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Dropping the Mask: "Why Europe Could Unravel Over a Question of Borders"
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July 06, 2018, 08:17 PM
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From the New York Times:

Why Europe Could Unravel Over a Question of Borders

By MAX FISHER 13 minutes ago

Instead of overcoming the thorny issue of nationalism, leaders of the European Union largely avoided it.

Now, as Europeans struggle with the social and political strains set off by migration, some are clamoring to preserve their sense of national identity.

LONDON — The European Union has always been sold, to its citizens, on a practical basis: Cheaper products. Easier travel. Prosperity and security.

But its founding leaders had something larger in mind. They conceived it as a radical experiment to transcend the nation-state, whose core ideas of race-based identity and zero-sum competition had brought disaster twice in the space of a generation.

Alternatively, World War I and II could be conceived of as disasters brought about by imperialism: e.g., “You invaded Poland.”

Norway’s foreign minister, Halvard M. Lange, compared Europe at that moment to the early American colonies: separate blocs that, in time, would cast off their autonomy and identities to form a unified nation. Much as Virginians and Pennsylvanians had become Americans, Germans and Frenchmen would become Europeans — if they could be persuaded.

Of course, Americans became unified against the outside world via American nationalism.

“The keen feeling of national identity must be considered a real barrier to European integration,” Mr. Lange wrote in an essay that became a foundational European Union text.

But instead of overcoming that barrier, European leaders pretended it didn’t exist. More damning, they entirely avoided mentioning what Europeans would need to give up: a degree of their deeply felt national identities and hard-won national sovereignty.

More damning is that barely anybody at the NYT notices the existence of a moderate middle ground of Europe for the Europeans in which Europeans unite to defend their borders against mass incursion from outside Europe.

Now, as Europeans struggle with the social and political strains set off by migration from poor and war-torn nations outside the bloc, some are clamoring to preserve what they feel they never consented to surrender. Their fight with European leaders is exploding over an issue that, perhaps more than any other, exposes the contradiction between the dream of the European Union and the reality of European nations: borders.

Establishment European leaders insist on open borders within the bloc.

Open borders within the Bloc were fairly popular until grandees like Ms. Merkel trashed the integrity of borders around the Bloc in 2015.

Free movement is meant to transcend cultural barriers, integrate economies and lubricate the single market. But a growing number of European voters want to sharply limit the arrival of refugees in their countries, which would require closing the borders.

National borders within the EU are a second line of defense against swamping, like having enough watertight compartments within the external hull of the Titanic would have been a good idea. In general, it’s smart to try to not run your ship of superstate into an iceberg, but if the leadership is so negligent and ensconced that they do so, then you have to fall back on secondary defenses.

This might seem like a straightforward matter of reconciling internal rules with public demand on the relatively narrow issue of refugees, who are no longer even arriving in great numbers.

After all, has anyone respectable ever published The World’s Most Important Graph?

I don’t think so, so why are you concerned about the future?

But there is a reason that it has brought Europe to the brink, with its most important leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, warning of disaster and at risk of losing power. The borders question is really a question of whether Europe can move past traditional notions of the nation-state. And that is a question that Europeans have avoided confronting, much less answering, for over half a century.

How Borders Could Break Europe

In 2015, at the height of the refugee crisis, Ms. Merkel warned that if European countries did not “fairly” share the burden, then opportunistic leaders could exploit the issue to dismantle Europe’s freedom of internal movement. “It won’t be the Europe we want,” she said. …

Shutting down internal movement would withdraw some of the union’s most popular perks — ease of travel for work, vacation or family — and undercut trade and labor transfers, weakening the single market economy.

It might seem strange, then, that such a policy could be seen as indulging public demand. The fact that its ramifications would go so far beyond refugees, whose arrivals are anyway down sharply, suggests that public demand is about more than anti-refugee sentiment.

Perhaps the drive to restore European borders is, on some level, about borders themselves.

Ya think?

Maybe when populists talk about restoring sovereignty and national identity, it’s not just a euphemism for anti-refugee sentiment (although such sentiment is indeed rife). Maybe they mean it.

Why Borders?

