favour of greater economic openness’ to continue increasing Europe’s living standards. The EU claims that globalisation allows Europe to access new and expending markets and sources of finance and technology, resulting in a larger variety of goods at lower prices for European consumers. Although they also acknowledge that there are ‘understandable concerns’ about income and job loss, they continue to focus on further globalisation while ‘minimising the social costs’ (33).
However, where only a few decades ago it was said that globalisation was an inevitable and unstoppable force, it recently seems that globalisation is losing its popularity. Citizens of different countries often considerer globalisation as a synonym for job loss, social injustice and low environmental, health and privacy standards. These concerns are rooted in the 1980’s, when international trade became progressively pervasive, causing trade unions to fade away. Where these unions previously made sure that wages were high and prevented people from being easily fired, countries now focussed on being as competitive as possible to attract international businesses. This resulted in a cheaper labour market with looser regulations, often leading to the abolishment of traditional socialist ideas on protecting the country’s own industries. It has been argued that economics has underestimated the social costs of this process by ignoring the wage loss of more than 20% among European lower-skilled workers. What made matters worse, was the impact of the financial crisis that struck the world in 2008. It not only caused a lower level of international trade, which dropped to 3% in 2012 – less than half the average of the previous three decades –, it also created increasing levels of economic anxiety and insecurity (34).
Another possible threat of globalisation is that it might lead to less cultural diversity. After all, if the whole world comes closer together, there is a danger that local economies, traditions and languages will diminish (35). This is often considered to be a direct threat to the nation-state and consequently contrasts with nationalist feelings.
All this is clearly visible in Europe, as it is shown that 45% of European citizens consider globalisation as a threat, 35% view their own economic prospects with anxiety and 53% consider globalisation as a danger to their country’s identity (36). Another report shows that 42% of European citizens want to see more power shifted away from Brussels and returned to their own governments (37). It seems that lots of European citizens are not so convinced by the values and goals of the EU, even though the intentions of the EU might be progressive, positive and focussed on human and economic development, powered by globalisation.

Current nationalism in the EU

In line with the increasing reluctance towards the European Union there has been a trend of upcoming populist, nationalist parties in Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, France, Austria, Germany and other countries in Europe. Most of these parties are sceptical towards the EU and are in favour of preserving their country’s own values and political power (38). The success of these parties is often based on a certain intolerance towards non-citizens, a belief that the present governments are only acting in the interest of outsiders and the urgent wish for new leaders. These nationalist parties also share the belief that an individual country should act to improve its own sovereignty, rather than focussing on co-operative relations between countries. Specific policy-proposals are often aimed at closing borders and backing out from European and international trade deals (39). From this, it is clearly visible how people’s attitudes towards the EU and globalisation as discussed in the previous part are finding their way into national politics, and combined with fears of massive immigration , the aversion towards the EU is most likely to expand.
It seems that the EU’s focus on globalisation and creating an international entity has caused a counter response, in which the love for one’s country and the emphasis on self-governance are being been enforced. This has huge consequences for non-European citizens:

  • In the UK, the child refugee program has halted, meaning that 3000 refugee children are not allowed to find safety in the UK;
  • In Germany, many asylum seekers have been sent back to Greece while many NGO’s have claimed that the conditions in the Greek camps are inhumane;
  • In Italy, due to the ‘instability and threats caused by migrants, there is a strong focus on sending immigrants back, causing inadequate assessment of individual situations;
  • In the Netherlands, a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach has been adopted towards immigrants who are unwilling to adjust to the country’s way of life, characterized by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte’s statement: “behave normally or go away”;
  • In Serbia, many refugees are stuck in extreme cold conditions as they have nowhere else to go because of a failing asylum system;
  • In Hungary, the parliament has introduced a bill that requires police to deport any illegal person in Hungary immediately, without offering any kind of asylum procedure;
    In Slovenia, the government is actively working on closing all borders, preventing any immigrants from entering the country (40).

