One of the single greatest achievements of the European Union has undoubtedly been the ability to bring European countries and regions together. Nations that have fought each other for centuries are now part of something greater, with common challenges and common stakes.
European nation-States, however, are not the undisputed protagonists they once were. The outcome of the Second World War fatally weakened them. Forty years of truncated agency as a battlefield of the Cold War have reduced their clout. In more recent times, the development of the EU as a supranational entity, paired with the rise of globalisation, has called the role of member States into question. Naturally, the topic is of great interest to European federalists of all inclinations, since it touches on a wide variety of issues, ranging from the resolution of disputes to the division of competences within the European project. Inevitably, this has also led to the promotion of pre-conceived political narratives, such as the role of regions in a united Europe.
Regions are an integral part of Europe…
Regions have an important role to play in the European Union as a fledging multi-level governance polity. The relationship between Brussels and European regions is tight-knit and has seen levels of local development superior to those achievable under the framework of centralised and unitary States. Making local politics more relevant means reducing the arbitrariness of member States, redressing disputes, and easing coexistence between Europeans.
This success story provides a model for the future of continental integration. European governance could happen differently at all levels: municipalities, regions, States, State clusters, and federal government would take on different competencies, rather than competing over prerogatives and accountability.
… but the nation-State is here to stay
However, it is doubtful that this strong relationship represents a fundamental crisis of member States as actors in the EU, and the same would probably hold true for a united, federal Europe. Instead, what we are seeing is precisely the emergence of true multi-level governance, in which regions take on more responsibilities for local governance, States remain key political and institutional actors, and State clusters acquire greater visibility in representing their common interests. The public is by now familiar with terms like V4, Nordics, Eurocore and Club Med, all varyingly informal entities that represent geographical and cultural clusters of member States at a EU level. Conversely, in a European Federation, the federal level would represent the overall coordinator of this multi-level system, with specifically defined competencies and rights.
What we are not seeing, however, is the demise of the nation State as a political actor. The nation State isn’t dead and isn’t going anywhere. This is a common trope amongst federalists, who have a rather black and white view of nationalism and either think that the nation State is a thing of the past or that we should actively get rid of it. In this context, they see the European Federation not as a polity in which regions, States and clusters complement each other, but one in which the nation-State is dismantled.
The first thing to note, however, is that there is no empirical support for the idea that nation-States are dead. The United States, while internally federated, are for all intents and purposes a nation-State, with a common, homogeneous baseline. Russia, while internally diverse on a scope that is often underestimated, also places great stock on national elements. Japan is a nation State. China might well be a peculiar case but it is hardly an example of a federal, post-national polity. In fact, as noted by Norberto Bobbio, Nicola Matteucci and Gianfranco Pasquino in their Dictionary of Politics, nation-States are effectively the sole baseline framework that is capable of producing workable polities today – even when those later on evolve into multinational States and possibly federations.
The problem, then, doesn’t lie with nation-States in and of themselves: it lies specifically with European countries, whose size and internal markets would be too small for the challenges of the near future. As a consequence, European nation-States can keep their sovereignty only if they pool it into something common, a “pool it or lose it” scenario. This is the single underpinning strategic imperative behind European unity.
With this said, one could argue that we should actively work to bring about the demise of the nation-State. This position stems from the reductive association of the European nation-State with the World Wars – and ignores the foundations upon which States in the modern sense – and supranational organizations like the EU itself – are founded. More dangerously, it severely underestimates the importance played by member States in the lives and perceptions of Europeans, thereby widening the gap between European federalism and the electorate. Member States are still the most relevant political environment for the majority of Europeans, and winning them over requires respecting this reality.
There is a further problem in that most proposed splits make no sense at all. Some federalists build their hypothetical Europe of Regions around culture and language or past history. This regionalism ends up looking suspiciously like ethno-nationalism. Federalist support for an independent Catalonia is a case in point: defending Catalan independence from Spain on the basis of diversity of language, history and culture means essentially promoting the creation of a new nation State. This is something which is completely at odds with the nominal federalist intent of overcoming said barriers.
On the other hand, if the suggestive division is purely administrative and based in efficiency of governance, then why change subdivision at all? Member States are already efficient, and even if we ignore the time, effort, and administrative chaos that would derive out of a radical reshaping of European borders and competencies, the fact remains that a geographically and economically heterogeneous unit like this map’s “Adriatica” – which includes diverse places such as Ljubljiana and Bari – is unlikely to offer significant administrative benefits compared to the continued existence of Italy and Slovenia as European member States.
The danger of keeping our heads in the clouds
Ultimately, this entire row about destroying nation-States is a symptom of a wider federalist problem, which is detachment from political reality. Not only is it detrimental to suggest outlandish and impractical vanity projects rather than popularizing the great successes and opportunities offered by the European Union, it also shows a fundamental lack of understanding of European politics. The proposed internal set up of any federal European polity shouldn’t be based in fancy daydreaming: it has to reflect the specific problems and peculiarities that make up European history and political culture.
To give but one example, simply consider the implications of such an internal rearrangement of State borders: it would imply that the federal government of this hypothetical European Federation has the power to alter the borders of member States, and indeed dissolve them at will. Not even in the United States can the federal government act in this fashion over its constituent units, and even regional, non-federal States like Italy place popular referenda as a prerequisite for the alteration of internal borders. A European government with such extensive power over its constituent units could hardly be qualified as a federation anymore: it would effectively act and behave as a unitary State, something that defeats the purposes, and nullifies the very strength of European federalism.