IV.3 Nationalisms, nation-states, and Europe



IV.3 Nationalisms, nation-states, and Europe

It may seem paradoxical to evoke the demise of the nation at the very moment at which the Soviet Union is breaking up under the pressure of nationalism, when the German nation is recreating itself, and when the United Nations has never before known so many members. More than ever, the idea of the nation is manifesting its revolutionary scope. Is this a return to the essential, or the ultimate throes of a political approach that has fulfilled its historical mission, and is less and less capable of carrying the hopes and responding to the questions of the day? (Jean-Marie Guéhenno 1995: 1)

Since the end of the Cold War, dormant, subsumed or subdued nationalisms have resurfaced. This has been a highly visible process, with the dramatic breaking-up of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia, bringing war back into the heart of Europe.

This ‘fourth wave’ of (resurgent) nationalisms, many of them based on territorial units smaller than the traditional average state, calls into question both the process of European integration and the nation-state itself. Indeed, one can ask how it is possible for European integration within the EU framework to proceed, when some of its current member states (such as Belgium, Spain, or the UK), as well as candidates to membership (such as the Baltic countries or Hungary) contain significant ethnic groups that claim (or could eventually claim in a foreseeable future) nationhood? And can the nation-state survive when some of its longest-established instances, such as the UK or Spain, are subject to regionalist of even fragmenting forces, and a nuclear super-power is actually already fragmented?

In order to study these issues, we will first set out a (necessarily limited) study of the relationship between ethnies, nations, and states in sections IV.3.1 to IV.3.3, where we will follow partially Chris Flood (Flood 1997: 1-9). With these elements on hand, we will be able to simply recall the theory expanded in chapter III to show how the rise of nationalisms in the last decade is related to the structures of the posited EwE SCA. Finally, the challenges that the new nationalisms pose to Europe and to the nation‑state will be studied.

IV.3.1 Multiple identities and ethnies

The first question relating to nationalism is that of defining individual and collective identity. Across the ages, each individual has had multiple, co-existing, identities, of which some of the most important are gender, family, territorial occupation, social class, religion, and ethnic. Identification with one particular group implies a sense of belonging to it, that is of community with the other members of the group. It also entails a differentiation from those who are not part of the group, that is, it establishes an us/them physical or symbolic boundary.

Anthony Smith considers that religion and ethnicity have been historically stronger than other identities in shaping societies (Smith 1991: 3-7). Before returning to this subject in section IV.3.3, we will first examine the broad characteristics of ethnicity.

First of all, an ethnic community is a largely cultural and subjective construct, that should not be confused with race (although it often is), with the following characteristics: “collective proper name; myth of common ancestry; shared historical memories; at least one differentiating element of common culture (language, religion, customs, etc.); association with specific homeland; sense of solidarity among significant sectors of population” (Flood 1997: 2).

Shifts in these elements within one ethnie are common, with different characteristics being preponderant at different times. This is due to the (linked) multiple identities in other spheres, and also shows the existence of concentric ethnic identities with varying strength and salience according to circumstances. “Ethnic identities … are seen at the very least to be renewed, modified, and remade in each generation. Far from being self-perpetuating, they require creative effort and investment” (Eller 1996: 46). Transmission from generation to generation allows, and indeed leads to, rapid change (Gellner 1997: 1-4).

Secondly, ethnic communities may, and often have in the past, form the core of states (that can subsequently become poly-ethnic), while polities can, and have often in the past, be created without regard to ethnic homogeneity (e.g. multi-ethnic empires, or ex-colony nation-states). Hence, not all ethnies constitute nations, not all nations are based on ethnies, and ethnic communities can live spatially apart from a state of which their counterparts are the dominant ethnie (Flood 1997: 3). This leads to the question of national identity.

IV.3.2 National identity and nations

Anthony Smith considers that there are two basic models of nationhood. The civic, or Western (so-called because it is predominant in Western Europe and the USA), model is predominantly territorial, and requires: control of a compact, well-defined territory, that is the homeland, object of myths, with ‘sacred’ sites, collective memories, and source of exclusive material resources; a community of laws and institutions with a single political will (expressed by e.g. a centralised or federal authority); citizenship, which entails both rights and obligations which are exclusive of the citizens, with exclusion of the non-citizens; and common historic culture and civic ideology (shared at least by the ‘core’ community that forms the nation, e.g. WASPs[12] in the USA) (Smith 1991: 8-11).