While immigrants seem to become victim of nationalist policies, there are other negative consequences as well. It is often claimed that the ability to tackle global issues such as climate change and terrorism will diminish when not seen from an international, co-operative perspective. Economically seen, it will also become more difficult to support weaker countries to uphold their economy and therefore the well-being of their citizens (41). Lastly, it is claimed that there lies a danger in allowing the current nationalist parties to apply their economic policies due to their inexperience with it, as their policies would damage the economy of their own country and those of their neighbours (42). For example, economists have argued that the collapse of the Euro currency – often promoted by the nationalist parties – could lead to years of global depression (43).
These possible negative consequences can be linked to Hayes’ view on nationalism. His ‘ills of the world’ can be translated to current dangers to economic, human and environmental well-being. The rising devotion to one’s country in Europe leads, just as Hayes thought, to intolerance and even violence, as many refugees are treated violently at border crossings and within refugee camps (44). It can also be said that the nationalist parties are taking the upper hand over basic human values, ignoring Deutsch’s plea that basic values of civilization should always transcend nationality. It seems that anxiety causes European citizens to put their hopes in the nationalist parties, while this goes against Deutsch’s view that we should not give our souls to the nation-state. Herder might have been more positive about current developments, because of his nationalistic approach to language and culture, but he would also oppose the negative political impact of current nationalism in Europe. After all, he was not in favour of chauvinism, opposed any form of violence and possibly even more important: he defended the rights of all nations, not just one’s own nation. We can also link current nationalism to the view of Orwell, as he considered nationalism inseparable from the desire of power. If he was right in saying that a nationalist’s purpose is characterized by thoughts of competitive prestige, it might explain why people are so attracted to current nationalist parties and against the EU. After all, the EU’s purpose was to equalize nations and make economic and political difference fade away.

The EU: a state or a nation-state?

