Without country, there is no identity

Emilie Mendes de Leon reflects on the historical preconditions for political unification.


Contrary to the Far Right’s assertion that “without identity, there is no country,” history shows us that the opposite is true: identity follows the creation of a state, it is not the condition for it. The English and Scots were far from friendly neighbours when the 1707 Act of Anglo-Scottish Union joined their parliaments and made them British. Likewise, following their war of independence and facing a debt crisis, veteran uprisings, and fractured economies, an elite group of men pushed forward the creation of a federal government for the disparate former British colonies whose people now identify as Americans.

Even in Germany, where smaller kingdoms had a history of cooperation and uneven consolidation, it was only an imperial constitution following the Franco-Prussian War that provided the institutions from which a German identity could materialise. Until then, it was not at all clear how large or small Germany the country would be, nor how strongly a German identity would take hold across regions with diverse religious and cultural backgrounds. And who can forget the Italian Massimo d’Azeglio’s alleged words when, after decades of military campaigns (heavily aided by foreign powers) had united Italy, he uttered “Italy has been made. Now it only remains to make Italians.” Without political union, without country, there is no identity.

This sort of civic nationalism cannot be applied to all parts of the world, but in the European tradition, it was never a  feeling of common destiny that culminated in consensus and constitution. Some amongst the intellectual classes harboured dreams of national identity before a political system allowed those feelings to grow roots, much like notions of Europeanness exist amongst certain groups today. However states, not societies, have been the drivers and creators of political institutions which provide the basis for a true common identity to emerge: a combined debt, a common army, and a shared parliament and executive.

Political unification of historically distinct territories meant a unified currency and a common defence managed by a centralised authority. In the new United Kingdom, the 1707 Act merged the English and Scottish parliaments, debts, and army. In the United States, the treasury assumed state debts, created a bicameral legislature, a revolving, democratically elected executive, and a common army. In Italy, the previously independent regions of Italy joined together in a single parliament to appoint their ruler, and in Germany, the 1871 Treaty of Versailles gave a federal government control over the army and finance.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that there is a lack of “Europeanness”. We have not had a contract of political union that gives us the shared “debt, defense, and democracy” (to use Brendan Simms’ words) from which a common European identity can emerge. There are plenty in Europe and the world who are content with Europe’s attempts to maintain both a common currency and national sovereignty. However, only a country, only a real political union would be capable of handling the euro, migrant, and democratic crises that Europe currently faces.

An aggregated debt, in the form of a single “Union bond” will create a new line of credit (“a financial diuretic” as Lin-Manuel Miranda wittily quips in the Broadway hit Hamilton) against which crisis nations could borrow. Likewise, a European army and common defence policy is the only effective way to protect Europe’s borders, internal market, and interests on the world stage. As it stands now, member-states in the east disproportionately feel the threat from an ambitious, assertive Russia, those around the Mediterranean disproportionately feel the pressures of migration, and still others feel the most vulnerable to acts of terrorism. A common defence policy and European army would give the regions and peoples of Europe an equal stake in theses issues to allow for coordinated defence projects in Poland, to assert greater influence in the weakened states around the Mediterranean, and to effectively share intelligence related to known terrorists. Finally, the lack of European political parties, an integrated parliament with real legislative power, and a directly elected executive to take responsibility for changes in direction has led to resentment, mistrust, and calls for referenda from citizens, leaders and bureaucrats alike.

The Europeans thought that through trade and cooperation they would grow together into a true political union. Instead, time and inaction have bred doubts and mistrust of an overbearing bureaucracy. The only way to solve our crises is through the creation of real political union out of which Europeans can emerge and Europe can take her place on the world stage.

Image ‘Articles of Union 1707’ courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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