It would appear, in hindsight, that the European Union, forged after the devastating world wars that consumed Europe in fratricidal conflicts fuelled by nationalism and balance of power politics, was more an attempt to tame nationalism than expunge it. This may have been both fundamentally practical, given the potency of nationalism, but also a folly that is now panning out in the Union.
The aspiration to tame nationalism might have been practical because the historical memory of the concept was fresh in Europe; it then could on have been erased and banishing it might even have meant its recrudescence. Through functional integration and gradualism, the aspiration might have morphed into taming nationalism. But, as the West’s ( except for outliers like Australia and Canada) descent into nativism and populism suggests, merely mellowing nationalism could have been a folly.
Against the backdrop of the return of the nationalism in the West, more poignantly in Europe, it is leaders like Emmanuel Macron who represent the best hope for the continent. He is cosmopolitan, unencumbered by past legacies and is beholden to both a world order that is not zero-sum and insular. Macron also has a vision for France that is at odds at bottoms up demand for a more parochial, inward-looking, and nationalist entity. Stripped of accretions, Europe is France and Germany complemented by a few other smaller entities (nations). So, whatever direction either take will determine the nature and future of the larger European Union. But, within this Franco-German combine (or core Europe), Germany and its politics, is fragmenting into the solvent of reaction and polarisation, it is perhaps Macron’s France that is the last holdout against these forces.
Can, the question, is Macron hold the forte so to speak?
But, for the French president to be a beacon amidst gloom and doom, he needs clarity of vision, a deft and a pragmatic approach to policy making and a bit of a review of himself.
I will dwell on each theme in reverse sequence.
Youth and idealistic exuberance can, at times, lead to what may be called a semblance of arrogance. This is perhaps what is happening to Macron. To obviate the perception of arrogance, Macron must mellow down in terms of attitude and approach and develop communication strategies and techniques that do not jar with people. He must not only be accessible but also come across as someone who the people of France can relate to and identify with. Having said this, communication skills can go only so far. Unless and until communication has substance, it is mere rhetoric and spin. What, the question here is, would constitute substance for Macron?
The young president of France must gain conceptual clarity on the nature of nationalism and structural clarity on the European Union. Broken down, this means that Macron must understand that nationalism cannot be wished away and his aspiration of cosmopolitanism, howsoever noble, at this stage in world history, remains just that: an aspiration. But this does not mean caving in to the pressures of nationalism. It means sublimating the concept and its emotional wellsprings and projecting them onto the larger Union. Herein lies the challenge for Macron whose nature is to fund a delicate balance defined by equipoise between the two, with the ultimate goal of a more expansive European identity.
The natural concomitant to the clarity of vision in terms of the conceptual and the emotional must lie in policy grids and frameworks which actually work for the people. These must be informed by the past, defined by the present and oriented towards the future, in ways that enhance peoples’ welfare, in the expansive sense of the term.
In combination, the admixture of “prescriptions” offered here might constitute a useful starting point to inject sobriety and proportion in Europe but, more importantly, redeem the entity, especially in its eyes. Europe and the European Union are too special and unique to be frittered away at the altar of competing nationalisms and consumed by these along with forces and clamour of nativist populism.
The challenge to salvage Europe is, counter-intuitively, exacerbated by the Democrat’s successes in the United States’ midterm elections. The Democrats, neither have a conceptual toolkit nor practical policy markers to deal with and counter Trumpism. In all likelihood, they will, if not mimic but take a leaf from Trump and bend to the forces of nativist populism in the United States. There then is no one in the West who can actually take on substantively these insalubrious forces and trends. With faith in himself, whose feature must be humility complemented by a robust understanding of the nature of challenge(s), Macron must gird his sleeves and set to save and redevelop project Europe.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)