The ethnic, or Eastern (so-called because it is predominant in Eastern Europe and in Asia), model of nationhood is based predominantly on (presumed) common descent, regardless of distance in time or removal in location. The nation is seen as a ‘super‑family’, hence differentiated from ‘them’ – the outsiders – by ties of blood. It places particular importance in language, tradition, custom; and a strong popular element (e.g. ‘the Will of the People’), that can be mobilised or invoked for nationalistic aspirations or political action, plays an important moral and rhetorical (even actual) role in the ethnic conception (Smith 1991: 11-13).

The division between these two models is not absolute, and, like ethnies, can shift in time[13]. Furthermore, they share certain common beliefs about what constitutes a nation as opposed to any other kind of collective cultural identity, and a “nation can therefore be defined as a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members” (Smith 1991: 14, emphasis removed).

National identity therefore has several functions: it “situates members in a socially defined historical time and space; underwrites economic control of territory and manpower; legitimates state, institutions and practices, as well as rights and duties of nationals; socialises members into common culture; confers social bond … via shared values, traditions and symbols – thus relating individual to community” (Flood 1997: 5).

It becomes clear that a nation is more than the state, which refers to the public institutions of a political system. The nation unites, in a single polity, all who share an historic culture and homeland. Full nationhood requires statehood, plus the extra element of a cultural community (Smith 1991: 14-15). Finally, one should note that while the institutions of states are tangible (e.g. the Parliament or the army), the cultural community is “a mobile anonymous society simulating a closed cosy society” (Gellner 1997: 74), that is, Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community” (Anderson 1991).

In the next section we will see how ethnic identity replaced religion as the main provider of identity in Europe, leading to the inter-state system.

IV.3.3 Nationalism and states

Ernest Gellner describes the transition from the ‘agrarian’ to the ‘industrial’ world (Gellner 1997: 14-30). He argues that in the agrarian age, the state did exist, as well as cultural differentiation, and yet nationalism was not a predominant feature. The basic reason is the technological stability of agriculture, that leads to a ceiling on possible production, determined by available land and labour[14]. In this case, “[f]amine does not strike at random. In agrarian societies, men starve according to rank” (Gellner 1997: 17-18). The social path leads from power to wealth, not the opposite.

Low mobility of people, where the bulk of the population is normally tied to local communities with very limited contact with each other, meant there could be no idea of simultaneity of events in time, of solidarity between people in different regions. Thus their ‘imagined community’ can not be tied to a concept such as ‘state’ or ‘nation’. “The characteristic political unit of the agrarian age is either much smaller than the limits of a culture … or very much larger: culturally eclectic empires which have no reason whatsoever to limit their expansion when they encounter linguistic or cultural boundaries” (Gellner 1997: 21).

Identity was provided, on the local scale by a set of multiple loyalties such as those enumerated in section IV.3.1, and on the very large scale by religion[15]. “[S]acred silent languages were the media through which the great global communities of the past were imagined” (Anderson 1991: 14), and a trans-European network of churches and Latin-writing priests mediated between the centres of power such as emperors or the Pope. Local characteristics could flourish under imperial tolerance or even protection (e.g. to create allegiance amongst local elites), without the need for those cultural/ethnic differentiating characteristics to be expressed as an independent political unit.

In what Gellner calls the modern industrial/industrialising world, scientific and economic progress undermined these structures. Technology is no longer stable, and is the basis of continued economic growth. Some degree of meritocracy is inevitable[16], and new non-hereditary elites come forth as social mobility becomes pervasive (Gellner 1997: 26-27). So,

the search was on, so to speak, for a new way of linking fraternity, power and time meaningfully together. Nothing perhaps precipitated this search, nor made it more fruitful, than print-capitalism, which made it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in profoundly new ways. (Benedict Anderson 1991: 36)

The vernacular, standardised, print-languages in which this was done laid the basis for national consciousness, foremost by creating unified fields of communication, clearly separated from the next field[17], whereby different elements of the population could communicate with themselves and be integrated in the growing state bureaucracies and armies (Anderson 1991: 44-45, 76) that accompanied in the nineteenth century the export of exploitation and the creation of the world-wide core-periphery system described in section II.3.7. The conditions for nationalism to replace religion as the basis of political organisation were thus in place:

– The agrarian world had had its foundations progressively weakened;

– Clear language/cultural borders were being demarcated;

– There were resources available to achieve some measure of support by the population (or segments thereof).

