The moth-eaten security blanket of nationalism

by Chris Bertram on May 29, 2005

As the French prepare to vote “non”, my friend Glyn Morgan has “a piece in the Independent about the constitution”: , the conservative nationalism of its opponents on both left and right, and the importance of enlargement. Unfortunately, he argues, faced with problems of demographic transition, immigration, international competition from India and China, and the unilateralism of the only global superpower, much of the left would prefer not to face facts:

bq. Befuddled by these challenges, many Europeans, particularly in France, have slipped their moorings from reality. Both the Eurosceptic left and the Eurosceptic right have reached for the security blanket – moth-holed and threadbare, though it is – of nationalism. The Eurosceptic left’s embrace of nationalism is particularly insidious, because it hides behind the language of social justice. Time was when the European left was outward-looking, internationalist, and concerned with the least well-off, no matter where they lived. In Europe today, the least well-off are to be found primarily in central and eastern Europe. European enlargement, one of the greatest achievements of post-war Europe, offers these victims of history a life-line into the modern democratic world. That’s the reason for admitting Turkey.



abb1 05.29.05 at 4:40 am

…In Europe today, the least well-off are to be found primarily in central and eastern Europe.

He may want to visit Toulon or Marseille one of these days.

Anyhow, regardless of the EU constitution, what’s wrong with adding a bit of nationalism to ‘the language of social justice’? I don’t see any problem, don’t think it’s insidious at all, quite healthy, in fact.

If you really are concerned about social justice, start with your local community, your province, your country. And tell Eastern Europeans to do the same in their Eastern European communities and countries.

That’s just common sense, and that’s the only way.


John 05.29.05 at 5:11 am

Sounds almost identical to EP Thompson’s Sunday Times piece arguing against British entry to the (then) EEC.


Danny 05.29.05 at 5:19 am

I’m puzzled by the description of Turkey as ‘victims of history’. Seems to me that Turkey is one of less-victimized countries of the world. Seems rather presumptuous to argue that they are incapable of achieving democracy without being part of the EU.

And yeah, it’s natural for people to believe that charity begins at home. One cannot seriously expect people to be concerned about people in different countries more than their neighbours.


Raimo 05.29.05 at 5:20 am

“That’s the reason for admitting Turkey”

Who said we’re admitting Turkey?

Nothing against Turks, but those talks will be stalled for years, and everyone knows it.


Chris 05.29.05 at 5:48 am

I have to say I’m puzzled by abb1’s “justice for insiders” as “common sense” comment since it seems at odds with the hostility to at least one sort of nationalism that he or she regularly displays in comments on other threads.

And raimo, there can be a good reason for admitting Turkey even if it is not likely that Turkey will be admitted.


yabonn 05.29.05 at 6:08 am

The Eurosceptic left’s embrace of nationalism is particularly insidious, because it hides behind the language of social justice.
The alternative given here is between free, free, free markets or nationalism, not a fait way to put the problem, imo.

There is some nationalist who vote no to europe, but then, they always have. The difference this time is that some see a way to wipe the smile off chirac’s face, get rid of raffarin, and generally share the unpleasantness. Some other feel the constitution is tilted right. Some again conflate the consitution and some recent outsourcing. Etc, etc, etc.

I’m personally voting yes, trying hard not to think about Supermenteur and his intensely, amazingly, ferociously mediocre prime minister.


abb1 05.29.05 at 6:11 am

There is a clear difference between ethnic nationalism (militant ethnic nationalism, especially) and communal economic nationalism.

International solidarity is a good thing too, of course, but hardly the same priority.


yabonn 05.29.05 at 6:13 am

Ugh. Sorry for the typos.

Mornin’. Coffee.


jonathan 05.29.05 at 6:35 am

It is true that both sides on the constitution-discussion are busy with nationalism. In France and Holland this is necessary if the politicians want to reach out to the people, unfortunatly.
It is true that most Europeans are nationalist when it comes to interests, but this is the power and dynamics of Europe. This should not be changed whatsoever.
About the poorer, and worse-off of the world. In this day and age of global competition it seems a bad investement…and i’m not just being cynical.


European 05.29.05 at 7:05 am

Your friend Glyn Morgan’s smug, condescending tone is one of the reasons many people – IMO, justifiably – feel suspicious of the project, sensing that they are being sold a dud.

On balance I would probably vote “yes” if my country had not already ratified the Constitution, but I understand where many of the “no” side are coming from. Intellectually dishonest articles like this (in the Independent, yet) do the Constitution no service.

And anyway, who are the British to lecture the rest of us Europeans on the evils of “nationalism”? The country which invented jingoism, the country of football hooliganism, of the British rebate, the country which has rejected the Euro, the Schengen treaty, etc.?

