Nation states are the political entities wherein democracy in its modern form has developed. They are based upon the idea that the nation is a community of equals, both with equal duties and equal rights. Europe has to become the same, a community of equals, if it wants to be a legitimate political system. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean a community of equal nation states, but of equal individuals.
Many have argued that Europe cannot be such a community of equals, a nation, because it lacks a common language and a common ancestry. This view is, however, based upon just one of two strands of nationalist thought.
When nationalism, understood as the idea of the nation, not as the idea that one’s own nation is better than any other, arose, it developed in two different forms. There is the Western European or constitutional nationalism and the Eastern European or ethnic nationalism. Only the latter one requires an ethnically and linguistically homogenous community for the nation to function. So, what is the difference between those two ideas?
Ethnic nationalism sees the nation as a big family. They share a common ancestry, language and land. The political system is less important. Nations such as Germany, Poland, Russia or Italy were constructed on the basis of this paradigm. Pan-nationalisms such as Pan-Slavism, Pan-Latinism or Pan-Arabism follow the same logic. Because nations are families, they are unchangeably exclusive. It is impossible to become a member. One is part of it by birth or not at all.
Constitutional nationalism sees the nation as a big club. It rests on the idea that the nation is based upon values and institutions. Britain is an obvious example. Its national identity arose when lords told the king that they are part of the political system, too, and when commons told lords and king that the same applied to them. British nationalism was not based upon the idea that all Britons are the same, but that all people who happen to live in the state of England or later Britain should be protected by law and should have a say in politics.
In other countries, the events were similar. The Dutch nation was created by burghers from the Low Countries who decided to have their own political system. In France, the word “nation” originally meant “those in power” and applied only to the elites of the Ancien Regime, until the Third State in 1789 declared that it was the nation. The idea of French nationalism was born together with French nationalism. The American nation was born when colonial settlers decided to set up their republic because the British crown did not want them to have a say in British politics. Switzerland was founded by different tribes in the western Alps who no longer wanted to be subject to monarchs and nobility. Their four different languages did not stop them.
Constitutional nationalism is exclusive, but not unchangeably so. One can become member of the nation if one lives on its territory, adheres to its rules, shares its values and accepts its institutions. Language is a means of communication and a part of culture, but not the basis of the nation. Nations such as Canada, Switzerland or Britain are multilingual.
If we want Europe to work democratically, we must adopt a national identity. In a place as interdependent as Europe, any decision in any country influences other countries strongly, whether within or outside the EU. This means that we often end up being subject to various countries that are not ours and were we cannot influence politics. To solve this problem, Europeans must found a community of equals.
Ethnic nationalism cannot be the path for it. It is not fit for Europe’s openness to the world as it excludes any immigrants and it is not fit for Europe’s diversity as it would require cultural and linguistic homogenization of Europe. Instead, the constitutional form of national identity is the way to go. We have common values, we have some common institutions, and if we reform these institutions, we can have a proper community of equals, or a nation in a constitutional sense.
Does this mean the end of existing European nations? No. We will have two national identities. Our traditional one and a European one. It is a system similar to the United Kingdom and its home nations, just with shared sovereignty instead of central sovereignty and devolution.
Can our community only consist of Europeans and does it have to include all Europeans? No. While there is no necessity for countries like Australia or Canada to be part of the European political system because they are far away and therefore not as influential in Europe or influenced by Europe, they can participate if they want to as they share their values with us. At the same time, European countries like Belarus cannot become part of a United Europe as long as they base their societies on values other than ours.