The European Union and national interests

Dhaka,  Wed,  20 September 2017
Published : 08 Jul 2017, 20:50:23

The European Union and national interests

Muhammad Mahmood
Nation states tend to be defined by their sense of nationhood and also by their territoriality and notionally fixed boundaries. People in nation states are often bound by a sense of collective identity, shared culture, values, historical memories, common language(s), a sense of membership,  even myths of origin. All these quite often give the people a sense of nationhood. The European Union (EU) has been expanding with no clear idea about what its boundary may ultimately be. On these grounds, the EU is not and can not be a nation state.

The Treaty of Rome was signed on March 25, 1957 creating a customs union involving six European countries and that ultimately paved the way to the present European Union consisting 28 European countries (soon to be 27 countries). The EU now has over 500 million people who speak about 200 languages.  The combined gross domestic product (GDP) of all EU member countries was US$16.5 trillion in 2016 accounting for 22.8 per cent of the world's total. That made the British historian Perry Anderson to comment "Larger than the Roman Empire of two thousand years ago, more opaque than the Byzantine, the European Union continues to baffle observers and participants alike''. 

The EU is a project in the making and it does not state its goals clearly. The EU does, however, explain its undertakings. All EU institutions and agencies have their roles and functions which are also clearly mentioned. But still its mission remains unmentioned and most importantly, what is it. Is it an international or regional organisation, a federation or confederation or a regime?

Prior to the June 23 referendum on British membership in the EU, British voters were warned about the dire consequences that would follow in the wake of withdrawal from the EU; yet British voters by majority voted to leave the EU. What caused this decision? To put it simply, the clear calculations of national interest eventually won the day.

National interests always refer, by definition, to a particular state. Government is the vehicle through which national interests are realised.  Pursuit of national interest has long been accepted as sole and self-evident purpose of government. This is simply because the primary role of government is to protect its people and all other things within its territorial boundaries. In a democracy national interests are intertwined with the interests of the people.  In a democracy, therefore, national interests are always linked to the benefits of the people and society within the state making the people and the state synonymous.

But all governments posses one single trait - control, without which it will simply cease to exit. That brings us to the nature of the EU. While the EU is canvassing the idea of pan-Europeanism by pooling together sovereignty of member states, it is avoiding the democratic process. This in itself means denying the people the right to be the source of interests as demonstrated in the case of Greece where the democratic verdict of the people  was totally disregarded, thereby completely disregarding their self-interest. Attempts to create a common European interest by creating a series of European institutions is failing simply because no two countries, even if they are friendly to each other, have rarely the same notional interests. This will militate against the EU's ability to project itself as a single unit of power superseding individual member country's  sovereignty which guarantees the ability of the individual country to safeguard its national interests. The problem is further compounded when richer Scandinavian and West European member countries continue to subsidise other less economically advanced member countries. Economic self-interest plays a dominant role within the wider national self-interests.

When it comes to national self-interests, whatever emotional bond people may feel about feeling being European, will always give way to cold calculations of national self- interests of individual member-states. When the project of European integration was initiated in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was to ensure to bring together Germany and France whose rivalry was the major source of European wars in the first half of the twentieth century. The first step was to foster economic cooperation - according to the official EU wording "the idea being that countries who trade with one another become economically interdependent and more likely to avoid conflict''.  Since then a huge single market has been created with complete movement of goods, services, labour and capital. Now this has itself created massive internal migration within the EU not to speak of refugee influx from war-torn countries in the Middle-East and North Africa. Many EU countries such as, France, Italy and other countries contributed to this refugee influx by militarily intervening in those countries with the aim of regime change in countries like Syria and Libya.

The vision of European integration through the creation of political and economic institutions would have resulted in a new "European identity'' which would subsume national identities. But national identities in Europe have proved to be far more durable than expected. Even support for EU and EU institutions is purely based on perceived self-interest rather than to acquire new European identity. There is no indication that Europeans will ever give up their national identities. In fact, over the last decade or so outbreaks of violence against immigrants in countries like France, Germany, Belgium and Italy is considered as the reassertion of national identity. This resurgence of nationalism (or reassertion of national identity) now perceives the "other" (immigrants) as dangerous cultural threat undermining the national identity. The loudest critics of the EU are far-right parties in Europe like National Front (France), United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Freedom Party (the Netherlands), Northern League (Italy), Alternative for Germany (Germany) Freedom Party (Austria), Golden Dawn (Greece) and their likes in other European countries. Hatred for immigrants and Islamophobia are the glue that bind these parties together and they are very active and their support base is expanding. They are also fighting to safeguard their version of national self-interest - national identity.

Brexit delivered a brutal blow to the EU. Despite the warnings of dire consequences both from the EU leaders and the former US President Barack Obama, Britain will still remain an important part of the global economy. The country still remains the fifth largest economy in the world. These are all very encouraging signals for the European far-right. In the wake of the electoral success of Brexit campaign, the far-right political movement against the union in many EU countries are gaining momentum claiming Brexit is the beginning of the end of the European Union. This continuing rise of far-right sentiment throughout much of the EU could seriously undermine the dream of a united Europe. In the recent British election overwhelming majority voted for the two mainstream political parties that stood for Brexit.

The writer is an independent economic and political analyst.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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