I would feel better about the Constitution if the Brits, and a few others, were made to leave the Union until they learn to be Europeans.


jacob 05.29.05 at 7:40 am

If you’re that convinced Marseille is amongst the poorest parts of Europe, i suggest you visit my hometown of Lodz.


seth edenbaum 05.29.05 at 7:48 am

“… But, contrary to the claims of its supporters, the new European Constitution is not a step toward a stronger Europe, but will actually lessen European influence on the world stage. And that’s but one of the reasons why American progressives should be hoping French voters reject it next month. Let me explain why:

Although the new Constitution gives Europe a reinforced, lengthened presidency and its first European foreign minister, far from strengthening the voice of Europe in the World this Constitution would weaken it. Why? Because the requirements for adopting a common foreign policy are so restrictive. As the former Socialist Defense Minister of France, Jean-Pierre Chevenement (who resigned in protest over France’s support for the first Gulf War) has repeatedly pointed out during the current campaign, under the Constitution the crucial role France played at the United Nations in opposing the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq would no longer be possible. Not only would a country like France no longer have the possibility of expressing its own view of the situation, but the Constitution restricts the ability of any member of the U.N. Security Council (like France) which is also a member of the E.U., to take a position contrary to that adopted by the European Commission. And the complicated weighting system for adopting policy within the Commission makes it possible for a handful of countries to veto any expression on foreign policy. You will recall that, in the leadup to the invasion of Iraq, George Bush was able to buy the support of a majority of European countries (by bribing the Eastern Europeans) for the war. Under the Constitution, the U.S. would, in effect, be able to buy a veto bloc of countries to avoid an independent role for Europe that is critical of Washington. Moreover, the Constitution specifically makes the E.U. subordinate to the authority and policies of NATO for foreign, defense, military, and security policy. This double hobbling makes a strong European voice in the world impossible–unless it supports the views and adventures of Washington, capital of the world’s only “hyper-power” (to borrow the coinage of former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine.)”
Doug Ireland


MNPundit 05.29.05 at 9:20 am

I idly wonder how much of the discontent is Europe today in general, is the result of having to deal with things Americans have been dealing with for much longer, namely: sizeable minority populations that are economically disadvantage.

It’s depressing when you think of the success (or lack of it) in our own efforts to overcome this.

Of course, I don’t know Europe much at all so this is just an outsider looking in.


P O'Neill 05.29.05 at 10:21 am

He can’t be arguing that the world offers no examples of economic and political progress in a country in the absence of that country joining a political union, can he?


roger 05.29.05 at 10:32 am

The secular nation was, in Europe, one of the great achievements of the French revolution. The discontent with the idea of Europe has to do precisely with the gradual seizure of economic power by a coterie of technocats, and the consequent disempowering of the populations of the various European nations — with the target being labor, first and foremost. It seems to me that it is only wise to ask questions about the scale of governance beyond which a people lose their ability to affect their destiny because, hey, they lose their identity as a people (which isn’t the same as ethnic identity… this was the whole point of the nation ideal) — that is, they lose the mechanisms that have grown up within the nation form, trading them for… well, for what? A trading bloc and monetary power that benefits the investor class? human rights commissions that are headed, with blind bureaucratic rationality, by groups that are entitled to the power not by any committment to human rights (see Berlosconi’s party), but because they merely exist in the organization?
The reasons to vote for Europe aren’t leftist, but, sadly, those of realpolitik — the creation of a counterweight to the U.S. and to China. I don’t see the point in disguising this with the glitter of progressive rhetoric.


Tom T. 05.29.05 at 10:40 am

The Ireland quote that Mr. Edenbaum posted is interesting, in that it appears to criticize majoritarian rule and minority veto power simultaneously.


Matt 05.29.05 at 1:00 pm

“Conservative nationalism…on the left” ??

Um, like who? Fidel Castro? Have you talked to any French people lately? More here:


Jack 05.29.05 at 1:04 pm

1. Most political positions are in fact in favour of particular settlements rather than the principles used to explain preference for it over another. So right wingers are only in favour of free markets to a limited extent and left wingers are only in favour of helping the poor in so far as it doesn’t disadvantage the only quite poor. Time was when Japan was the low production cost country and Ireland and Spain were the poor we had to deal with.

2.National governments really don’t make the interesting decisions any more. Voter interest is low and there is precious little to choos between the parties. However they use Brussels as as scapegoat despite being behind many of its worst excesses, the council of ministers for example.

3. Being a hyperpower has never done anyone much good. People don’t like you, the chippy pick fights with you and you get caught wearing the emperor’s new clothes.