The French Revolution, prepared by Enlightenment, introduced the concept of citizenship and the people, represented by the nation as basis of legitimisation of states. Other (e.g. gender, race, family, regional, etc) identities did not disappear; they continued to be organised in a multi-level or concentric system, but in the modern world, it was national identity that provided the overarching element. The ethnic identities of people thus became intrinsically linked to their political identities:

That is all. It is which explains nationalisms: the principle … that homogeneity of culture is the political bond, that mastery of (and, one should add, acceptability in) a given high culture (the one used by surrounding bureaucracies) is the precondition of political, economic and social citizenship. If you satisfy this condition, you can enjoy your droit de cité. If you do not, you must accept second-class and subservient status, or you must assimilate, or migrate, or seek to change the situation through irredentist nationalist activity. (Ernest Gellner 1997: 29-30, emphasis in original)

The core attributes and functions of the nation-state came to be external coercive power to organise relations with other nation-states (e.g. expand and control markets through wars, treaties, trade, world and regional organisations); internal organisation of the territory, including supreme coercive power (i.e. law enforcement through police and courts) as well as control of the economy through taxes and definition of economic policy (interest rates, unemployment rates, Keynesianism, etc); some redistribution of wealth through social welfare systems.

Furthermore, “[c]itizenship effaced, or at least obscured, all other sorts of conflicts – class conflicts; conflicts between groups or strata defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, language, or any other social criterion other than ‘nation/society’. Citizenship brought national conflict to the forefront” (Wallerstein 1997, emphasis in original). The process of nation-state formation thus weakens the scope for popular resistance (based e.g. on class) to the economic world system as a whole.

It is clear that this only makes sense within the system of nation-states mentioned in section II.4.5, where us/them national boundaries become clearly demarcated. In the next section we will study how these boundaries are affected by the onset of the (stateless) EwE hegemony.

IV.3.4 Nationalisms in the EwE SCA

The national movements of the end of the twentieth century are engendered by defensive reflexes. They express a turning inward, a fear of the vast world that escapes us, and from which we cannot escape. It is thus hardly surprising that the nationalist spasm of the posttotalitarian world is xenophobic rather than imperialist. (Jean-Marie Guéhenno 1995: 7)

The traditional core functions of the nation-state enumerated in the previous section, as well as the functions of national identity described in section IV.3.2, are threatened by the new EwE hegemony. This can be seen, without a lengthy discussion, by going through the lists of core functions of the nation-state and of the functions of national identity given above, and then recalling the theory expanded in chapter III about the structures of the proposed new SCA, which we will now do.

The ability of states to exercise control over their own economy has been reduced as seen in section III.4.4. Control of national manpower is reduced due to increasing migrations, as well as with free movement of workers in the EU. Internal coercive power has also been limited in the new supersession of the Westphalian system as seen in section III.4.5. The same is true of the utilisation of external power. Redistribution of wealth in the EwE SCA is becoming limited to the new (non-geographic) core of ‘knows’ described in section III.5.5, which questions the basis of citizenship. Finally, the fragmentation of identities described in section IV.4.3 means that a common culture is increasingly hard to find, particularly in the advanced capitalist states of Western Europe.

To establish a “social bond … via shared values, traditions and symbols – thus relating individual to community” (Flood 1997: 5) becomes an increasingly arduous task, when the community in question is the national one. As the exclusive, self-sufficient, national culture no longer mobilises citizens into solidarity and common identification, it loses importance relatively to local and regional cultural traditions (Hirst 1997a: 179-181).

This is, for the most, a shift of emphasis: in the UK and US SCAs, nationalism was partly a tool used by governments and the elites to obtain the allegiance of the population and hence legitimise national sovereignty, as well as expansionism, but nevertheless local identities never completely disappeared[18]. Similarly, the appeal to the nation does not disappear in the EwE hegemony, but it is combined with other elements.

The new nationalisms are then not expansionist as in the nineteenth century, but defensive: as the nation-states are no longer as effective in protecting ethnic and cultural identity as heretofore, not to mention the economic welfare of the population of a given region, local or regional groups take that function.

