Europe stands on a knife’s edge between conflicting desires for greater unification and nationalism. Most European nations now have far-right parties calling for dissolution of the European Union; in some — such as Britain — they have grown quite powerful. The idea of “Brexit,” of a nation leaving the European Union, seemed ludicrous just a decade ago. Yet here we are.

The fact that it’s being done via votes and referenda, by ballot questions like “Should Scotland declare its independence from the United Kingdom?” or “Should the United Kingdom leave the European Union?” rather than visible public protests and demonstrations, however, should not hide the fact that what we’re really seeing in Europe is a resurgence of its own — unique — political problem: that of nationalism.

In the world’s other large and diverse states, be they Russia, the U.S., Brazil, or China, the politics are nationalism are minimal. There is nobody (sane) who would put the sovereignty of Pennsylvania over that of the U.S. in general, for example; even in (somewhat less sane) Texas, the secession movement is very much a minority. When the Soviet Union fell apart, its more restive nationalities all gladly took the chance to secede; as a result, modern Russia is composed of the various oblasts, republics, and krais that decided, a generation ago, that they wanted to be Russian. And even in China, where Tibet and Xinjiang are often interpreted (by outsiders) as annexed nations, everything east of the Gobi is interpreted as being Chinese in every sense of the word; the People’s Republic and the Republic of China may disagree on politics and administration, but they both agree they are Chinese — and both claim the same territory.

But this is not the case in Europe. Nor has it been since the fall of Rome. Indeed, the whole concept of the “nation” and “nation-state” developed in Renaissance Europe. In most of world history, any given region is dominated by a single hegemon. In East Asia, this has always been China; in the Middle East, the Mesopotamian states gave way to the Persian states gave way to the Arab caliphate; in Peru, the Inca state had assumed that role by the time the Spanish came; and so forth. Historic Rome and modern Russia both follow that same model — as does the modern U.S., whose constituent “nations” (which are largely unaligned with individual states but occasionally aligned with blocs of states) latent and incipient. (One suspects the same of Brazil.)

The reason for this development should be fairly clear by now. There was no clear hegemon in Europe, no state that comfortably say they embodied what it meant to be “European”. The last state that was, was Rome, and though other states (Russia and the “Holy” “Roman” “Empire”, most notably) sometimes put on airs, as more localized ethnic identities became more important, the very idea of a single state that could span the continent began to look increasingly archaic.

This is all a very long way of saying that the modern idea of the nation is driven by the fact that the aristocracies of England, Spain, Portugal, France, Austria, and so on all had to treat with each other as equals; doing otherwise would trigger some military mire somewhere or another. And while the relationship of Ireland and Wales, say, to England; or Norway, the Faroes, and Iceland to Denmark; or Brittany, Aquitaine, and Provence to France  (I can keep going with this) was inherently unequal, these unitary bodies had roughly equal diplomatic and military power. And, as people in various subject regions began to assert their own independent cultural identities in the 19th century, the idea of the “nation” being synonymous with one of Europe’s sovereign entities began to break down further.

It is worth noting here that the nationalist movement that reached its peak in the early 20th century most likely did so then because of a combination of improved communications technologies, development of the middle class even in the sovereignties’ peripheries, and relative economic slowdowns fueling dissatisfaction with the status quo. Stop me if this sounds at all vaguely familiar.

This means that nationalist movements, as a form of political identity, are inherently reactionary — reactionary, that is, to a system that had been working for a while but does not appear to be now. We can see this, again, in Brexit: a reaction to the Euro’s troubles (a currency Britain does not use), to the Syrian migration crisis fueled by the Islamic State in the Middle East (where the British Isles are the only place north or west of Trieste not in the Schengen Area), and especially to the sense that Britain is a net donor to the EU but hardly gets anything out of it (mostly because they keep negotiating themselves opt-outs).

Reactionary movements aren’t always bad; indeed, they are a useful barometer because their rise means things aren’t working the way they used to. Reactionary movements in the arts, for example, develop when the previous dominant movement has lapsed into cliché and unintentional self-parody. Similarly, the Strong Towns movement can be said to be a reactionary movement against a failed planning and civil engineering paradigm.

But these are technical sorts of reactionary movements. What is happening with Brexit and other European nationalist movements now, and was happening with the nationalist movements that birthed Germany and Italy and later Poland, Finland, Iceland, and a dozen new nations out of Turkey and Austria-Hungary a century ago, is more a sort of political reaction — a retreat into ethnicity when things are going wrong with no clear cause why. This type of reactionary movement reflects a circle-the-wagons sort of mentality — weather the storm and we will be whole and hale.

Don’t get me wrong, this is — again — not all bad. Nationalist movements in themselves are valuable for preserving and even seeding language and literature. Nationalist movements have rescued languages like Hebrew, Manx, and Cornish from the dead; they help shine lights on dialect continua normal unitary modes of education shuffle under the rug. Nationalist movements popularize folk art and other localized forms of education. Sometimes they are needed — Mexico badly needs Nahuatl and Yucatec nationalist movements to help resurrect its Aztec and Maya cultural heritages, and the same can probably be said of Guatemala and K’iche (also Maya), and Peru (and Ecuador and Bolivia?) and Quechua (i.e. the Inca language). But, here too, such movements are a sort of cultural nationalism rather than a political one (though the latter is often tied into the former).

In the end, though, the early 20th century nationalist movements, to a large extent, failed. Yes, several left behind sovereign states, but they failed because — in the aftermath of WWII — it was widely realized across the European continent, for the first time in some fifteen hundred years, that Europe does not have the resources necessary to support a bajillion small nation-states with the standard of living the average European expects, a problem only exacerbated by their competition being other continental-scale nation-states (i.e. the U.S., Russia, and China … and, one suspects, soon enough India, Indochina, and the Mercosur bloc).

That kernel is that the E.U. has grown out of. It held true in 1500, when conquests of the New World papered the lack of adequate domestic resources over; it held true in 1800, when the Industrial Revolution drove colonialism’s second wind; it held true in 1945, when the great powers had just finished reducing each other to smoking husks; and it still holds true today.

And this is probably the greatest problem vexing Europe, the reason Brexit is a thing. It needs to be a unified hegemon in its own sphere, a continental-scale nation-state, to compete in the world today … it just doesn’t know yet whether it wants to be.

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