Refugee crisis: Calls to defend national borders are stronger than calls for European solidarity

The nation state is killing the European dream, and we're all losers

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Refugees packed into trains and told they are being taken abroad to safety but ending up in a camp. Migrants refused entry on the grounds of religion. Uncomprehending victims of persecution having identity numbers inked on to their arms. Walls being assembled across the continent. And an abject failure of supposedly civilised, cultured and rich nation states to work together.

Yes, as has been much observed in recent weeks, there are many echoes across Europe of darker, uglier episodes from the past. One would not want to make too much of them – it would be highly disrespectful to victims of the Holocaust – but there have been some nasty reminders that liberal democratic values are not as well entrenched in Europe as we might wish.

It will be 70 years ago next year that Winston Churchill, recently unseated as prime minister and at a loose end, travelled to Fulton, Missouri, and uttered his famous warning: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.” It was already too late; the Soviet occupation of east-central Europe was established. Today’s curtain of razor wire doesn’t have such neat termini, but it is a stark and equally powerful symbol of a modern failure of European unity.

The rolls of wire will in due course be replaced by ever more formidable barriers, just as the barbed wire dividing East and West Berlin became a concrete wall in 1961, only to fall in 1989. The barriers, as well as the tear gas and armoured cars and squalid camps, are a demonstration of the durability and appeal of the 19th-century construct of the “nation state”. No appeals to European solidarity or the rights of man have the same potency as a call to defend national borders. Even Germany has decided to re-establish its border with Austria. So much for Schengen. So much for the European dream.

There are plenty more signs that the nation state is alive and well, long after it was supposedly consigned to history. A flag, a culture, a language and sense of allegiance remain powerful adhesives, either for an existing, strong nation state, or one that is still being formed or re-formed. Hence, Scotland. The anniversary of the referendum on Scottish independence, in which we saw such massive participation and passion, reminds us of how nationalism can easily create its own momentum. If England and Scotland do split, then, like the Czech Republic and Slovakia two decades ago, it will be a velvet divorce. The nationalism that drives the wars over disputed territories of eastern Ukraine and Crimea demonstrates us how fortunate we are in that respect.

After the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia yielded a couple of dozen new territories, new nations are still being created, argued and fought over. Some of these nation states are internationally recognised, but more often than not left to languish in obscure diplomatic limbo: South Sudan, Somaliland and Puntland out of the old Somalia; Iraqi Kurdistan; and the remarkable Transnistria, a sliver of dirt-poor Europe betwixt Moldova and Russia, which has retained the hammer and sickle as part of its national insignia.

The former Soviet Union is full of little enclaves and anomalies – Crimea was arguably one of them – left over from the fall of that Communism. There are others born out of this intense attachment people have to “their” nation state. Only a few months ago, India and Bangladesh agreed to exchange some 160 assorted enclaves left over from past wars and the idiosyncrasies of the British Raj. For connoisseurs, this included one of the very few recorded “third order” enclaves – Dahala Khagrabari. Take a deep breath; this was a part of India, surrounded by a Bangladeshi enclave, which was surrounded by an Indian enclave, which was surrounded by Bangladesh.

On top of these we have the quasi-nation state too, countries that are trapped in the wrong body politic such as Catalonia and Quebec (which maintains what amounts to an embassy down the road from the Canadian High Commission in London). Like Scotland will soon, they lack only the sovereign state’s capacity to wage war law and conclude treaties, and it is perfectly possible to conceive of them possessing a veto over federal national governments in such matters (as the Scottish Executive no wants over the UK’s EU referendum).


Of course, the most controversial of nation states is Islamic State. It is an appalling regime, a racket run by gangsters – but it does, unnervingly, have pretensions to some of the attributes of a nation state. It has a recognisable (and occasionally mis-recognised) flag, a national “anthem”, an army, or at least a bunch of terrorists and murderers, and the ability to levy taxation (as well as thieve and plunder). It dismissed the national boundaries of Iraq and Syria created after the First World War by the Western colonial powers, and has its own ideas about how the world can be carved up into “caliphates”. The misguided religious fanaticism attached to so-called Islamic State is medieval and, thus, pre-nation state; and it certainly lacks legitimacy and democratic or any other kind of consent from the peoples it occupies.

In Africa, by and large, the borders drawn by the British, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Belgian and other colonisers in the 1880s were legally retained after they won their independence about 60 years ago. The nationalist leaders that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, men such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, were following the likes of Garibaldi and Bismarck in the 1860s and 1870s, and the first Czech president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, in leading the states of the 1920s that emerged from the wreckage of the Russian, Austrian and German empires. Yet as in Europe, so in Africa; the nation state could survive and prosper only if it could transcend the complex web of ethnic and tribal loyalties that were suppressed during the age of empire.

Nation states, then – and by definition – have commanded the loyalty of those who live within their bounds.

Contrary to belief in some quarters, successful nation states need not be monoglot or racially homogenous; the US and rainbow South Africa are good examples, and enjoy a shared popular loyalty. But where they cannot do so then the best that can usually be hoped for is a prolonged period of armistice which usually follows a “peace process” (usually a euphemism for “military and political exhaustion”). So it is in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and across the Great Lakes region of Africa – Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Congo. Their legitimacy has never properly been established.

It wasn’t meant to be this way – at least so far as Europe was concerned. Sixty years ago, the leaders of Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg held a conference at Messina in Sicily that laid the foundations for the European Community, now the European Union. The ideals have been well canvassed: that nations that traded together stayed at peace together.

It has, indeed, delivered peace in Western Europe for all that time – no mean feat – and added immeasurably to the prosperity and happiness of the continent. It has even succeeded in its rather dated idea of allowing Europe to be strong in a world of giant blocs. It has grown to the present community of 28 member states and 500 million citizens. It has a flag, and a nice joyful anthem by Beethoven. And yet, as we have seen in recent weeks, when the chips are down, European ideals count for nothing. If Hungary wants to stick a fence up, it will.

And while the welcoming arms of Germany and Austria have been opened wide for Syrian refugees, those same states negotiated special opt-out clauses to prevent Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians from coming over to get jobs – not to mention multiple breaches of EU directives by the French. The European project has not extinguished chauvinism in Europe; heavens, even Belgium, the centre of its institutions, can barely hold together as a single nation state, its Flemish and Walloon elements pulled away by the magnetic force of two established nation states either side: France and the Netherlands.

The EU is not, of course, the USSR or Yugoslavia. Many of the fragments of those conglomerates still want to join the EU: Serbia, Ukraine, Macedonia. They, superficially at least, want to pool sovereignty. But we have witnessed that when something visceral happens, their nationalism is on a hair trigger. It is difficult to see them sharing a government with France, Ireland and Finland. Europe lacks a common media, a common political discourse, a common language – all of which would be more use than a single currency.

Europe isn’t even a “tribe with a flag”, as an Egyptian diplomat dismissed some of his Arab neighbours. The EU will never be a nation state. Will Britain remain one? It’s obviously not such an odd question any longer. Over not much more than a decade, England has not so quietly re-emerged as a “nation”, after many centuries of dormancy (outside of sport, which is perhaps the best indicator of the ability of a nation to stick together). When there was all that fuss this week over Jeremy Corbyn not singing the national anthem, it was really a debate about nationhood. When we considered the Queen’s long and distinguished record-breaking reign, we did so implicitly in the knowledge that this particular symbol of unity has survived, but that the unity itself of the constituent parts of the UK has seriously eroded.