This takes on one hand the shape of the new antisystemic groups studied in section IV.4, related to the defence of single issue claims that can connect people in different geographic areas, and on the other hand leads to regionalisms and separatisms that, at least in principle, relate to claims of people that are, or are ideally supposed to be, bound together in a given locality.

IV.3.5 The challenge of nationalisms to Europe

Western nationalism now comes in two main guises. The first is that of minorities that either rediscovered their ethnic character, or for whom subsuming it under the national identity is no longer satisfactory, and that seek independence or autonomy. The second is right-wing nationalism[19]. Societal insecurity feeds into both (Buzan 1993b: 42‑46): the external threat of ‘globalisation’, that is perceived to lead to homogenisation of culture, combines with the internal threat of immigration, where competing cultures and ethnies are perceived to question the dominance of the local culture, to generate a perceived threat to identity that the nation-state is perceived to be helpless to solve.

We argue that none of these kinds of nationalism constitute a serious threat to Europe or, in particular, to European integration. Conquest of other people’s territories is not on the agenda of these defensive nationalisms. Indeed, integration in the EU of the ‘mother’ nation-state means that a newly independent region thereof, otherwise a potentially non-viable economic unit, could retain its economic linkage to the core network, while eventually delinking from poorer regions of the original nation-state. Furthermore, “[c]ultural freedom and pluralism at present are almost certainly better safeguarded in large states which know themselves to be pluri-national and pluri-cultural than in small ones pursuing the ideal of ethno-linguistic and cultural homogeneity” (Hobsbawm 1990:185), which means regional aspirations can be pursued by means other than outright separatism. As for xenophobic nationalisms, they can be useful in facilitating the internalisation of the core-periphery structure described in section III.5, as they assist in the identification of some of the people to be thrown into the non-geographic periphery: those who are different, the ‘other’[20].

Eastern nationalism followed the ethnic ideal described in section IV.3.2. The end of the Cold War meant that the West/East border was no longer secured, and long‑repressed nationalisms as in Yugoslavia could rise[21]. Ethnies that had been ‘sovietified’ or submerged within one of the Soviet bloc countries could wish to have their own political units (even where independent states had never existed), with perceived political and economic advantages, not least that of attaching themselves to the West[22]. Finally, the post-communist states wished to become ‘normal’ European democracies, which meant giving power to the people, begetting the question of who ‘the people’ actually was. Different groups arrived to different answers.

These nationalisms can pose a larger threat to European security and integration. Chaos in Central and Eastern Europe might lead to a massive migration to the West, with serious destabilising effects. Ethnic conflict in Russia with involvement of the central government could lead to a take-over by the military and renewed hostility towards the West. Finally, open conflicts such as in the disintegrated Yugoslavia could spill across borders and involve EU and NATO countries.

Non-violent Eastern nationalisms, however, do not threaten the role of the countries affected in the integrated European system, that is, to form a semi-periphery for the core EU countries. Violent nationalisms such as in Yugoslavia do threaten the European system, but we argue that the threat has already been met, and that the structures to control new similar threats are already in place. This is based on prevention of conflicts through a long-term economic policy by the EU on one hand, and on local containment of conflicts by military means when prevention fails on the other hand, mostly carried out by NATO. Section IV.6 will deal with this issue at length.

IV.3.6 The challenge of nationalisms to the nation-state

Almost every year the United Nations admit new members. And many ‘old nations,’ once thought fully consolidated, find themselves challenged by ‘sub’-nationalisms within their borders – nationalisms which, naturally, dream of shedding this subness one happy day. The reality is quite plain: the ‘end of the era of nationalism,’ so long prophesied, is not remotely in sight. Indeed, nation-ness is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time. (Benedict Anderson 1991: 3)

But what is a nation? (Jean-Marie Guéhenno 1995: 4)

Both the quotation from Benedict Anderson above and that from Guéhenno’s at the beginning of this section IV.3 note the increase of members of the UN, but while Anderson argues nation-ness is currently the most universally legitimate value, Guéhenno argues the nation is coming to an end.

