Modern Europe is a web of inter-connected nation-states. Throughout the history of the continent, those nation-states, in their various manifestations, have waged war and made peace at a very high frequency. The establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 brought this chaos to an end. European cooperation was supposed to usher in a new era of peace and stability, an era where nationalism and nation-states were no longer the definers of someone’s identity or the causes of conflict. However, we only have to pick a newspaper or turn on the television to see that this has not been achieved. In fact, nationalism as a movement has made a full recovery, being dragged kicking and screaming out of its post-modernist prison into mainstream politics, causing internal and external problems for the European Union.
As an example of this recent surge, in September’s Foreign Affairs, Jakub Grygiel advocated for the dissolution of the European Union, in favour of returning to a system of politically independent nation-states, citing the EU’s numerous geopolitical failures, from the 2008 financial crisis to their handling of the refugee crisis, as the reason for this increasingly popular argument. The people of Europe seem to agree with him; dissatisfaction with Brussels can be seen in all member states. In Poland and Hungary, right-wing, Eurosceptic parties have been voted into government and Britain’s historic and surprising vote to leave the EU has bolstered Euroscepticism across the continent. This demonstrates the place the nation-state is considered to have in the European Union today. It is clear that a balance needs to struck concerning the rights of the nation in the EU’s supranational system. Whilst this presents a plethora of challenges, the EU needs to do this to ensure its continuation.
One way to view this is through the lens of the motto of the European Union, ‘United in Diversity’, and what this means for national sovereignty. Diversity has come naturally through the EU’s development, from the original six member states to today’s twenty-eight. Under the banner of the EU, twenty-eight different political, economic, constitutional and cultural systems navigate the conflict between national laws and EU directives and regulations. Due to this inevitable complexity, the issue of national sovereignty has come to the fore. In an attempt to subvert criticism on this issue, the EU has tried to capitalise on this diversity and make it a unifying rallying point. ‘United in Diversity’ as a motto has been in use since 2000, and is used to signify how ‘Europeans have come together, in the form of the EU, to work for peace and prosperity, while at the same time being enriched by the continent’s many different cultures, traditions and languages’. This has arguably not been as successful as they hoped, as numerous points of view on the issue of diversity and unity have made themselves clear.
In the case of the Netherlands, a widely-held example of the successes of unity through tolerance and multiculturalism, there exists the view amongst politicians that diversity is the future. Frans Timmermans, the Dutch diplomat and Vice-President of the European Commission, stated at the EU Fundamental Rights Colloquium in 2015 that “diversity in some parts of Europe is seen as a threat, but diversity is humanity’s destiny”. Spoken by a Dutch politician, this is perhaps emblematic of the Netherlands’ reputation for tolerance and liberal opinions. This theme is also emphasised in Dutch policy, with the Cultural Policy (Special Purpose Funding) Act of 1993 entrenching cultural diversity into its core.
However, this policy does not always resonate amongst voters, who in recent years have begun to vote in increasing numbers for previously fringe right-wing, Eurosceptic parties. Per a poll conducted by Maurice de Hond, the Party for Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders, an anti-Islam, anti-immigration and anti-Europe party, could count on 22% of the vote in August 2016, putting it in first place ahead of the present ruling party, Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). After the Brexit vote in June 2016, numerous media outlets were reporting the Dutch also wanted a referendum on their own European Union membership. If faith in the European project is starting to fade in the tolerant Netherlands, a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community, then the EU’s previous success in holding the continent together may be faltering. The divergence between these viewpoints is telling: a connection needs to be made between the wishes of the voters and the aims of the politicians at a European level.
It must be observed that this does not have to mean a complete dissolution of the European project, as Jakub Grygiel has argued. The key may be to reduce centralisation at a European level and give back more state control within a system that returns some amount of power to national governments. The EU began with the aim of avoiding another devastating war in Europe by making its countries economically interdependent of one another. This has changed over the years, from a purely economic union that has developed into a massive organisation, which is responsible for many different areas of policy. It is inevitable that clashes between national and European policies will appear but, as Evers and Tennekes observed in their report on the Europeanisation of spatial planning in the Netherlands, ‘the national government plays a crucial role as intermediary between policy-making at an EU level and implementation on regional and local levels’. This only serves to emphasise the importance of the role of the government at national level in negotiating EU policies. Furthermore, this is necessary in supporting the continuation of the nation-state in the EU system.
A conflict between national traditions of law and EU directives and resolutions has evolved into a debate on national sovereignty. Consequently, the EU is in need of reform if it is to deal with its developing unpopularity. In terms of readdressing the balance between national and European tradition, perhaps the reform should take shape in acknowledging the resonance of the nation-state in European consciousness.
Rebecca Hogg is the Ambassador to the Netherlands for the European Student Think Tank. She is currently a Master’s student of European Studies at the University of Amsterdam, having gained her Bachelor’s degree in French, Russian and East European Civilisations from the University of Nottingham in the UK. Rebecca spent her Erasmus year abroad as a Language Assistant in France, as an au pair in Belgium and studying the Russian language in Petrozavodsk, Russia. Her areas of interest include the culture and history of Europe, the East-West divide, Women’s Rights in Europe and the rise of nationalism and populism.
- Jakub Grygiel, “The Return of Europe’s Nation-States”, Foreign Affairs, September/October Issue: http://foreignaffairs.com/articles/europe/return-europe-s-nation-states
- “The EU motto,” European Union, 2016: https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/symbols/motto_en.
- “Europe must accept Diversity or face War”: Timmermans in EU Parlmt: No more Nation States”, uploaded 1 April 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N14U5ZE-N2w
- The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, “The Dutch Cultural System”, Government of the Netherlands, 17 June 2013: https://www.government.nl/documents/leaflets/2013/06/17/the-dutch-cultural-system
- “Support for anti-Islam PVV falls, but it remains the biggest party: poll”, Dutch News, 28 August 2016: http://www.dutchnews.nl/news/archives/2016/08/pvv-support-falls-again-new-opinion-poll-shows/
- Anna Holligan, “Will Dutch follow Brexit with Nexit or stick to EU?” BBC News, 7 July 2016: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36722915
- Joshua Rozenburg, “Does the EU impact on UK sovereignty?” BBC News, 23 February 2016: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-35630757
“The Europeanisation of spatial planning in the Netherlands”, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, 14 June 2016: http://www.pbl.nl/en/publications/the-europeanisation-of-spatial-planning-in-the-netherlands