crowned King of Italy in 774. Just over a quarter of a century later he became Holy Roman Emperor

The end of sovereignty

Beset by problems, Europe needs more cooperation between countries not less
March 24, 2016

Germany is Europe’s giant. Its economy is equivalent to the 21 weakest European Union member states combined; it is the linchpin of the eurozone and the only EU member Russia appears to take seriously. No discussion of the UK’s future within the EU can ignore these facts.

But the shadow of the 20th century obscures much of Germany’s earlier history. Uncovering that past means looking back to when the Holy Roman Empire ruled as a loose confederation of countries in a way that, although under different circumstances, is similar to the EU. National identities were less important than we might think and borders more porous. We hear much from the Leave campaign about reclaiming sovereignty, but history tells us that we overestimate the power of the nation state, and we should remember that lesson as we look to Europe’s future now.

This argument may seem to contradict the inescapable news about resurgent nationalism in Eastern Europe (as described by Peter Pomerantsev and Anton Shekhovtsov in Prospect’s March issue) and the right-wing response to the migrant crisis and terrorism that we have seen in France. But as the world becomes more integrated and the movement of refugees and migrants increasingly unstoppable, these responses could also be seen as the final throes of the old-fashioned nation, rather than the precursor of more militant patrolling of borders and a permanent hardening of identities. The problems the world is facing are simply too vast to be solved without sustained cooperation—and Europe’s political leaders know it.

To most people, the Germans are a “nation” inhabiting a “national state” that has its origins in what is still called “unification” in 1871. The violent and incomplete nature of unification is usually blamed for the disastrous course taken by the country, which culminated in total defeat by the end of the Second World War in 1945. Many Germans believe this view of their recent history too, and their postwar leaders have tried to heal the wounds of the past through closer integration within what has become the EU. Other Europeans have broadly welcomed this, hoping to channel Germany’s potential towards benefiting rather than dominating the continent.

For just over a millennium the countries that are now Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were encompassed by the Holy Roman Empire, which also extended across most of Italy, and parts of France, Denmark and Poland. This entity has long been a byword for weakness and impotence, summed up by Voltaire’s famous quip that it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” The tendency to fragment Europe’s history into national stories reduced the Empire to its role in Germany’s middle ages, largely because none of the other states found any use for it when constructing their histories during the 19th century. German historians generally regarded the Empire as a national disgrace, believing its decentralised structure rendered their country weak relative to neighbouring states, notably France.

But the Empire was never meant to be a centralised, national state; nor was it an “empire” as that term has been defined since 1800. The Empire emerged from an alliance between the papacy and the Frankish king, Charlemagne, culminating in the latter’s coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800. Both parties presented it as a direct continuation of the Roman Empire. Though a fiction to legitimise Charlemagne’s status, the new Empire assumed the mantle of late imperial Rome—the political guardian of a universal Christian civilisation. The Empire symbolised an idealised single order, rather than the dominance of one people over others.

Though associated with Germany, the Empire lacked a stable core for its first seven centuries and there was never a single capital. Rome remained the preferred location for imperial coronations into the 15th century, but emperors remained itinerant, ceaselessly travelling from one monastery or town to another, dispensing justice that was intended more to symbolise an ideal social order than to address concrete problems.

Politics remained local and plural throughout the Empire’s existence. It received such bad press from later historians because it did not conform to their ideal of a national state. They expected emperors to be state-builders and so interpreted the Empire’s history as a succession of failed attempts to centralise. Closer inspection reveals a story far more interesting than the usual narrative of decline. The Empire embedded autonomous communities within a wider system for peaceful problem solving and burden sharing. This in turn encouraged popular attachment to the Empire as it guaranteed local liberties and identities.

The Empire collapsed in 1806 amid the Napoleonic Wars, brought down by internal political tensions and relentless French aggression. Yet its history should cause us to question the assumption that Europe has been and always will be a continent of distinct peoples, each inhabiting their own country defined by language, culture and political organisation. That organisation, we are told, is the sovereign state, described as the exercise of indivisible legitimate power over a clearly defined area.