The European Union has been built on the idea that nationalism should not get the upper hand in Europe as it had done during the first and second World War. Nationalism was a monster that needed to be locked away in a cellar to prevent the mad, dangerous ideas from finding their way into politics again. Even though this approach can be historically justified, this view might ignore national pride and the identity of European nation-states, and as described in the previous part, it caused the opposite to happen: a rise of nationalism (45).
In line with this, the EU is currently often described as undemocratic and even totalitarian, as the power of the EU would be vested in an unelected and unaccountable elite that does not leave room for the influences of its members. For example, the main organ of the EU, the European Commission, is supposed to represent the people of Europe. However, it has been made up by 28 unelected commissioners, who are not chosen by the people of Europe and are therefore not directly accountable for their actions. Only the European Parliament is directly chosen by member states and consists of 751 MEP’s who are elected every five years. In theory, the parliament is capable of removing the European Commission, but this has never happened. This is very peculiar, as over the past decades some very questionable cases have emerged within the commission, including fraud, abuse of power and falsifying information.
At the same time, the huge influence of lobbying by large multinationals is also considered to make the EU less trustworthy and reliable. Only large companies can afford to understand the complicated regulatory framework of the EU and therefore keep small competitors away from participating in international economy; driving prices up for poorer quality goods and services (46).
Going back to the introduction of this paper, it could be argued that the EU, presumably unconsciously, has been acting as a state and not as a nation-state, as the primary loyalty of the EU is not to a cultural self-identity but rather to global advantages that are often too distant from European citizens. As result of this, there is an absence of the sense of belonging to a European nation among European citizens. Although on paper the EU assumes its responsibilities, in practice, as shown above, there is no attempt to build a stable relation with its subjects, enforcing the image of a state that does not meet its appointed responsibilities.
The result of this is that the legitimacy of the European Union as a government is compromised. After all, as Mill, Weber and Locke emphasised, a state needs to be supported by its people and should have something to offer its subjects in return in order to be a successful sovereignty. What European citizens get in return is often unclear, as in the UK for instance, where in 2010, 82% of the people did not have sufficient information or no knowledge at all about the EU and its policies and institutions (47). However, when it is not clear what a governing entity does, citizens will also not know what they get back for the costs of being part of that state, jeopardizing its legitimacy. If we follow Mill and consider the way the EU is built, it can be said that the most important aspect of state legitimacy is missing because the EU is not governed by the people itself, but rather by an elite that lacks a connection with the people. After all, as we have seen, the election process of the European Commission is questionable, and the commission is also not clearly accountable for its decisions.
Considering Weber’s thoughts more specifically, the EU is lacking all three forms of state authority. Firstly, as the EU is relatively new, authority out of tradition is invalid. Secondly, the EU leaders also lack charisma, as the European commission itself has pointed out that there is a gap between public opinion and the decisions taken by political leaders, and only half of European citizens express confidence in the ability of political leaders to face global challenges (48). Lastly, because of the reasons related to the undemocratic aspects of the EU, there cannot be a solid trust in the rationality of the rule of law.
Just as important as sufficient support for the state is the feeling of free will among its citizens. However, due to the small influence that European citizens have, it is possible that their feeling of having free will is suppressed, leading to further distrust in the EU. If so, and if we would follow Locke and Rousseau, European citizens would have the right to stand up against the EU and choose another government. However, as explained, due to the lack of civil influence in European institutions, this is not possible via a political way. If we would continue to follow Locke in his Two Treatises of Government, the European people would now have a sufficient reason to overthrow the EU power, as he stated that ‘whenever the Legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People’. This would give people the ‘right to resume their original liberty’ (49). This might sound very revolutionary in contemporary times, but lately not so much. Right-wing leader of the populist Freedom Party in the Netherlands Geert Wilders already stated that the ‘revolution of the right is unstoppable in Europe’, aiming at the successful emergence of many right-wing parties in Europe. According to Wilders, ‘The days of the old Roman Empire, which the European Union is, are over. They know it and they have been fighting for the last few years to extend it a bit, but this process is irreversible’ (50). This revolution became very realistic in the Netherlands, as his party gained 13.1% of the votes in the last elections in 2017, making it the second most popular party in the Netherlands (51). As we have read earlier in this paper, the same happened in other European countries, spreading the revolutionary ideas throughout Europe.
It seems that the EU does not meet the requirements for being a legitimate state for many European citizens, which has already led to revolutionary thoughts to move power from Brussels back to European states. However, we have also seen what the negative consequences are of this nationalistic thinking. This leads to the following question: how can the EU change its current discourse to regain the trust of its citizens and consequently become a legitimate government, i.e. a nation-state?

Nationalism: a constructive instrument

Allowing ‘liberating nationalism’ and adding a ‘second-layer’

As has become clear earlier in this paper, many academics do not consider nationalism as the monster that the EU considered it to be. Nationalism is often rather seen as the opposite, as we have ascertained that many views on nationalism consider it to:

  • cause harmony and brotherhood between countries;
  • be a tool to achieve democracy;
  • allow citizens to feel connected to a larger whole via culture and tradition;
  • possibly be the strongest human-made form of communication as universal criteria cannot grant legitimacy to historical entities;
  • be a constructive tool to build nation-states, and;
  • bring communities closer together.

