Magazine, Vol. 2: Nationalism

Nationalism in Europe

„We have to overcome the connection between nation and democracy.”

Interview with Prof Dr Ulrike Guérot, professor for European Politics and Democracy at Donau-Universität Krems


Has the nation state had its day? And what happens next? Political scientist Prof. Dr Ulrike Guérot outlines a Europe of the future: with strong regions and a democracy. In this interview it is discussed what our life in 2045 in the European Republic might look like and why we are currently in a historical moment.


Prof Dr Guérot – the elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and Austria in 2017 outline a trend towards nationalistic thinking and acting. Is this a sign of divisions within these countries or is Europe as a whole falling apart?

I think it is indicative of a rift in European society and not within the single countries. We are being told that we are experiencing a renationalisation, but that is not true. There are large parts of society that cannot be renationalised, that are not susceptible to national and populist arguments. These parts of society exist in Ireland, Great Britain, France and Germany – just everywhere. The media looks at the populist threat and then claims, for instance, that Poland has now become renationalised.

So it is not that simple?

No. I was in Warsaw in October 2017. You cannot say that the whole of Poland is being renationalised. There is a lot of resistance in civil society against the new judicial reforms. The PiS government has the ambition to move the country to the right, but at the same time you have to see that half of the population is fighting back.

So there are two camps in Poland. How can this situation be transferred to the whole of Europe?

My argument is that we are not experiencing a renationalisation, but a politicisation of Europe, which is expressed in a right-left-divide. We can measure the swing to the right in different countries, since it is partly organised transnationally. But we can also see the societal countermovement. It is not the first time in history that we are at a point where we can experience a civil society that has started to organise itself transnationally against burgeoning nationalism. For example, I feel more of an attachment to a Polish woman protesting against abortion laws, than to a German who is a member of Pegida. I think a lot of people feel this way.

How should European civil society deal with this politicisation?

We are experiencing a historic moment in history. Stephan Zweig describes this in a very fitting way: It is the preserve of contemporaneity to understand the great historical movement it is part of. This is because we can only grasp it when the movement is over, and we can look back and maybe say: “Those were the years when the Europeans abolished the nation-state. The mood was a bit uneasy and it scared a lot of people, but in the end, they made it.” To conceptualise this reflection as a historic process is the task of the day. Thus, we must brace ourselves against, to say it in simple terms, a repeat of the film from 100 years ago and thereby become nationalised again.

Why does the desire for nationalisation resurface in history?

There are a lot of sociological and historical theories that attempt to answer this question. The French sociologist Michel Dobry says that when societies come under stress, they go through a regression to the last state of “the normal”. This is exactly what is happening right now: As a society, we suffer stress. Globalisation, modernisation processes, refugees, all of these complex issues are happening too fast and we do not understand them properly. In stressful moments like these, when society is faced with great challenges, it is unable to face them and recoils from conflict. This means that society falls back to the last level of its comfort-zone. And that is why we long for the nice, homely nation-state. Marine Le Pen dreams of the “France profonde” while the “Alternative für Deutschland” dreams of the Federal Republic of Germany before 1989. This so-called regression is a reaction to the inability to respond to the chaos of the crisis by longing for the preceding historical state that seems familiar. An important question is whether we are only falling back to the last level of comfort because of acute societal stress that we can pin down to different causes like, for instance, modernisation, or whether the Euroscepticism of today is anchored in periods before our time. The question is therefore whether there are deep historical streams of “longue durée”, that is societal stratifications and processes, which make the Europe we wish for, the one European democracy, impossible.

Does this mean that some people take refuge in the idea that we are best off in the familiar nation-state?

Indeed, we have the illusion that we were doing really well in the nation-state at some point. This illusion is of course merely nice and homely in hindsight. Every generation has its crisis. That is precisely what makes populism so absurd. Populism fosters the nostalgic idea that at some point in the past, everything was good for everybody, but in fact that has never been the case. Every societal system has its price. It is just not always the same people who pay for the system. That is what we tend to forget when telling the story. In regression, it seems like everything was fancy and nice for everyone in a different system.

“Europe means the overcoming of nation-states. “


In conjunction with Robert Menasse, who received the German Book Prize for his novel “Die Hauptstadt” in 2017, you have written a manifesto for the foundation of a European Republic. This manifesto envisages a federation of regional entities without national ‘in between’ authorities. Hence, the nation-state would have had its day. Many people see you as utopists. How realistic is your idea of the European Republic?

To those people who call Robert Menasse and me utopists, one would have to reply in an analogy that Jean Monnet and Walter Hallstein were also utopists, just like all the others that were thinking about Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. A utopia is always only a utopia until things are just done. During the war, people had a longing for peace, a longing for Europe, and a longing for transnationality. At some point, a Europe was designed that had the overcoming of nation-states as its goal. You have to remember this. Especially nowadays, in a time when we are being told that we are becoming renationalised and that the nation as the only comfort-zone for social safety is indispensable. After all, it must be possible for us to stop figuratively bashing our heads in as nation-states and instead see ourselves as one political unit on this continent. That is why Robert Menasse and I want to convey clearly, from a scientific and artistic standpoint, that Europe means the overcoming of nation-states. In a European Republic, nobody would have to fear losing their identity or becoming a second-class European, because all Europeans would be equal before the law. The regions offer identity, home, decentralised structures and participation, i.e. an identitarian comfort-zone.

