Mar 22, 2019, 02.11 PM
Amid the respite accorded to the United Kingdom for an “orderly Brexit”, Italy’s signing into China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and other assorted and allied developments, it appears that the future of the European Union (EU) is at stake. The “supranational” body or union, conceived after the end of the Second World war and reified soon after, was in the nature of a lofty and noble attempt to bring an end to Europe’s fratricidal wars, a corrective to balance of power politics and perhaps above all, an attempt to tame if not transcend nationalism.
But, now after many decades since the inception of the EU construct, it appears to be floundering. If and when Brexit happens, it will constitute a real test of the EU’s longevity.
There are many reasons for the frailty and fragility of the EU. The salient among these is the quest for the return of nationalism and sovereignty that, among other things, accord certainty to people. Yes, there are economic reasons of political economy that account for the structural weakness of the entity, but the longing for certainty could be held to be the most significant one.
Inhering in the EU, like the coeval mega-historical phenomenon of globalisation, was a structural dissipation and amelioration of sovereignty and its concomitant, nationalism. Both, in quasi-retreat now, implied loss of certainty and even control by denizens of places that were impacted by these the most. Be it the massive churn and movement of peoples from across the world largely to the West, or massive capital flows (hot capital) that crisscrossed the world, free trade and so on, the traditional, “neat” container, the nation-state, wherein since its inception, the state corresponded to the nation, generally, was under assault or in retreat.
The politico-economic and cultural shifts and societal changes that this entailed, especially in many Western countries meant certain disorientation among people. Overlaid by a putative or, more accurately suspended between the 'Third Industrial Revolution' and a putative Fourth one, the confluence of these trends impacted negatively and disproportionately, the “working classes” of the affected countries. So powerful and such was the magnitude of the trends and developments in contention that these outpaced politics and extant political paradigms. In fact, politics in the West became ossified and stunted which, among other things, caused many people, especially the working classes to feel, or even actually be, at the mercy of these forces and structural trends. It is here that the trajectory of “identity politics” was born and begotten.
Identity politics sought refuge and reassurance in an “organic” and “pure” identity. In other words, identity was essentialised wherein people desired or even craved a return to the “good old days of the past”, so to speak. This axiomatically entailed a robust demand for nationalism and sovereignty with Brexit symbolising and reflecting it, in all its eloquence.
That there is nothing “organic” or “pure” about identity is well known but the wellspring of either is emotion(s) and these are hard, if not impossible to contain, especially through reason and rationality (of which the state is an expression of). Given the “irrationality” of identity politics and the powerful emotive forces that underlie it, the tour de force of this kind of politics is perhaps only set to grow. The more it becomes the dominant paradigm of politics and political life, the more tenuous and fragile the European Union will become, leading ultimately to its collapse, an outcome that will give short shrift to the so-called “post-national” age and will again strengthen the foundations of the nation-state, an end that is not entirely salubrious, to say the least.
But, all said and done, there is a putative silver lining on the horizon. This lies in politics. If it was politics of a certain type that begat identity politics and its many discontents, it is in politics that redemption might lie for the EU. But, for this to happen and fructify, there has to be a paradigm shift if not a veritable revolution in the way politics is conceived and practised. The “new” politics must be of nature which breaks from past shibboleths and takes on identity politics in an idiom that smells of roses. The world we inhabit, in many senses, is a new world and the new politics must speak to it and seize the initiative not merely for a salvage job but also by way of “ creative destruction”.
In the final analysis, the European Union is a bold and a beautiful experiment in transcending narrow and parochial identities, the traditional nation state-centrism and sovereignty and nationalism. It must neither crack nor break. For the entity to survive coherently and as a robust and significant player on the world stage, the new politics referred to here has to reified and catapulted into action now. Tomorrow may be too late!
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)