The same goes for the idea of a nation-state, as it can lead to a peaceful world, more democracy and further economic and social development.
As Avineri said, nationalism can be ‘woven into the universal realm’, and this is exactly what could be a solution to the contemporary issues in the European Union. But how should the EU proceed to become this utopian, overlapping nation-state? There is no room in this paper nor sufficient depth of my political knowledge to answer this question in full-detail, but I do want to propose two general suggestions that are based on the content of this paper and on existing literature.
Firstly, the EU should be much more critical on the process of globalisation. As we have seen in this paper, the negative effects of globalisation are deeply felt within Europe and is one of the reasons why people and politics tend to become more focussed on their country’s own economy and security, which can enforce destructive kinds of nationalism. To prevent this from further happening, the EU should put much more emphasis on tackling inequality within Europe and should decrease the influence of large multinational companies on their policies. Only via this way they will be able to re-enter the social contract that every government should have with its citizens, in which the sacrifices to be part of a state equal the gains.
Secondly, the EU should take a much more positive stance towards nationalism. Jan Techau, director at the European Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has argued that the ‘nationalism is evil’ approach by the EU is a deeply erroneous aspect of classic federalist thinking. According to Techau, it only strengthens anti-EU thinking as it forces people to abandon a meaningful and comforting aspect of their lives, which is nationalism. He claims that nationalism has a profoundly positive side, in which the strong power of a nation makes people look beyond the blood bonds of family and tribe, i.e. extends their solidarity. He argues that this power needs to be kept intact at the lower level of EU member states, while at the same time another layer should be added that has the same effect of extending solidarity, but now on a higher level within Europe. In this way, the individual nation-states can be left undamaged, while the new, broader layer can also become just as meaningful and important. The challenge is not to fight nationalism and oppose globalism and internationalisation, but rather to lift the ‘feeling of belonging’ to a higher level and acknowledge the positive power of the nation (52).
Techau has effectively described how the positive elements of nationalism can be used to make the legitimacy of the EU stronger. This kind of ‘liberating nationalism’ can be used for the greater good. The ‘state of nature’ that Europe would be without the EU, in which immigrants are let down, co-operation does not exist, climate change is not being tackled and economic prosperity is thwarted, should be prevented at all costs, but this does not include averting nationalism. While keeping Hobsbawm’s thought alive that larger, multinational states are key to more stability, the EU should be an overlapping nation-state of all states of the EU that allows individual member state’s culture, politics and sovereignty to exist alongside co-operation at an international level, while keeping itself as an institution open for democratic influences. Only then it is possible to adhere to Poole’s thoughts that the nation-state, i.e. the EU, should bring (and in this case, allow) sufficient cultural resources to ensure the commitment of its citizens. By doing so, it will gain more trust, prevent European citizens from feeling distanced from European politics and make the EU the kind of nation-state Rousseau would have wanted, in which the community itself is the sovereign.


If the EU manages to become a nation-state that acknowledges nationalism as a constructive instrument rather than opposing it completely, it can lead to a more stable Europe, characterized by tactical co-operation and acceptance of diversity, and with full support of its citizens for the legitimacy of its sovereignty. While acknowledging the tremendous challenge that lies within this goal, the action that needs to be taken now is to transform this idea into concrete policies and agreements. Only then the EU can continue to exist alongside strong nation-states within the European continent.



