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The New Europe

The Nation State: Is it dead?

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Paul Rohan presents The Nation State: Is it dead? Jonathan Stoneman gives his personal view in Comment.

Prague's old town square

In front of Prague's old town clock tower, in a parade, the figure of death has just emerged from a door in the wall and is ringing in the hour.The clock tower is a stones-throw away from the place where almost 400 years ago the executioners sword dramatically changed the course of history. The heads of almost 30 rebellious Czech nobleman lay on the pavement, the fate of the ancient kingdom of Bohemia was in tatters and the Czech nation faced a bleak future which very nearly ended in its extinction.

The nation survived, just, although after the execution of the noblemen by the victorious Habsburgs, protestant Bohemia was catholisized and the Czech language was increasingly marginalised into a language used mainly by peasants.

As for the parade of figures at the Old Town clock in Prague - my home town - well that ends with the crowing of a cockerel, apparently ushering in a new dawn for the Czech nation. But the clock-maker produced his masterpiece long before the idea of a nation state was invented and even today views on whether or not the nation state has outlived its usefulness are as diverse as they are contradictory.

The Vatican in RomeIn the 'useful' camp is Dr Alan Sked, a historian from London University and a fierce opponent of European integration, who believes that centuries of European dominance can be explained by the fact that Europe never was an empire -"Well these other places became united into empires and superpowers. You've got the Ming Dynasty, the Mogul dynasty, the Ottoman dynasty, and in these places you've got centralization, harmonization, bureaucratization, corruption, red tape and then they became unable to adapt or to compete. Whereas Europe didn't become an empire, the church couldn't control the Emperor, the Emperor couldn't control the pope, the Catholic church split, the empire split up, and nation states emerged. And so in Europe you've got religious and political competition."

In the opposite camp is the political scientist from Prague, Alex Tomsky. The nation state as originally conceived, he says, has no place at the end of the 20th century, let alone in the 3rd millennium - "The nation state is a very obsolete idea of course. It's an idea of the 19th century as we all know. I see the nation state as stemming from nationalism, from the idea of a homogeneous society with a leader, with an authority, with a particular slant to history and ideology. Ideally speaking it is something that I don't want and I don't think it is a positive force. After all it's caused two world wars in Europe."

An agreed definition of the nation state, however, remains elusive. The state is the government and its institutions; the nation is best described as some kind of grouping of people who identify with each other, be it for cultural, ethnic, linguistic or historical reasons. The nation state is the marriage of the two ideas.

The Bank of EnglandIn 1992, the British government and the Bank of England discovered, to their political and financial cost, that they couldn't buck the market, as foreign exchange dealers forced the pound out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Euro noteEconomic control has been slowly seeping away from national governments to international banks, currency markets and multinational companies, whose assets dwarf those of many countries. And power has not just been shifting sidewards, to the private sector, but downwards to the region and - above all - upwards to Brussels.

Loukas TsoukalisAccording to the Greek economist Loukas Tsoukalis, this trend - the weakening of European governments - has been played down by national politicians, with potentially serious consequences - "One of the problems in Europe is that in some areas policy decisions are taken either at the European level, yet our political discourse at the national level takes place as if Europe did not exist. So there is an illusion, obviously. We talk as if our governments have much more powers than they actually have. And that is dangerous because it can also lead to enormous frustration and disappointment with the political system."

The EU has in several ways tried to replicate the nation - it has its own passport, anthem, flag and parliament. But according to Professor Weiler, from Harvard University, it differs from a nation state in one crucial respect -" The governance of Europe is not modelled on a state model. There is no moment, neither at national level or the European level, where you can simply say, I want to change the government, the way you would change from Labour to Tory or from Socialist to Liberals, or from Christian Democrats to Social Democrats. So Europe is governed in such a way where government can not really be thrown out."

If Weiler is right, perhaps the advantages of the nation state assure it a future within Europe. But if so, what sort of future? Vaclav Klaus, was until recently the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic - "I'm absolutely sure that the building block of European integration should be the nation state and I'm very much against the idea of having regions as the building blocks."

Vaclav Klaus was closely involved in the separation of Czechoslovakia into two nation states - the Czechlands and Slovakia. Some would go so far as to argue that nations and national pride is a precondition for a united Europe.

