Europe is still struggling to contain the nationalist forces unleashed by the fall of the Soviet Union

Nationhood’s resilience as a political sentiment stands in the way of Emmanuel Macron’s eurozone reforms. 

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Any faith that the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union by 1991 heralded the “end of history” may have long receded, but there is much that remains elusive in comprehending the political forces that led to those events. The Soviet collapse represented the exhaustion of state-driven utopian politics. By the end, the Soviet leadership’s political will to impose itself over populations – or eliminate them if they proved unobliging – simply fell away.

On economic matters, anti-utopianism was perhaps the decisive post-Cold War narrative. Much of the discourse surrounding Third Way politics – an attempt to move beyond left and right – explicitly repudiated any idea that the economy was fit for grand political experimentation. 

However, the common assumption that communism failed because of its economic destructiveness mistakenly reduces Soviet history to a material project. The Soviet story was never simply about the murderous price and ineffectualness of state-driven economics. It was also a religious one. 

For nearly seven decades after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Soviet state engaged in an existential battle with the Russian Orthodox Church. The Bolsheviks began with the stated objective of converting the Russian people to atheism. Yet three years before it collapsed, the Soviet leadership in effect admitted defeat in that endeavour when, in 1988, it celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity’s arrival into Russia.

Now, Western democracies are confronted with a religious impulse that liberal secularism was thought to have erased. Some of the critique of liberalism arises from an essentially religious disposition, which asserts that there are limits to humanity’s ability to remake itself, or insists on original sin, at least as a useful metaphor for human weakness. 

Religious beliefs cannot be wished away. In democratic politics, both theological and secular convictions must somehow co-exist. Now liberalism struggles with this fundamental problem of maintaining different belief systems in society now that the utopian illusions of forced unity embodied by the Soviet Union have been shattered. 

In the aftermath of the Cold War, European liberals failed to recognise that what had occurred in 1989 and 1991 was a nationalist moment. When the Soviet empire fell, it was independent nation states that replaced it, as happened when the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed after the First World War. As Helmut Kohl said in his ten-point plan for German unity in November 1989, German reunification rested on the premise that in the face of all division and misfortune a “consciousness for the unity of the nation” had prevailed. The Viktor Orbán who governs Hungary and revels in nationhood is the same man who first came to prominence in June 1989 when Imre Nagy, prime minister for 11 days during the 1956 Hungarian uprising, was reburied in a public funeral in Budapest.

The idea of the nation never went away. It could not have done. Regrettably or not, since the French Revolution of 1789, European democratic states were historically legitimated by appeals to nationhood. It is those multinational states such as the United Kingdom and Spain that now face serious secessionist pressures.  

For a long time after its founding as the  European Economic Community in 1957, Brussels did little to disturb nation states. Indeed, one could plausibly argue, as the historian Alan Milward did, that until the 1990s the European project aimed to rescue the nation state. The original EU didn’t offer citizenship, and member states still issued national currencies and controlled their own borders. 

But paradoxically the EU became more like a supranational federation around the time it began to incorporate those eastern European states that regained their national independence after 1989. Without an empire – Soviet, German or Austrian – ruling over eastern and central Europe, the EU has had to learn to protect the security of independent nation states. But when other nations harbour ambitions of aggrandisement, this task of protection, as west Europe discovered during the two world wars, can be a costly one. 

Europe is now caught between two opposing forces: a peaceful, residual utopian impulse around Brussels, and the nationalist security instincts of the post-Soviet European nation states. Emmanuel Macron has become entangled in this tension. The French president is part European visionary, telling Europeans in an open letter before the 2019 European Parliament elections that they all share certain values and beliefs,  and calling on them to act as the “vanguard” of “progress”. He is also a realist, fretting that without a strategic reset with Russia, Europe will disappear into the jaws of an American or Chinese leviathan. 

In both cases, nationhood’s resilience as a political sentiment stands in Macron’s way. He has had to abandon serious eurozone reform because most Germans, as well as other northern and eastern Europeans, are unwilling to extend tax-paying beyond national borders. He all too readily incites fears in Warsaw and Tallinn that he considers their national security dispensable in the realpolitik of great power competition, and that the Europe he envisions does not include them.

Macron will keep pressing his argument that power, not wishfulness, will prevail, and that Europe must learn to live without the Americans. But the more he does so, the more it will become apparent that the old EU, centred decisively around a Franco-German axis, receded into history with the Soviet empire.

Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University and a regular on the Talking Politics podcast. 

This article appears in the 28 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy

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