1. Smith, Anthony D. National Identity. s.l. : University of Nevada Press, 1991.
2. Nairn, and James, . Global Matrix: Nationalism, Globalism and Terrorism. London : Pluto Press, 2005.
3. Primoratz, . Patriotism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Online] 26 April 2017.
4. Reuter, Tina Kempin. Ethnic Conflict. Encyclopeadia Britannica. [Online] 1 November 2017.
5. Modernism and nationalism. Conversi, . 2012, Journal of Political Ideologies, pp. 13-34.
6. Ethnosymbolism. Smith, Anthony D. 2015, The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism.
7. Canovan, . What is a nation? Nationhood and Political Theory. 1996.
8. Gellner, . Ernest Gellner’s Reply. Do nations have navels? 1996.
9. Stalin, . The Nation. Nationalism. New York : Oxford University Press, 1994.
10. Ghai, . 9 Major Differences between State and Nation. [Online]
11. The Nation State . Pick, Anthony C. March 2011.
12. Mill, John Stuart. Of Nationality, as connected with Representative Government. Representative Government. 1861.
13. Max Weber: an intellectual portrait. Benfix, . 1977, University of California Press, pp. 294-295.
14. Hobbes and Rawls on Political Power. Grcic, . 2007, Ethics & Politics, pp. 371-392.
15. Social Contract and the Governments Legitimacy. Bërdufi, and Dushi, . Rome : MCSER Publishing, 2015, Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences.
16. Nationalism and Nations. Van de Putte, . 1994, Ethical Perspectives, pp. 104-122.
17. Recchia, and Urbinati, . Giuseppe Mazzini’s International Political thought. A Cosmopolitanism of Nations: Giuseppe Mazzini’s Writings on Democracy, Nation Building, and International Relations. s.l. : Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 1-30.
18. Giuseppe Mazzini and the democratic logic of nationalism. Rowley, David G. 2012, Nations and Nationalism, pp. 39-56.
19. Poole, . Patriotism and Nationalism. 2008.
20. Marxism and Nationalism. Avineri, . 1991, Journal of Contemporary History.
21. Gellner, . Nations and Nationalism. s.l. : Cornell University Press, 1983.
22. Nationalism, or the new confessions of a justified Edinburgh sinner. Gellner, . 1991, Spectacles & Predicaments, pp. 271-272.
23. Gellner, Ernest André (1925-1995). Lukes, . s.l. : Oxford University Press, 2004, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
24. Nationalism Studies. Eric Hobsbawm. Nationalism Studies. [Online] 30 October 2013.
25. Nationalism and the Social Studies. Hayes, . 1923.
26. Hayes, . Nationalism: a religion. 1960.
27. Deutsch, . Nationalism Today. Barcelona, Spain : UPF, 1953.
28. Cultural Nationalism in Herder. Schmidt, Royal J. 1956, Journal of the History of Ideas, pp. 407-417.
29. Patten, . The Most Natural State: Herder and Nationalism. 2010, Vol. XXXI, 4.
30. Notes on Nationalism. Orwell, . London : s.n., 1945, Polemic.
31. Sheel, . A brief history of globalisation. The Economic Times. [Online] 25 July 2008.
32. Globalization in Historical Perspective. Northrup, . 2003, World System History.
33. European Commission. Globalisation and the EU economy. European Commission. [Online] 2018.
34. Saval, . Globalisation: the rise and fall of an idea that swept the world. The Guardian. [Online] 14 July 2017.
35. BBC. Globalisation. BBC Schools. [Online] 2014.
36. European Commission. Reflecting Paper on Harnessing Globalisation. Brussels : s.n., 2017.
37. Stokes, . Euroskepticism Beyond Brexit. Pew Research Center. [Online] 16 June 2016.
38. Trunk, and Klaukka, . The rise of populist and nationalist parties in Europe: How to break the trend. IDEA. [Online] 25 October 2017.
39. Ulansky, and Witenburg, . Is Nationalism on the Rise Globally? Huffington Post. [Online]
40. Vonberg, . How some European countries are tightening their refugee policies. CNN. [Online] 22 February 2017.
41. Durden, . The Consequences Of The Rise Of European Nationalism. Zero Hedge. [Online] 19 June 2012.
42. Hutchinson, . The Consequences of Europe’s Nationalism Trend. Wall Street Daily. [Online] 17 December 2015.
43. Buiter, . The terrible consequences of a eurozone collapse. Financial Times. [Online] 7 Dececmber 2011.
44. Oxfam. The Reality of the EU-Turkey Statement. s.l. : Oxfam, 2017.
45. Daley, . The EU still hasn’t understood that it is a totalitarian institution. The Telegraph. [Online] 17 September 2016.
46. Ellery, . The Undemocratic EU Explained – It Will Never Change. Huffington Post. [Online] 22 March 2017.
47. The Gallup Organization. Attitudes towards the EU in the United Kingdom. s.l. : Eurobarometer (European Commission), 2011.
48. European Commission. Updates 2012. European Commission. [Online] 2012.
49. Locke, . Two Treatises of Government. s.l. : Awnsham Churchill, 1689.
50. Foster, . Revolution of the Right is unstoppable in Europe, warns Geert Wilders. The Telegraph. [Online] 9 February 2017.
51. Khan, . Dutch election: everything you need to know as tricky coalition talks loom. Financial Times. [Online] 16 March 2017.
52. Techau, . Nationalism Destroys Europe – or Does It? Strategic Europe. [Online] February 23 2016.
53. Schuman, . Immigration and terrorism are Europeans’ biggest fears. Euractiv. [Online] 3 August 2016.

Categories: Long Reads


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *