Rewind to Europe's Future

R. A. Hettinga
Fri, 7 Mar 2003 07:47:31 -0500,,SB104699051392158120,00.html

The Wall Street Journal

March 7, 2003 


Rewind to Europe's Future 
Rethinking the Nation-State 


When we try to guess what the future will hold, we usually extrapolate past trends. This is not always productive. History moves in circles as well as in straight lines. The world of 2002 is much closer to that of 1902, with large international movements of goods, capital, and people, than it is to the world of 1952, in which Europe was recovering from the devastation of wars and depression, and in which the nation-state was the center of economic activity. Capital was controlled, goods were carefully regulated, people could not move. Many economic historians now regard the 20th century as a convoluted groping backwards to the economically liberal certainties of the 19th century world. 

The extrapolations work best in reference to personal, not political, circumstances. It is overwhelmingly likely that the European of fifty years time will be taller, broader, heavier and older, and will live longer (but not necessarily more happily). There are likely to be more single households, in part out of choice (the singles culture will go on) but more out of the demographic logic of an aging process in which women marry older men, and then go on to live for longer than their spouses. 

How about political extrapolations? One course is to begin with the history of Germany, which has been at the heart of European integration, and where the number of sovereign units has fallen over the past five centuries by a factor of 10 each century. In the 17th century, before the Treaties of Westphalia of 1648 (Muenster and Osnabrueck) clarified the political map, there were between three and five thousand units that were territorially immediately subordinate to the authority of the Holy Roman Empire. In the 18th century there were about 350 such units. Then there came another simplification after the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, the successor organization to the Holy Roman Empire, the German Confederation, contained 38 or 39 units. After the first and second world wars of the 20th century, there were three or four German-speaking states (the Federal Republic, the communist Democratic Republic, Austria, and the Swiss Confederation, a majority of whose population speaks German). The logic would indicate that in the European Union, by the mid-21st century, there should be between 0.3 and 0.4 German states. One lesson is therefore that if you don't like modern German foreign policy, don't worry: it will go away (in the longer term) as Germany is subsumed into something else. And across Europe, national sovereignty will give way to something else too. 

At the same time, nations are devolving authority within their own boundaries to regional units. The most successful European countries of the late 20th century, like Spain and Belgium and the U.K., used regionalism to defuse old political conflicts. Even the most centralist of all European regimes, that of France, is now pushing a program of greater regionalization. 

In practice, the EU is becoming, like the former Soviet Union (much of which it will encompass by 2052), more and more of a patchwork quilt, in which there are different levels of sub-state existence and regional autonomy. The status of Kosovo or of the "entities" that were created in the Bosnian settlement is still unclear, and the choice of label (entity) reflects the bankruptcy of a conventional political analysis. 

In the 17th century, the German political philosopher Samuel Pufendorf, who followed Thomas Hobbes in looking for hard sovereignty, found sovereignty so dispersed in his own homeland that he described the Holy Roman Empire, with its tiers of mediate and immediate principalities, bishoprics, abbeys, towns, statelets as being "like a monster" i.e. impossible to classify with neat scientific precision. He would find some aspects of early 21st century constitutional complexity quite familiar. 

What is happening here is a circle looping backwards, not a neat continuation of past trends. It is a process of historical reversal of institutional and political forms; 1989 undid 1917, but the business of undoing did not stop there. In the 1990s, Europe went back before 1789, before the era of ideological politics. By 2002, it was going back before 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years' War effectively introduced the concept of an international order based on a community of sovereign states. 

This development causes a great deal of unease. We were used in the past primarily to national politics, and Europeans think of national heroes: Garibaldi or Cavour, Bismarck or Gustav Stresemann, Leon Gambetta or Charles de Gaulle, William Ewart Gladstone or Winston Churchill. As the simultaneous process of devolution and Europeanization goes on, we are less convinced that conventional politics or politicians can solve social and economic problems. 

The two great political movements of the second half of the 20th century, that did a great deal to stabilize democracy and representative government after the disaster of Europe's interwar experience, are now at an end: Socialism or social democracy because a world with mobile factors of production no longer allows much room for the use of politics to redistribute resources; conservatism or its European form of Christian democracy because the world is changing too quickly for a view based on traditional values to have much appeal. As a result of the limits on politics, and the discrediting of old political traditions, we complain that there is a new generation of political pygmies. It seems a likely bet that however the constitutional process of devising a "Mr. (or Ms.) Europe" is resolved, the lucky individual will be about as well known to the electorate as is the (rotating) president of Switzerland to the average Swiss citizen. 

The heroes of the new age already come from the fleeting world of entertainment and media and popular culture and sport: the Spice Girls, Boris Becker and Michael Schumacher. Some of the most innovative political figures (such as Bernard Tapie in France) decided in the late 20th century that owning a football team was the best way to political success. The owner of AC Milan, Silvio Berlusconi, made this a completely winning formula. 

At the same time, new demands are made that politics should be more concerned with everyday issues: food safety, the environment, the rooting out of political corruption, and a more moral approach to foreign policy. In confronting the United States, Europeans have recently begun to claim that they have a better sense of morality than a gun-toting hyper-power: but they have not as yet been very good at realizing it, and the most "moral" interventions in European politics -- in the Balkans -- came largely as the result of U.S. interventions. 

This also makes Europeans uncomfortable. In the early 19th century, faced by the tremendous power of Napoleon's France, Germans such as Fichte tried to reassert themselves by presenting German thought as more universal, cosmopolitan, and moral than that of the hypocritical French. This historical reflex of the comparatively powerless is now a continental European one in the face of overwhelming U.S. military power. 

The politics of the European 21st century will get more and more confused as a result of the pressures to move away from the nation, the end of the old political traditions, and an increased feeling of vulnerability. Part of the confusion that will stay with us through the 21st century is the quest for certainty without any really secure natural law or theological foundations. Part of the confusion comes from the impression that time no longer runs forward in an inexorable dynamic of progress. The more Europeans move and change, the more they seem to relive the past. 

Mr. James, professor of history at Princeton, is the author of "The End of Globalization: Lessons from the Great Depression" (Harvard, 2001). This is the 12th and last article in an occasional series on "Rethinking the Nation-State". 
R. A. Hettinga <mailto:>
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"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'