Our histories are constructed around such states, despite all efforts to broaden school curriculums through the inclusion of individual human stories or the spice of global multiculturalism. The “rise of the state” provides a clear, coherent narrative. It is attractive as a story about power. It has identifiable protagonists in the form of kings and queens, statesmen and others more humble who are credited with creating institutions, passing notable laws, contributing ideas or providing the material means to sustain all this. It is also a story about places. Power is centralised in a national capital, and symbolised in iconic buildings, like the Houses of Parliament. There is a landscape celebrated in poetry and song, along with commemoration of the battles fought to conquer or defend it.

Perhaps more fundamentally, it is a story that provides the clear chronology we all need to fit the myriad other bits of the past together. External wars become struggles to delineate each state. Civil wars, rebellions and revolutions are about the social distribution of power within the state, about how far that power is shared among the population and whether any groups or regions have special status. In short, because Europe is considered a continent of many nations, it is naturally divided into many states, unlike the Chinese or Americans who are generally regarded as single peoples, each with their own, very large state.

This story is both so familiar and compelling that few question its validity. The current migrant and refugee crises and the animosity they generate might suggest a resurgence of nationalism across Europe. Certainly, popular pressure is mounting on governments to close frontiers, or at least restrict immigration. The situation clearly benefits radical political parties who style themselves as nationalist and are often happy to exploit anxieties to garner support. The radicalisation of popular sentiment is hardly new. The issue is whether the presence of those anxieties demonstrates the resurgence of nationalism.

Nationalism is always bordering on self-destruction. It relies on us-and-them distinctions that are inevitably contested. Attempts to define who belongs entail exclusion and cannot escape the vicious circle this imposes. Any serious attempt to articulate identity risks fragmenting populations into ever smaller groups, all chasing an elusive homogenous purity. Yugoslavia’s collapse and Ukraine’s current crisis are just two of the more recent, violent examples of this.

Liberal efforts at inclusion in the name of multiculturalism merely represent the flip side of the same problem, since they simply grant minorities special dispensation from a presupposed “national” culture, even if that culture remains deliberately ill-defined, as in the case of Britishness. It is that presupposition that thwarts the idea that a “national” culture can be based on inclusion rather than exclusion. Minority groups are permanently forced to relate themselves to the larger national culture through the addition of adjectives, as in Asian Muslim British. Large-scale group solidarity can still be forged along nationalist lines, and is being so in countries as diverse as Russia and Macedonia, yet the bonds will always be fragile because “the nation” is so hard to define. Many of the factors once sustaining those bonds, such as large-scale factory production or compulsory military service, no longer exist in many European countries.

The EU is a product of efforts to overcome the most destructive aspects of nationalism by providing a framework in which sovereign states could cooperate, initially only economically, but later more clearly politically. This is the EU’s greatest promise, but also its fundamental weakness. It is constructed from states which are still considered as sovereign and inhabited by distinct peoples.

The consequences are clear in the “democracy deficit” and the absence of a meaningful European identity. The EU appears undemocratic because it lacks a single, uniform body of citizens. Instead, democratic rights are determined by national constitutions, as is citizenship, since this is granted first by national governments and only secondarily brings with it those rights accorded by the EU. The most obvious example is the recent scandal of Malta selling citizenship to investors seeking a EU passport. Along with the euro, that passport is one of the few tangible markers of European identity. Brussels remains Babel with official documents published in the languages of all member states.  These issues largely remain buried in the current referendum debate which focuses on specific practical problems, such as migrants’ rights. There is also an understandable reluctance on the part of both sides to articulate the choices they really represent. The logic of those seeking a Brexit would be to restore full national sovereignty and reduce the EU to some loose, deregulated capitalist free-market zone. These goals have a strong emotional resonance, because they align with most people’s sense of the past as a national story. Brexit appears a historical course correction, putting the UK back on its “proper path.”

