As the Brexit process sputters on, like a bus in a minefield, hardcore Leavers continue to snatch at opportunities to proclaim its tortured logic. Clinging to outmoded and sentimental notions of nationhood, they are a shouty, flag waving bunch. Their patriotic ire is quickly inflamed.
A United States of Europe?
This week the usual suspects of Nigel Farage, various shadowy Tories, all of the Murdoch controlled media, The Telegraph and LBC’s reliably right wing breakfast pundit, Nick Ferrari, rounded venomously on President of the EU commission, Jean Claude-Juncker. The cause? Juncker’s state of the union speech in Strasbourg on Wednesday September 13.
Few things are as provocative to Brexiteers as an uppity Luxembourgian calling for even greater international co-operation. “See!” they cry, proclaiming vindication. “Thank goodness we’re leaving!”
In advocating closer links between EU nations, economically, socially, even militarily, Juncker has been accused of proposing a European super-state, the mythical ‘United States of Europe’. This has existed in the public sphere as a concept for decades, maybe longer. It is seldom unpicked. Yet whenever mentioned, something about it arouses intense vitriol among swathes of the British commentariat.
Issues with the EU
To be clear, the purpose of this article is not to defend the EU, as such. As an organisation, it certainly has plenty of skeletons in its closet. The rather questionable influence of racial theorist Count Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi, in whose honour the EU awards an annual prize, is more than a little troubling, for example. Its anti-democratic methods of dealing with debt and constitutional issues in Greece and Italy were also deeply controversial.
It should not be forgotten either, particularly by those on the left, that the EU is predominately a bank-led, corporate organisation with a track record of investment in austerity.
Yet in all the anti-EU rhetoric so easily found on British newsstands and broadcasts, such issues are seldom raised. Instead we are dealt the most vacuous platitudes and slogans.
And what does that mean?
Of what, specifically?
OK, and then?
The myth of the ‘nation’
The undercurrent running through most pro-Brexit philosophy seems largely to be a simple retreat back to isolated nationhood, similar to that enjoyed before 1973. Such a retreat has a curious, nostalgic, emotive appeal, it seems. Despite this, it is not lost on most realists that in the 60 years prior to ‘73, Britain was engaged in the two most bloody and destructive wars in history, primarily with our European neighbours. How well did isolated nationhood serve us then?
Even if we allow this perspective the benefit of the doubt, set aside 80 million or so deaths and ignore World Wars One and Two, it is a very simple task to demonstrate that this ancient ideal, the nation, is not one well suited to the challenges faced by 21st century humanity.
At best, nationhood is a fairly arbitrary concept. Far from eternal entities set in stone, most nations are artificial, political constructs, that shift, disappear and reappear over time. Committees sit down, often shortly after wars and scrawl lines on maps. It’s unromantic, but true.
The UK in its present, political form has only existed since the partition of Ireland in 1922. That’s just 95 years. Scotland was an independent country as recently as 300 years ago (and may shortly be one again), while England itself was formed from smaller kingdoms in the 10th century under King Aethelstan.
One wonders if at the time, the peoples of Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and the rest decried this process as the imposition of an ‘Anglo-Saxon super-state’? Take back control! Keep Kent for the Kentish! It’s perfectly possible.
Over the sea, to pluck out a few examples, Italy, as we know it, only came together in 1848. Until the mid 20th century Italians from different regions did not even speak the same language.
Similar points could be made regarding Germany, which has only existed as an entity since 1871. Or, Croatia, which suddenly appeared in 1991 after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Yet the residents of these different locations will fly banners and sing songs proclaiming their loyalty and identity.
Loyalty to what? Identity as what? What is it, exactly, that people are so attached to?
From early history, when humans lived first in tribes, then in single settlements, nations began to evolve to solve particular problems. Ancient Egypt formed from various smaller groupings to manage the vast, fertile Nile valley and farm its land. Co-operation was needed on a larger scale than individual tribes could manage on their own. It was a similar story in Ancient China with the Yellow River basin. To this end, nationhood was a practical solution for contemporary problems. It served a sane purpose for everybody involved. The model then slowly spread worldwide.
Three great 21st century challenges
Yet when focusing on the specific threats or problems of today, it becomes readily apparent that nations, as we have conceived them for thousands of years, are poorly equipped to cope. In some cases, the very existence of political nations exacerbates these problems.
Anthropologist Yuval Harari has identified 3 great tests ahead. The first of these is the threat of nuclear war.
Since the development of atomic bombs during World War II, various countries worldwide have invested in and stockpiled them, primarily as a defence against each other.
Not only is this a tremendous waste of money and industrial output, but the weapons are, of course, so terrible that their use is unconscionable. The perceived wisdom is that the system of checks and balances provided by arsenals in opposing countries, will keep us all safe. No country will admit to possessing nuclear weapons. They only have a nuclear deterrent.
Yet as is presently all too obvious, this approach only requires one, or two unstable elements to imperil all of our futures. It is to be hoped that neither Kim Jong-un nor Donald Trump are really shallow, vain or short-sighted enough to trigger Armageddon. But we can’t be sure, because both of them posture and sabre-rattle about their national interests. As leaders of nations, that is their job.
Yet the prospect of nuclear war is clearly not a national matter. It is a global one.
Environment and Technology
On a similar note, only the most hardened sceptic fails to recognise the necessity to address ever worsening environmental issues. Water shortages, rising oceans, species extinction, acidification, deforestation, the list goes on. Each of these has global ramifications. They affect every human being on the planet and need to be tackled with unity of purpose.
How can we address these pressing matters sufficiently, within a political sphere divided into squabbling, selfish nations? Where one state may help while another hinders? This antiquated system led, this year, to the world’s biggest polluter withdrawing from an international agreement to limit pollution. This apparently insane decision was made in the interests of one nation, yet impacts negatively on all the rest – “America First!“. Does this make any sense? Really?
As technology gathers pace and developments in genetic engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence become more advanced, further dangers are presented. The power unleashed by each of these technologies is unknowable, awesome and potentially frightening.
What if one state makes a leap in these areas before everybody else? The present, fractured system would encourage secrecy. It may even encourage nefarious deployment, for national advantage.
Is that something we should risk? That a huge scientific breakthrough be utilised to advance the interests of just one country, possibly at the expense of others? Such an outcome could lead to terrible consequences for so many. Why not try to ensure it benefits us all?
Even if not life-threatening, some of the issues are likely to provoke drastic social change. Job markets are already being squeezed by increased mechanisation. Some predict this will soon lead to mass unemployment. It is for this reason that the idea of Universal Basic Income is now being seriously promoted. Again, a properly managed, unified and democratised approach to this sort of upheaval would serve us far better than piecemeal attempts by isolated nations.
Within the context of each of the examples above, it can be seen that nation states are inappropriate and inadequate as a system of government. Unlike Ancient Egypt or China, they are a poor model to address our contemporary needs. That much is clear. And yet these issues are the gravest and most significant tests that lie ahead for us.
‘The past is a foreign country’
Despite misgivings over the mechanics of supra-national bodies like the EU, it is for these reasons that Trump, Farage and other blowhards have got everything so badly wrong, while Mr Juncker, for his faults, is right.
We must look forward to what we should become, not back, with misty-eyed longing for an expired past. The nation served a purpose once, but no more. Greater international integration, on a European scale, even a global one, is essential. After all, we need global solutions.
Without them, we are at risk of extinction.
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