It is 2045 and the European Republic has become a reality. What do our lives look like in the European Republic? Are there still countries like Germany and France?

Things never work out the way you think they will. I have tried to reflect on the possibilities through in my book. I have outlined a relatively American political model, in which we have 50 to 55 regions, for example Flanders, Bavaria or Catalonia, which seem rather obvious. These regions would have about eight to 15 million inhabitants and we federalise, à la Montesquieu, small units into one big unit: the European Republic. There would be two senators each per region. Furthermore, as European citizens we would be equal before the law. Thus, we would make good what Stephan Zweig has always said: Europe means no distinction according to nationality.

What does that mean in concrete terms?

It means, for example, that we would have one European employment insurance. If you moved from Paris to Barcelona to work there, that would be insignificant for the portability of your social rights. We would have one European passport, European citizenship, and we would elect the European president directly. In this model we would probably live like the Americans do today: Not everybody who wakes up in California in the morning constantly thinks about how everybody is doing in Alaska. The problem with models like these is that they necessarily draw on what we already know. Apart from that I am sure that democracy will change significantly under the conditions of the internet. This will happen in ways that we cannot even imagine today. Just like you could not imagine flying aeroplanes in 1850, and nowadays it is completely normal. We do not know what leap of innovation we will make in the future and what kinds of repercussions this leap of innovation will have on the way we organise our societal body politic.

Which language do we speak in the European Republic?

All languages will be spoken. We will have to decide on a lingua franca, be it English, Esperanto or Latin. We will probably benefit from GoogleTranslate and work with language recognition systems. It also helps to recall that there are 29 languages and 17 written languages in India and that the Indians, with their much smaller GDP, still have a democracy, one voice and one vote. Language should not be the problem.

“Europe means unity in diversity.”


How can cultural diversity be preserved in the European Republic?

Europe means unity in diversity. That has always been our mantra. The problem in the European discourse is of course that the opponents think that European identity means having to give up your national identity. Nobody wants to disappear in some mishmash. But that is not what it is about. It is about differentiating between normative unity and cultural diversity. We can have normative unity, that is equality before the law, and be culturally different all the same. We are also normatively united in the Federal Republic of today: From Rügen to Freiburg, people elect the Bundestag under the same conditions, get the same unemployment benefits and pay the same taxes, but they are culturally diverse. For example, the people in the Black Forest have that hat with the red bobbles and in Bavaria they have Haxe.

The French President Emmanuel Macron seems to have some ideas about Europe that are quite similar to yours.

With Macron, politics has finally found a real sounding board for new thinking in view of Europe. What Macron says is what we should have done at least five years ago. These ideas have been around for years. Considering the original European ideas of the 1940s and the basic notion that as citizens, we are equal before the law and want decentralised structures, you can see that Macron is neither heretic nor new. But now we should really put these ideas into action! In the interview with Der Spiegel in October 2017, Macron says that we need some new political heroism, and he is right. De Gaulle was a hero, just like Adenauer and Kennedy. Because of all this political correctness and “politics means consensus-mishmash”, we have forgotten that those whom we ex-post judge to be heroes, like Churchill or Willy Brandt, the grand figures, that they were bold enough to do something great in a given situation.

Have you been waiting for someone like Macron to enter politics for the European Republic to become a reality?

Ideas need time until they are ripe and developed, and then the time must come in which the idea can go through the door of history. And indeed, I believe that the idea of a European Republic is ripe. From Victor Hugo over other actors of the 1940s to today. The idea of a European Republic is like a diamond that has been polished In the end, and that is what most people overlook, thinking as such is a process just like sculpting or cutting diamonds. You cut something until it is crystal clear. From time to time, the sculptor has to take a step back and approach the stone again to cut something out of it, too. The thought process is nothing else but, at some point, carving out an idea or a word. And I think we have shaped the idea of the European Republic as much as a diamond. The idea is now visible and clear, and it can go through the door of history. Macron is definitely someone who has opened the door of history, especially with his speeches in Athens on 7th September and in the Sorbonne on 26th September 2017. Now, we can only hope that he will hold it open long enough for others to walk through it Macron’s actions and the time between now, the new German government and the European elections in 2019, which will basically be held at the same time as Brexit, present the historic second in which something will happen. In the best case, the diamond of the European Republic will go through the door. Otherwise something else will happen. But something will happen, because the time is ripe for it. Everybody who is able to think feels it. Also because the notion of “there is no alternative” is no law of history.

What will happen to our rights when we are no longer citizens of a nation-state?

In the long run, human rights and civil rights will have to merge. Nowadays we still separate them from one another. If you are a citizen of a certain state, you have civil rights, for instance in the form of social security. Human rights can only be drawn from the Geneva Convention on Refugees. The theoretical question is: Are there civil rights without states? Philosophers have dealt with this question, for example Etienne Balibar in his book “Egaliberté” from 2012. But we still have not discovered the trick of how to implement the demand to become “global citizens”, or “Weltbürger” as Kant called it. Being a global citizen would mean that everybody has civil rights, without having to belong to a certain state. That is the great theoretical construction site of the 21st Century, and it has become even more massive with the refugee question. For me, the goal for Europeans would be to start thinking about this process and to carry it from Europe out into the world.