In reality, this objective takes no account of how that cherished sovereignty has already been irrevocably undermined by other, more global, forces. It is not just a question that Britain no longer has an empire: rather, that its government is powerless to take any form of meaningful international action alone. Perceived threats, whether Syrian refugees, Somali pirates, corporate tax avoidance or cyber-warfare, cannot be tackled unilaterally. Even possession of the full range of conventional armed forces makes little sense, since the UK has not used its army, navy and airforce to wage a war unaided since the Falklands conflict in 1982.

"Individual countries lack sufficient power and resources to confront these complicated problems on their own"
But those on the Remain side of the debate are also wary of where their arguments might lead. The contradictions inherent in the EU between national sovereignty and political union have been obvious since the financial crash of 2008 and the eurozone crisis. While the economic turmoil has dampened enthusiasm for greater integration, it has not substantially changed ideas about how the EU might be strengthened. These all centre on some kind of federal solution, either through member states surrendering more sovereignty to EU institutions, or by creating some kind of United States of Europe which would interact directly and democratically with its citizens in the manner of the United States of America. Either variant would entail further erosion of national distinctions as they are currently manifest in separate laws, institutions and customs.

The problem with these Eurosceptic and Europhile positions is that both rest on a conception of the state which is rapidly losing its practical relevance. If the term “nation” is largely avoided by most European politicians as too problematic, a state is still considered “national” in the sense of a centralised government interacting uniformly with all its citizens inhabiting its sovereign territory. Such a state might be federal, as in the case of Germany, Austria or Belgium, all of which devolve some powers to regional governments who can vary laws and activities within certain parameters in the manner of US federal states. Yet sovereignty, in the sense of the exercise of legitimate executive authority, is still considered indivisible.

This concept of sovereignty is relatively recent, first fully articulated in the 1570s by Jean Bodin, the French theorist. Its practical application came much later as European states forged uniform legal, administrative and commercial systems. This process accelerated in the later 18th century, but was completed long after.

The national state remains incomplete in the UK, which retains separate judicial and legal systems, notably in Scotland. Conventional national histories applaud this process as “progress,” for instance trumpeting the economic benefits of standardising coinage, weights and measures. Those directly affected often saw things differently, railing against what they perceived as a loss of treasured autonomy and local identity. Integration brought new rights associated with national citizenship; rights which by 1900 were gradually being expanded to include women as well as men across much of Europe. But it also created a new sense of disenfranchisement by eroding more immediate connections with local affairs, especially where these were now decided by faceless officials in national capitals.

European national states proved far more potent than their more decentralised, fragmented predecessors. Uniform citizenship entailed uniform obligations, notably in taxation and in blood through the duty, or at least the expectation, that citizens would give their lives to defend their state. Conventional military history’s fascination with weaponry obscures the fact that the real growth in the scale of war across the century after 1850 was human, not technological. States had acquired the power to marshal their populations into mass armies and mass production to fight wars of unprecedented scale and intensity. Fascism and socialism in its “real existing” form of 1917-90 were simply attempts to further that mobilisation.

The fact that the kind of wars between 1914 and 1945 seem inconceivable now is directly relevant to the current debate on Europe’s future. It shows how our conception of the national state no longer reflects reality. It is not simply that warfare has changed; so too have attitudes. There is no appetite for the kind of national sacrifice witnessed in the First and Second World Wars, and the economic forms underpinning that kind of warfare are no longer present. Much of the solidarity came from communal forms of work in field and factory. The UK government’s defence review is struggling to overcome the shift to more varied, and often less secure, patterns of employment, which undermines how reservists are recruited.

Viewed in the longer term, there are good grounds for believing that the nation state will be a transient form of political organisation which only reached its full form in the mid-19th century and lost its relevance with growing rapidity around a hundred years later.

The recent spasm of nationalism in Europe, from Poland to France, is a reaction to what is an inevitable process of increased interdependence between countries. The migrant crisis might have produced an upsurge in support for extreme right wing parties, and terrorism has made Europeans jumpy about preserving their own national identities. But both these crises know no borders. Individual countries lack sufficient power and resources to confront these complicated problems on their own. The solution will require more integration, not less.