Otto von Habsburg is a member of the dynasty which once ruled what is now the Czech Republic - "I'm utterly convinced that you can't feel European if you are not first German or British, because after all Great Britain as Germany or Spain is part of this common Europe and consequently patriotism towards ones own country is also the preliminary condition to European patriotism."

European patriotism has a major hurdle to overcome: fear and distrust of Brussels, the home of the European Union. The EU now sets the health and safety requirements at work, standards for manufactured products, it decides who may and who may not travel freely from one country to another: well over half of the legislation passed by national parliaments now has its origins in Brussels - a dramatic shift in sovereignty.

Is this leading to the complete disappearance of the nation state? The former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd - "No I don't accept that. That is a fashionable doctrine but I don't think a true one. I think everyone who is listening to (or reading) this, will almost certainly pass their lives in a world of nation states. If you go to someone in the streets of Greece or Denmark or Italy even and say "Who are you?", they will continue to say 'I'm Italian, I'm Greek, I'm Danish'. And I think one of the difficulties of the European idea has been a reluctance to recognise this."

And despite the watering down of state powers, nationalism itself still has an almost atavistic appeal. According to some this in itself will ensure the continuing existence of the nation state for the foreseeable future. The Czech born French historian Jacques Rupnik - "The decline of the nation state has been proclaimed so often that the reality teaches us to be much more cautious. If we look at what has happened in Europe and particularly the Eastern part of Europe since 1989, well we see a formidable proliferation of nation states. We've seen the break up of the Yugoslav Federation, we've seen the break-up of Czechoslovakia, we've seen the break-up of the Soviet Union. And the process is not necessarily over. See what's happening in the Kosovo, we don't know whether we don't have another state in the making there."Kosovo Map

These newly independent countries have had to acquire all the paraphernalia of genuine nation states. It's not just anthems, flags, coats of arms, embassies, - of course - nation states need their own currency - at least until they sign up to the European Monetary Union.

The bank notes for Slovenia - which feature major figures from Slovene history were designed by Miljenko Licul - "We try to use our currency as a kind of promotion of not only new identity, but the identity of peace of Europe, belonging to Europe with its own history, and its own traditions. And so we chose the way to use different personalities from different parts of culture. Because in Slovenia we think that the culture is the strongest argument to exist as a state."

Hasek:Czech Ice Hockey starThe Czech republic's ice-hockey victory over Russia at the Nagamo Olympics prompted three days of celebrations in the streets - something which a triumph of a local club could never rival. In Eastern Europe there's been a burgeoning of national emotion in part because, as Jacques Rupnik explains, celebration of national allegiance is also a celebration of their newly found sovereignty and independence - "I think the idea of the nation state is very much with us. That the idea of national sovereignty is still the main political obsession of the post-communist part of Europe. And that of course it has to be understood by West Europeans as quite a natural response to having been incorporated by force into a military ideological empire for half a century. And therefore, when that empire collapses the idea of national sovereignty comes back with a vengeance, together with the idea of democracy. The two were inseparable, national sovereignty and popular sovereignty."

"My Fatherland" by the 19th century Czech nationalist Bedrich Smetana was composed when the Czechs were restoring their national identity three centuries after their defeat by the Habsburgs. Now once again this identity is being reasserted -- but at a time when the Czech Republic plans to dilute its sovereignty by joining the EU. Historian David Ceserani sees no contradiction - "The EU has done something to foster the idea that people can have national and regional identities that are not as clear cut and as exclusive as they were once thought to be. It's disjoined the old belief that national culture and national sovereignty had to be one and the same thing. Now if that continues then the EU may well indeed facilitate the decline of the nation state, but the survival and even revival of national cultures."

So where does all this leave the nation state? The nation and the state were not always synonymous. The state, being an organizational form, could encompass several nations, while a nation, on the other hand, could be divided among several states. A nation, being a much more diffuse concept, is based on a common culture, history, sometimes but not always common territory, sometimes but not always a common language. Perhaps, rather than ending or beginning, the history of the nation state is coming full circle. Dr Klaus Goetz politics lecturer at the London School of Economics - "Some people argue that what we are actually seeing is a return to earlier periods in European history where of course you had important nations on the one hand and you had states on the other hand, but where the two were not necessarily congruent in the form of the nation state. And to some extent I think it is fair to say that we are moving backwards to earlier periods."


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