This is only apparently a contradiction. The point Guéhenno makes is that many human activities are liberating themselves from spatial boundaries, and hence the territorial given on which the nation-state is based is weakened, if not gone (Guéhenno 1995: 16-17). Nation-states thus loose many of their traditional functions, and with it much of their usefulness (Guéhenno 1995: 9-15). The consequence is that the national idea survives only by allying itself to other forces such as race, ethnicity, religion, or ideology (Guéhenno 1995: 7). These forces all have either the necessity or the potential to be highly divisive[23]. Thus, it is from the weakening of the nation-state and of the very idea of nation, that the new nationalisms and the new nation-states that Anderson observes are mushrooming. The two processes are not opposite, they are part of one same process. The new nation-states, however, carry that denomination and its formal attributes, but not the reality traditionally associated with it: many are neither economic nor political.viable units, and hence must be integrated in wider regional (formal or informal) frameworks.

We thus finally argue that it is not nationalisms that are challenging the nation-state. It is the processes described in section III.4 and spelt out in section III.4.4, that is, the attributes of the EwE SCA, that are responsible both for that challenge, and for the related process of emergence of the fourth wave of nationalisms.



[12] White anglo-saxon protestans.

[13] Portugal followed the ethnic model of nationhood, with a ‘pure blood’ lineage making the division between Old-Christians and New-Christians (descendants from the 200,000 Jews, for a one million population, that forcibly converted to Christianity in the late fifteenth and first half of the sixteenth centuries), until the 1770s, when the official distinction was abolished and the genealogical listings of New‑Christians were destroyed (Azevedo 1921: 351). Since then it has been loosing territorial elements of nationhood and gaining civic ones, and, particularly since the 1974 revolution, follows predominantly the civic model. The most common Portuguese family names have New-Christian origins, mostly names of inanimate objects and plants, such as Rocha (rock), Silva (bushtree), Pinheiro (pinetree), Carvalho (oaktree) or Nogueira (walnut-tree), and also Santos (saints), Espírito Santo (Holy-Ghost) or Jesus.

[14] Notice that the stability of the agricultural technology in an agrarian society means that population increase is limited.

[15] Which was also the main provider of legitimacy of multi-national empires, where power was an emanation of divine right.

[16] For instance, inventors and scientists cannot be chosen by their lineage. In industrialised war, the same is true to some extent of generals.

[17] Previously there had been a multiplicity of dialects establishing gradual transitions between regions. For instance, north-western German (Plattdeutsch, itself containing a variety of local dialects) is intermediate between High German and Dutch (that also contains a variety of dialects). At the same time, this means that dialects of German spoken in far-away regions (e.g. Cologne, Dresden and Munich) are mutually unintelligible. Standardising languages through mass print agglutinates broad group of dialects into a standard, and by so doing creates a border (us-whose-mothers-speak-German vs. them-whose-mothers-do-not). “At what point in the chain can we say that one language ends and the next begins? … At the local level, it is not possible to make a clear decision on linguistic grounds. But decisions are of course made on other grounds. As one crosses a well-established national boundary, the variety of speech will change its name. … It is important to appreciate that the reasons are political and historical, not linguistic” (Crystal 1987: 25).

[18] And were even often promoted, as in displays of regional folk costumes or dances, taken to represent not only the region concerned but also one facet of the ‘national character’.

[19] For instance, Scottish devolution and German skinheads are examples of these two facets. The Flemish Vlaams Blok has elements of both (Debruyne 1998).

[20] Thus racism, one of the essential elements in defining the geographic core-periphery structure in the previous SCAs, is no longer used to determine who belongs to the core and who does not, but instead is becoming a ‘divide and conquer’ technique, pitting the white poor against the non-white poor (Forrester 1996: 69-72). On the other hand, non-white ethnic groups, condemned to be periphery in the UK and US SCAs, can now become part of the non-geographic core if they hold special skills (Rex 1998: 73-74).

[21] Of the about 400 million people living in Central and Eastern Europe, about one fifth are members of a minority group within their country (Emerson 1998: 146).

[22] For instance, the nationalistic-inspired break-up of Czechoslovakia led by Slovakia’s future president Meciar was not resisted by the Czechs, all too happy to let their poorer, easterner, relative go.

[23] Granted, religion (or ideology) also has the potential to unify; however, in many modern nation-states, such as Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, or Yugoslavia before the end of the Cold War, different religions coexist or coexisted. Religion can hence now become the basis for fragmentation of previously unified nation-states.