Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law


4. The Role of the Nation States

The nation-state is not to be `abolished'; it is to be `brought into' the confederation, since the `nation-state, with its cultural and democratic traditions, will be indispensable for legitimising a union of citizens and states that can be fully accepted by people.' This formulation presents the nation-state as a quite subordinate `self-governing entity' with valuable cultural traditions to which citizens have grown accustomed. This is reminiscent of the role that municipalities play in modern states: the real structuring of life occurs elsewhere, but local adjustment to these structures is left up to the citizens of the municipality, with limited means. Such a view fails to see the role of the nation-states specifically in legitimising the EU. They create the units from which a European Union arises. If the EU is a `multi-people state', then it follows that the interests of the Union's citizens are not identical and cannot be decided about by majority in highly aggregated representative systems. The individual peoples do not just represent picturesque traditions, but are constituted as democratic `demoi' with a general sovereignty claim. These entities have the absorptive power to handle social conflicts that is indispensable for the EU. This absorptive power lies particularly in the capacity of nation-states to reach temporal agreements over the ever-present inequalities and injustices in distribution of life chances, and formulate ideas about a compensatory retributive justice. Despite material inequality, there emerges an ideal equality of citizens. The democratic ideal of citizen equality has to be reconciled with the everyday experience of inequality. It is from this self-binding of inequality that moral solidarity grows. This continual reproduction of the `moral fabric' is the basis of social peace. Wherever it is disturbed or destroyed, severe conflicts arise: and one need not think only of the Bosnias and Kosovos, it is enough to consider Northern Ireland or the Basque Country. Decades of terrorism cannot be politically controlled even in countries that have had democratic systems for years and belong the EU. The central achievement of nation-states is the creation of moral orders that are not just the result of political institutions but need the support of a linguistic community, internal toleration and solidarity and self-allocation of responsibility for shortcomings and lags in development. Downgrading the nation-states, limiting their possibilities of action and fragmenting their formal competences, would have considerable consequences, especially for a territorially extended sovereign territory with highly aggregated interest representation in the decision-making centres.

Nation-states also constitute units of accountability that can be expected to do things. A good example is offered by the change in the social system for the population of East Germany. German unity shifted both the horizon of expectation and the criterion of comparison from the GDR to the old Federal Republic, bringing a new perception of discrimination or disadvantage among East Germans. It is not the objective improvement in living conditions in East Germany, but the differences from living conditions for West Germans that determine their expectations. Comparison processes, and structuring them through the social and moral units that nation-states are, are accordingly of central importance to stability in Europe. For instance, on entry to the EU, the Portuguese did not immediately shift their expectations to the standards of the prosperous welfare states and expect support payments from them.

Eastward enlargement opens the way into Europe for many societies living at a much lower level than the peoples in Western Europe. They will have to put up with a sharp discrepancy for decades. This acceptance of disadvantage can come about only within a national self-consciousness. These processes can only be carried though in a context of comparison and distribution processes structured on a nation-state basis. The European Union is an association of many peoples, the components of which lay claim to creative freedom of their own, irrespective of population size or economic power, and cannot be subjected to others' majorities for all the central decisions. To date, the EU has been supported by the consensus of the national elites. Wherever this was not present, resistance or reservations about further steps in integration have emerged among the peoples, too, as in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. This elite consensus arises in the political atmosphere of nation-states from opinion formation in democratic institutions, the media, public opinion and the resulting orientation of citizens. EU legitimacy is thus based on agreement by the citizens of nation-states, not on opinion formation by a European people. The European Parliament, too, represents the citizens of the Member States, not the citizens of the Union. Its basis, too, is national opinion formation, which is basic to legitimising European integration; but the nation-states are the basis for this. Downgrading them, taking central sovereign rights over the Union's further development away from them, endangers the political and social peace of the Union.



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