All across Europe, national pride is back in vogue. Most European countries
now have a party, from Marine Le Pen's National Front to Finland's
True Finns that subscribes to a "Screw everybody else!" platform. Even
Germany, a country which for the last seventy years has reached for the
chequebook every time its "embarrassing uncle" whips open its raincoat and
shouts a "Get a look at my Adolf!", is beginning to lose patience with the
It's two fingers to Brussels, the IMF, free trade, immigration, in fact
anything that has an effect that can't be controlled nationally. Out with
globalisation, in with nationalism. The Euro, the most ambitious part
of post-war European integration, is now being used by nationalists as
an extreme example of what happens when you share power with other
countries. The Germans blame the Greeks for being reckless and dishonest
with other countries. The Greeks for their part seem outraged that the rest
of Europe won't just hand over more wads of cash and mind their own
business as they spend other people's money.
Yet, none of that means that the return to the unhindered nation-state is in
our interests either. The truth is, in the age we live in, the national flag is
good for sporting events and the Eurovision Song Contest, but little else.
From the detonation of the first atomic bombs, to the spread of communism
in the 1950s, to the oil crisis of the 1970s, to the spread of AIDS in the
1980s, to consumer products designed in the US but built in China, to
carbon emissions in India causing flooding in central Europe, national
borders have proven ineffectual as a means of shaping our societies.
The reason we must reject a return to isolationist nationalism in Europe is
the fact that we live on Earth.
To our near east, Russia descends into a quasi-fascist state. In the Far East,
a giant power run by a dictatorship is stepping out onto the world stage. In
Pakistan, fundamentalist bigots plot to assault our way of life in the streets
in which we live, furious at our refusal to stone gays to death or prevent
young girls from learning how to read. And, as the markets have proven,
there are huge economic forces and corporate interests which can sweep
aside the ability of a nation-state to govern its own affairs.
This is 21st century Earth, where our values of tolerance, religious freedom,
equality, freedom of speech, democratic government, indeed our ability to
run our very societies are under assault.
The nation-state is not obsolete. It is our cultural anchor, what defines us all
as people. But sovereignty means nothing if it cannot deliver the outcomes
we seek. How can we stand fast to our values when even powerful nations
like Britain can only afford half an aircraft carrier?
It is not unreasonable to accept that in a world with nations boasting populations in the hundreds of millions, no matter how passionately you
wave your national flag, it simply will not be enough. As Timothy Garton
Ash has said, the 21st century will be an age of giants.
Of course, this generation of Europeans will never love "Europe". The
EU will at best be tolerated, like income tax or sewage treatment plants,
regarded with enthusiasm by very few but grudgingly accepted by the many
as a necessity. With that in mind, we should not fear those who call for a
referendum in Britain or elsewhere on withdrawal. There are those in Britain
who will be happy to live under Beijing's ever-growing shadow if it means
they can get rid of Britain's seat in Europe, and we must respect that. We
have to give people the right to vent their anger and make the call.
If we do not, it will be harnessed and utilised by ugly and dangerous forces
the likes of which this continent has had far too much experience of in its
past. It is worth remembering, however, that a national flag does have one
other useful purpose: It can be draped over a coffin. If one has too much
faith in the powers of that piece of fabric to halt the massive forces of the
21st century, we may well end up using that very same fabric to signify the
effective end of not just nations but of actual societies.
Follow Jason O'Mahony on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jasonomahony