Traveling Germany with a colleague to report on the populist wave sweeping Europe, we heard the same concerns over and over. Vanishing borders. Lost identity. A distrusted establishment. Sovereignty surrendered to the European Union. Too many migrants.

Populist supporters would often bring up refugees as a focal point and physical manifestation of larger, more abstract fears. They would often say, as one woman told me outside a rally for the Alternative for Germany, a rising populist party, that they feared their national identity was being erased.

“Germany needs a positive relationship with our identity,” Björn Höcke, a leading far-right figure in the party, told my colleague. “The foundation of our unity is identity.”

Allowing in refugees, even in very large numbers, does not mean Germany will no longer be Germany, of course.

Of course.

But even this slight cultural change

Very slight.

is one component of a larger European project that has required giving up, even if only by degrees, core conceits of a fully sovereign nation-state.

Not “core concepts,” mind you, “core conceits.”

National policy is suborned, on some issues, to the vetoes and powers of the larger union. That includes control over borders, which are partially open to refugees but fully open to other Europeans.

Though the backlash has focused on refugees, who tend to present as more obviously foreign, studies suggest that it is also driven by resentment toward European migrants.

Traveling recently through Yorkshire, a postindustrial swathe of northern England, I heard complaints that began about refugees but shifted quickly to Polish workers, who have arrived in much greater numbers. Some spoke ominously, if implausibly, of towns where Polish was more commonly heard than English.

Working class Brits aren’t just racist against Pakistani pimps, they’re nationalist against Polish plumbers! Who ever heard of such a thing? (I mean other than every speech Nigel Farage ever gave?)

It is not easy for Europeans to abandon the old-style national identity, rooted in race and language, that has caused them such trouble.

Trouble, nothing but trouble. After all, what have national-minded Europeans such as Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Verdi, Sibelius, and Yeats ever accomplished?

The human desire for a strong group identity — and for perceived homogeneity within that group — runs deep.

Germany for the Germans, Catalonia for the Catalans.

Europe for the Europeans?

A country of people who look like me, speak my language and share my heritage. These nationalist impulses, however dangerous, emerge from basic human instinct. It makes us feel safe; losing it makes us feel threatened. It is reinforced in our popular culture and built into the international order.

New Orders, Old Instincts

European leaders hoped they could rein in those impulses for long enough to transform Europe from the top down, but the financial crisis of 2008 came when their project was only half-completed. That led to the crisis in the euro, which revealed political fault lines the leadership had long denied or wished away.

And maybe the Euro disaster also revealed that the EU elites weren’t the all-competent geniuses that they thought they were.

The financial crisis and an accompanying outburst in Islamic terrorism also provided a threat. When people feel under threat, research shows, they seek a strong identity that will make them feel part of a powerful group.

Notice that Europeans not wanting to let in Muslims who might decide to try to massacre them is not a rational first-order response, instead it is, “research shows,” a psychological projection unrelated to any real world needs.

For that, many Europeans turned to their national identity: British, French, German. But the more people embraced their national identities, the more they came to oppose the European Union, studies found — and the more they came to distrust anyone within their borders who they saw as an outsider.

That’s why there have been all those pogroms against Polish plumbers in England. It doesn’t have anything to do with it being legal to criticize fellow Europeans but not other, more objectionable groups.

… Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, has called for ever-harder “external” borders, which refers to those separating the European Union from the outside world, in order to keep internal borders open.

This might work if refugee arrivals were the root issue. But it would not resolve the contradiction between the European Union as an experiment in overcoming nationalism versus the politics of the moment, in which publics are demanding more nationalism.

So let’s not waste any time thinking about moderate, sensible compromises like not letting Europe be overrun by the Global South.

The point of the EU is not to do good things for Europeans, but to punish Europeans for their ancestors’ sins.

As the euro crisis showed, even pro-union leaders could never bring themselves to fully abandon the old nationalism. They are elected by their fellow nationals, after all, so naturally put them first. Their first loyalty is to their country. When that comes into conflict with the rest of the union, as it has on the issue of refugees, it’s little wonder that national self-interest wins.

Obviously, the real mistake is letting Europeans vote. Something must be done about that.


[Comment at Unz.com]