If it were not for the great number of people working against it…

That is the risk for the younger generation, that is today’s teenagers and young adults, and one of my great concerns. The question is which part of the youth has the economic driver, that is political and economic functional elites, behind it. You rightly say that the others – the nationalists and populists – are also active. Those that lead the völkisch, racist and renationalisation debates, those people do exist. Nationalism does not fall from the sky, nationalism is made: People talk about it, texts are printed, and libraries are funded to oil the machinery of nationalism once again.

Does that sometimes lead you to question the implementation of the European Republic?

I am divided: On the one hand, I stand for the idea of the Republic, but on the other hand I am a scientist and an analyst and I could cite numerous processes and systemic factors why the idea is difficult to implement. For one thing, the populists do not sleep. Political equality has a price. The Republic will cost money, for instance to finance a European social security system. Who will pay for this? Industry does not necessarily have an interest in a peaceful, social and democratic Europe, if that means higher taxes or the introduction of a European tax on financial transactions. To put it differently: The economic steering elites are quite happy living in a common market and a currency union without European democracy. You could argue that peace has no economic driver, but war does. That is why it is more plausible for those who have the discursive prerogative in terms of money and power to promote nationalism in their own self-interest, rather than to create a social and democratic Europe. To advocate for the common good has lost all economic interest.

Would you interpret the fact that a lot of people nowadays endorse nationalism as a step back in society?

We always think history is linear, but that is not true. History does not always get better and better. History is basically closure and opening – like a heart muscle. At this point, we are definitely in a period of closure after long years of opening. And when people like me were born in 1964 and lived the first 20 or 30 years of their life in a phase of opening, then they will notice the closure phase in a massive way. Now I am thinking: “Oh, suddenly we’re debating abortion again, I thought that was over and done with.” But apparently, and unfortunately, it is not.

Do you think the younger generation has grown up in a phase of closure and that this is the problem? Or could this generation have the energy to change things for exactly this reason?

That is why the younger generation is particularly important. Depending on when the teenagers and young adults of today were born, they have not really experienced much of the opening phase. They were born into the closure phase and that has an impact on their consciousness. If they have no memory of how things used to be, then they will take for granted what they were born into.

Does this mean that we must draw comparisons and critically question the set structures of today?

Yes, it is so important to discern and label systemic processes. In Hungary, for instance, there is no freedom of press anymore, at least not in the sense we know. Orban has been in power since 2008, which means that by now, there is a generation that does not know anything else but the state-controlled press. That you can think and want Europe does not feature in Orban’s discourse anymore, because it is only about Hungary. That is what you call economic dry-out: A discourse is literally dried out, in the sense that certain stories and events are not printed or read anymore. And that is a risk for the younger generation, since with every year that we witness this populism- and nationalism-crisis, this worldview gains ground. With every year there are more people who grow up into this and think it is normal.

In your opinion, what can the younger generation learn from the older generation?

In his book “Die Hauptstadt“, Robert Menasse discusses the term culture. After all, culture is not primarily, for instance, sitting in Paris and eating baguette. Primarily, culture is the ability to transfer learning processes to the next generation. And it does not really matter whether children learn how to bake brown bread or baguette. What is important is that the children are taught how to bake bread. The question for contemporaneity today is whether we, as the heirs of the Enlightenment, are able to transfer the first sentence of the Human Rights Declaration, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” to a generation that has not known war. No nationalism and “no more war” was the founding paradigm of Europe. But now the last contemporary witnesses who experienced Auschwitz are dying. And without contemporary witnesses, can we still transfer the cultural technique, this cultural learning experience of “nationalism is bad and leads to war” as a lesson to the next generation?

“We must find a way
to create transgenerational peace.”


To get back to the European Republic one last time: Which steps do we still have to take so that the idea of the European Republic can become a reality?

What we are trying to do with the European Republic is to create a political system without borders. The real-political space has long ago lost its borders: Aeroplanes, internet, roaming. The only thing that still has a static border is the nation-state. Abolishing the nation-state, that sounds like getting a hammer and start knocking away at France. Men always ask me: But what about football? My answer is: The nation is many things. It is tradition, history, identity. But at the moment it is also the basis for democracy. And when I say I want to overcome the nation-state, that does not mean that we abolish Germany as an idea or as history. We just have to overcome the connection between nation and democracy and create a post-national democracy. The nation has become too small a bed for democracy. The market and the currency are already organised on a European level. But it is possible to widen the bed for democracy beyond the nation-states. To organise democracy on a European level, that is my proposition. We must find a way to create transgenerational peace. We will make Europe democratic, social and decentralised so no one has to wrap up in a national flag to feel better about themselves.


Interview: Lena Kronenbürger

Translation: Charlotte Bander


Prof. Dr Ulrike Guérot
Danube University Krems