“Hope is a good thing, and there is a time and a place for it. But hope is not what defines lasting political realities”
world after China and India – if it were a country.
The EU, however, is not a country, and it is not about to become one. If Europe were a country, German tax dollars would be allocated toward paying down Greece’s debt. If Europe were a country, its military would be deployed in Poland to defend its borders from Russia. If Europe were a country, rules would apply equally to all: France wouldn’t get to ignore European budget deficit rules and then single out Poland as a black sheep for violating democratic norms because of its judicial reforms. If Europe were a country, a Romanian would be willing to die to protect a Spaniard. I have no doubt that there are people of goodwill in all these countries, none of whom wish to see harm visited upon others. But there’s a difference between passive hope for all to live in peace, and active sacrifice to protect members of the same community.
This sense of community is alive and well in most pockets of Europe. And it has to be. In the era of the nation-state, governments are legitimised in part by their ability to represent and protect a particular nation: a group of people who speak the same language, who grew up in the same place, and who feel that if one of their own is under attack, then the nation is under attack. Even the most stalwart supporters of European integration feel a deep sense of national pride in their own countries. France, Germany and the other western European states represent the very cradle of nationalism itself, and even the most passionate of EU supporters don’t want to surrender their national identities.
And yet the leaders of these countries cower in the face of their nationalists, no doubt a consequence of the Continent’s sordid history. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that there were those who sought to conquer Europe with Panzer divisions instead of neoliberal trade regimes.
But perhaps there is more than just fear of the past at work here. Perhaps there is also a yearning for the past too. Perhaps western European countries are nostalgic, wistful for a time when individual European nation-states ruled the world, and cognizant of the reality that the only way that can come to pass again is if all of Europe’s vast geographic, military and economic resources are harnessed and directed toward the pursuit of one goal as opposed to 51 sets of different goals.
And therein lies the difficulty of talking about Europe. So diverse is the Continent that it’s often more useful to think of it regionally: western Europe, eastern Europe, northern Europe, southern Europe. (Useful doesn’t mean perfect. There are negative connotations associated with “Eastern Europe,” for example, as being considered retrograde or backwater. You might get into knock-down, drag-out fights in bars in places like Prague and Budapest if you suggest to a local that you are visiting eastern, and not central, Europe.)
But even if these designations help to broadly explain sometimes-inexplicable dynamics, they still belie just how complex Europe really is. Countries such as Hungary and Poland, which we at GPF categorise as Eastern Europe, have been pushing back against the EU in recent years. Supporters of greater EU integration often try to single Hungary and Poland out as exceptions rather than as harbingers of future trends. They don’t see, for instance, that Hungary and Poland’s refusal to take the refugees the EU wanted them to take in 2015 wasn’t exceptional but was a sign of things to come (think of how much anti-EU sentiment over refugees shaped Brexit).
They say, as Macron said last week, that Poland does not speak for eastern Europe, that Hungary’s government does not speak for the true desires of the Hungarian people. They say that the masses of Europe are pro-European, and that Brussels is charged with safeguarding Europe’s cherished principles of tolerance, equality and freedom, and that if everyone would just follow the rules Europe would rule the world once more.
And they’re right, insofar as Poland does not speak for Eastern Europe. Hungary does not speak for Romania. But France and Germany don’t speak for eastern Europe, either – the only times in history when they did was at gunpoint. Consider also the perspective of a country like Poland.
Poland has roughly two-thirds the population of France. But in economic terms, Poland’s GDP is just under 20% of France’s. While western Europe was rebuilt after World War II with American dollars, eastern Europe languished behind the Iron Curtain. Now, eastern Europe is emerging – more self-confident, more defensive of its independence, the most economically dynamic region in Europe. The government in Warsaw does not oppose the EU in principle. It wants to be treated fairly and reacts harshly when it faces what it sees as