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13 April 2021

The EU’s vaccine debacle shows how far it is from being a state

Europe continues to lack not only the powers of a modern state but the democratic legitimacy needed to acquire them.

By Donald Sassoon

The European vaccine debacle must have warmed the hearts of Brexiteers for it revealed that a spectre was haunting Europe: chaos. But the debacle has also exposed illusions on both sides of the Brexit debate. To the more fanatical Brexiteers, rejoicing at being free of the tyranny of Brussels, the pandemic has demonstrated that far from being a superstate, the EU in fact has very limited powers of intervention. To the more extreme Remainers, on the other hand, who thought that an ever-closer Europe would ensure peace and prosperity for all, the European Covid saga has demonstrated how minute is the level of European integration.

The trouble the Commission has run into with the vaccine roll-out is no surprise. The EU is not a state, but it forgot this fact amid the horror of the pandemic, and suddenly tried to act like one. Not only had the EU never tried anything resembling the common purchase and distribution of a vaccine (or anything else), but it has very little power: welfare, taxation, police and defence – in other words, tax and spend, the essence of the modern state – have remained the prerogatives of the nation.

The EU could try to acquire such powers, but, in the present era, it could do so only by a massive democratisation and expansion of its institutions. Only a recognisably legitimate authority could deploy the traditional fiscal and spending powers of nation-states. This, of course, is unlikely, since it would hurt the prerogative of its constituent nation-states and their control of the EU.

After all, even in the US, 250 years after its founding, the controversy between federal power and states’ rights endures. Can you imagine a European politician today canvassing support before an election, declaring “vote for me and I will transfer more powers to Brussels so they can tax you”? And winning? People may dislike their own politicians intensely, but they dislike distant ones they do not elect even more.


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Plans about an “ever-closer union” have remained vacuous precisely because few have dared to face the historical fact that nation-states have not come about “democratically”. They have been constructed from on high. The tools have been a bureaucratic and legal system, often a single language that supplanted local dialects, an education system that tells a “national” story, and an army. None of this has arisen spontaneously from below. This is how Germans became German, Italians Italian, French French, British British.

In 1915 Sicilian peasants, speaking only Sicilian and barely aware that Italy existed, were dressed up in uniform, sent to the Dolomites and told to kill Austrians for “the Motherland”. Many died, many deserted, many were executed because they deserted, but, eventually, the peasants’ children and grandchildren became proud Italians and rejoiced in winning the football world cup.

Today’s schoolchildren are sometimes taught about their glorious past, and, more recently, they are perhaps taught to be tolerant of and to value other cultures. Yet, when it comes to culture and politics, the majority of the inhabitants of each nation-state tend to be unaware of those of even neighbouring countries. Thus the 17th-century playwright Jean Racine, who is studied in all French schools, is virtually unheard of in Italy or Germany. Most Germans and French have never heard of Dante. Not many Brits have heard of Goethe and fewer have read him. Despite globalisation, the relative ease and speed of long-distance travel and the instantaneity of modern communications, people live in their nation as if they were in a village and ignore much about their neighbours.

And these “villages” have proliferated over the past 150 years. These new states were formed either by secession – breaking away violently or peacefully from a wider unit (eg, Norway from Sweden, Slovenia from Yugoslavia, etc) – or by unification imposed from above, as was the case with Italy and Germany in the 19th century. Secession is by far the norm; absorption is rare.

Each new European state, however small, maintains all the paraphernalia of sovereignty largely established in the 19th century: passports, borders, armies, uniformed police, currencies, national anthems, national days, central banks and, more recently, entrants in the Eurovision Song Contest or the Miss World competition.

Each state, too, has a self-serving account of its origins and history that is poised between lachrymose stories of oppression by dastardly foreigners and vainglorious tales of heroic deeds against cowardly foreigners. “We”, each national mythology says, have been around for centuries, or more (1066 in Britain; 966 in Poland; since Romulus and Remus in Italy; since Plato and Aristotle in Greece).

Eventually we achieved our independence, our happiness and glory, for we, who are unlike everyone else (for we are Croats and not Slovenians, Italians and not Austrians, French and not Germans, Ukrainians and not Russians, etc), can finally be like everyone else: members and possessors of a country, with a remarkable literature, a major culture, a beautiful language and a unique landscape.

Yet the borders of most of today’s sovereign states are recent creations. Of the 20 states that existed in Europe in 1880 only nine had existed in the 18th century and only seven of these survived into the 21st century. Today there are some 45 European states and perhaps soon to be more: Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders and Wallonia.

History has dealt with borders and populations in a cavalier way and determined that a place could be part of a state for reasons that had nothing at all to do with national feelings – a relatively simple task since in most cases such feelings did not exist. An Italian state has existed only since 1861, but Venice wasn’t incorporated into Italy until 1866 and Rome not until 1870. Although an island, the present, increasingly wobbly, boundaries of the United Kingdom have been extant since only 1922 when the Irish Free State came into being.


Our brave new globalised world is thus a world of states, large and small (mainly small), trying to make their presence felt, taking offence, being proud and defending, sometimes hypocritically, the sanctity of their borders against secessionist claims by even smaller “nations” aspiring to get out. The impotence of states is manifest. They can’t do what they want. They are not “in control”.  Even large and “powerful” states have to face giant tech companies, slippery finance capital and, of course, 200 other states.

What states are good at is convincing their people that they are sovereign even though all they do is to elect an increasingly dysfunctional set of politicians to be in charge of their “village”. The idea now is that the state “embodies” the people, something quite different from the states of old, ruled by an absolute monarch. Friedrich Nietzsche saw this clearly in 1881 when he exclaimed, in one of his frequent anti-democratic moods: “The state is the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies, too; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’”

In so far as an EU superstate is concerned, Nietzsche can rest in peace. It is unlikely, in the foreseeable future, that people will accept a European state. The debacle over Covid has shown that the EU’s limited powers of intervention could barely be deployed to vaccinate Europeans, let alone rule over them. In the past, force was needed and force was used. But today we must accept that De Gaulle was right: Europe is only a Europe of nations.

Donald Sassoon is emeritus professor of comparative European history at Queen Mary, University of London, and author most recently of Morbid Symptoms: An Anatomy of a World in Crisis (Verso, 2021)

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