4. There has been remarkably little debate about individual issues within the constitution. The problem with it being such a large sweeping document is that most of the things that people say about it are true. It does, as far as I can tell, tidy up a lot of existing treaties. It also does new stuff. Surely there ought to be three documents — a shorter constitution, a clean up of the existing treaties and new measures.

5. Whose idea was it to get valery Giscard D’Estaing to write the thing?

6. More power to the parliament!


abb1 05.29.05 at 1:55 pm

actually I haven’t been to Marseille, but I did spend a few hours in Toulon a few years ago and it was rather shocking; I understand that Marseille is also economically depressed area, but maybe not as much, I don’t know.

What’s with Lodz? I hear that Eastern Germans now go to Poland looking for work, so how bad could it be?


yabonn 05.29.05 at 3:00 pm

It’s no. Et merde.


SamChevre 05.29.05 at 8:09 pm

It seems to me that the fundamental problem with “Europe” and with the Constitution is that the basic structural questions were not debated or decided in any coherent fashion, and the Constitution made the problem worse. The policies followed were less of a problem than the structure: it was entirely unclear what the EU had control over, what each nation had control over, and whether and how that could change.

The American Constitution originally, by contrast, was about structure, and was designed primarily to ensure that “who does what” and “how is it decided” was clear and acceptable to the component states. Compromises (like the Senate, the Electoral College, and the 3/5 rule) were adopted so that the decision-making process would be tolerable to all the component states. (Admittedly, the experiment was only partly successful; eventually, the powerful part of the nation attacked the weaker part, and used its military power to force a change in policy and structure that was to its advantage.)


CWK 05.29.05 at 8:15 pm

Interesting discussion. From my German expat perspective, it’s either Poverty or Resistance for Europeans.

I have not yet been to Lodz, but to Marseille, to some of the many devastated and dying parts of East Germany, and to truly poor areas, eg Lesotho in Southern Africa, rural Iran, rural China. And let me tell you, there’s no “winning” this competition. But there is a reminder of the politico-economic question underlying the EU Constitution: Poverty or Resistance. Do you want a neoliberalised, deregulated Europe where corporatist crusaders run rampant and call it freedom? The answer to which the French just gave – and I would have too, if Berlin had not just ratified it.

Central Europe’s still blessed with a middle/lower-middle class, but things on the continent are changing fast. Here’s but one illustration: A growing number of young German academics, scientists and physicians are leaving the country: No jobs or low-pay jobs, growing academic chaos, rising costs and no long-term stability or prospects. So we go overseas. Take medicine: Young Czech and Polish doctors are coming in to take on the poorly paid “House positions” that German hospitals create (as they are loathe to pay the sums for Federal regulated jobs). For my East European friends these are still good jobs with a variety of rewards. For Germans they don’t even pay the rent. This is what’s happening right now: A kind of “poverty-adjustment” as Alphonse van Worden and others on Long Sunday ( have already pointed out.

So comparing poverty is not the point. The point is to resist the redistribution of wealth and power that only makes things worse – and to come up with an intelligent alternative.


UreKismet 05.29.05 at 9:33 pm

The left felt inclined to vote non, because they would rather try and stop the tide of economic rationalism within their borders than trust other nations many of which have already succumbed to this disease to help them resist. Sure they are tilting at windmills since there is every chance that a leftish administration would be more successful at turning the clock back to 19th century laissez faire economics than any conservatives could. The problem is a world wide one, that is democracies elect the sort of crowd pleasing unprincipled charlatans that no one wants to have rule them. Yet any alternative appears worse.
We can be sure that some of the most frustrated supporters of oui will be BushCo’s backers for whom patriotism is merely a tool to sell their corporate hegemony to the US electorate. The less barriers between trading nations the better unless one is using the barriers to beat a weaker opponent into submission (eg Cuba). The most the French can really hope for is to hang on to some of their social safety net until the ‘global economy’ implodes in the economic rationalist version of stagflation, in this case most likely a situation where low inflation and state spending doesn’t translate into increased productivity it in fact reduces productivity. Then we will have travelled full circle thanks to the fools that think they can make a science out of complex human interactions.


Dick Fitzgerald 05.29.05 at 10:43 pm

If anyone would read the proposed constitution it will be clear that it’s an economic blueprint for neoliberalism. It’s exactly the project that, e.g., many SouthAamerican populations have now rejected, based on bitter experience.


Jim Miller 05.30.05 at 8:42 am

I should begin by saying — as I have on my web site — that I wish the Europeans well and for that reason hope that they will reject the proposed constitution.

But then let me turn to what I found most interesting in the opinion piece, its use of language.

Morgan claims that “Without the EU, Europeans can kiss goodbye to security and prosperity.” This makes security and prosperity lovers or perhaps relatives. (Yes, the claim is dubious. too.)

Farther down we learn that Europeans have “slipped their moorings from reality”. (I’ll let those more in touch with nautical matters decode that, if possible.)

Next we come to my favorite, the “security blanket – moth-holed and threadbare, though it is – of nationalism”. Those who know a little history will be struck by Morgan’s claim that nationalism is a security blanket, something to comfort toddlers. Others, like me, will wonder who the moths are in this metaphor, and why the Europeans did not protect the blanket with mothballs.

Then we learn that “European enlargement” offers Central and Eastern Europe a “life-line into the modern democratic world”. Without the enlargment, then these nations would drown in, well, I am not sure what they would drow in.

But I shouldn’t have all the fun here. I’ll leave “recipe”, “trumpets”, and “antidote” for the rest of you to play with.

Am I being unfair here? Should I take Morgan’s arguments more seriously? I don’t think so. Consider, for example Morgan’s belief that security and prosperity” are central goals for everyone. It should be possible, even at such narrow places at the Harvard Government department, to find a few who would disagree on their universality. And at least a few besides me must have noticed Morgan’s acceptance of low birth rates in Europe as something impossible to change.

Morgan and I do agree on one point: The thinking on much of the European left is not impressive. And that is unfortunate.


roger 05.30.05 at 10:41 am

The best article to read about France in the British newspapers, I think, is Will Hutton’s analysis pre the vote.
eu/story/0,7369,1494650,00.html As he points out, the problem in France and Germany right now isn’t that the economies are being held down by lack of the Thatcher spirit — but by laws that keep both countries from participating in the global housing bubble. It is that bubble which has kept the American economy going.

Here’s the heart of Hutton’s case:
“A more obvious explanation stares European governments in the face, but nobody dares to act. The heart of British consumer spending growth is the withdrawal of equity from our houses; now that the housing market is slowing down, predictably there is a slowdown in spending. But the apparatus that supports equity withdrawal in Britain – a high-transaction housing market, low stamp duty, financial institutions ready to offer 100 per cent mortgages, the ‘Tesco approach’ to loan finance and even the concept of the overdraft – is completely absent in France, Germany and Italy. They retain the rules that we used to have in the Fifties and Sixties, and because liquidity in the housing market is so poor (transaction costs in all three countries exceed 10 per cent of the value of the property), lenders are more risk-averse.”

Outside of that particular factor, Hutton’s larger point is that this is a typical Keynesian crisis of overproduction and underconsumption. Unfortunately, the EU economic mandarins don’t see it like that, and are obsessed with keeping national deficits down and the specter of inflation.

I’m quite psyched by the non, actually. Jospin, d’Estaing, Chirac, a sort of evil three muskateers — were bucked. As Fabius put it in November, what kind of constitution runs to 500 pages? Now, if the PS has any sense left, they will put a final stake in the heart of Jospin and his associates and make a real play for power, based on the obvious feeling, in France, that the place should be a nation, plus a determination to accomodate the needs of a social democracy with the needs of a growth oriented economy. The latter formula does entail freeing up the credit market to some extent, and probably reflating, but not the assimilation of American style inequality.


Raimo 05.30.05 at 11:25 am

“even the concept of the overdraft – is completely absent in France, Germany and Italy.”

I don’t know about France and Italy, but overdafts, instalment loans, credit cards, and many other kinds of consumer credit have been freely available in Germany for as long as I can remember, Roger.


roger 05.30.05 at 12:24 pm

Raimo, you are right. I blurred Hutton’s points about Italy and France — which are specific to the limits on the market in housing — with his point about France and Germany — that is, the traditional problem of overproduction/underconsumption. Separate but overlapping issues.


Raimo 05.30.05 at 1:12 pm

Roger, he does have a point about real estate in Germany, because most Germans live in rented accommodation, and never own a home of their own. And the ones that do own property don’t use it to finance consumption in quite the same way or extent that Brits or Americans appear to do.

But even if they did, they still wouldn’t be spending if they feared their job might be gone tomorrow.


Michele 05.30.05 at 6:52 pm

I don’t think of the Eastern Europeans as victims of anything. Two years after WWI, right after its creation, Poland declared war on practically all of its neighbours: Germany, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine.

They wanted more territory and were very willing to take advantage of the fact that some of their neighbours had been through the bloodiest war in history to get it.


Antoni Jaume 05.31.05 at 2:00 pm


“As Fabius put it in November, what kind of constitution runs to 500 pages?”

The one of Alabama?


Comments on this entry are closed.