As Nationalism rises, Europe dies by Robert Menasse

As Nationalism Rises, Europe Dies
By Robert Menasse

What is the Old World? What is the New World? Until recently, the answer to both questions has been obvious. The United States is the New World, the “land of the free,” settled and founded by people who left a Europe full of political repression, economic backwardness and cultural decadence. In comparison, Europe is the Old World — an entire continent that divided and destroyed itself during two world wars.

Initially, the relationship between the two provided fodder for a few jokes. Henry James, the American literary giant who relocated to Europe, wrote in his 1878 novel “The Europeans” about an encounter between dynamic, nouveau riche Americans and culturally wealthy, ossified Europeans, which leads to some amusing situations. In the novel, James didn’t just portray the differences between the Old and the New, he also anticipated the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Since then, however, the world has turned. The New has grown old and the Old has reinvented itself.

The idea of the European unification project, which led to the European Union of today, is the New — the politically sui generis. It is a logical yet radical conclusion drawn from historical experience, and it makes possible (or would make possible) a future of freedom and peace instead of cyclical suffering.
The rooting of this idea in the soil of Europe more than 60 years ago has proved to be a greater leap for mankind than the moon landing.

What made the European project revolutionary was that for the first time Europe wasn’t seeking to Europeanize the world, but rather itself. In so doing, it could become — as an experimental project with a foundation of enlightenment — the avant-garde for a peaceful world. The “could,” though, is the problem. The difference between idea and implementation in Europe has become just as large as the gap between the beauty of the United States Constitution and the extensive hardship and suffering of the American reality under President Trump.

To understand the “self-Europeanization of Europe,” it helps to compare today’s European project to the old European project: the United States, which has in many ways not moved beyond the Old World ideals that contributed to its founding and formative years.

Back then, European colonialists used violence to capture the territory that would become the United States. Their successors kept that territory united by waging a bloody civil war, helping to create and sustain a nation that would eventually go on to enforce the interests of its elites around the world, with military means if necessary.

Today, the new European project, the European Union, takes the opposite approach: It enlarges its territory by way of voluntary accession, unites it through treaties aimed at the establishment of shared legal standards, seeks to overcome nationalism and, being a project for peace, is unwilling to enforce its interests with military means.

The founders of the European Union wanted to put a stop to the unending violence and aggression that had scarred Europe’s long history. And after 1945, it was clear where the greatest danger lay: nationalism. Competition among so-called national interests for markets, resources and spheres of influence always leads to national conflict, whether in the form of trade wars or direct military confrontation.

As these wars have persisted, peace agreements have proved useless, as have international organizations such as the League of Nations and the United Nations. That was the painful lesson of the generation that, from the end of the 19th century to 1945, lived through nationalism, the German wars of unification and the two world wars, the last of which nearly destroyed civilization and gave rise to the worst crimes against humanity the world has ever seen, including the horrors of Auschwitz.

All that was to be made obsolete, a hope that gave rise to the idea of trying something completely new, namely the introduction of a postnational order, which, in practice, would evolve without the political presuppositions of the Old World, to which the United States now belongs.

Every thinking person in Western Europe is grateful for the enormous contribution of the United States to the liberation of Europe from fascism. But was America’s involvement in the war really just about liberating nations from fascism? The United States, after all, didn’t have much of a problem with Spanish or Portuguese fascism. Francisco Franco in Spain and the Portuguese strongman António de Oliveira Salazar were American allies right up until their deaths in the 1970s. (These countries were eventually liberated and democratized by the European Union.) In Chile, the democratically elected president of a sovereign nation was overthrown by the C.I.A. and replaced by a fascist dictatorship. The proud and wealthy country of Argentina was plunged into bankruptcy and misery by a fascist regime supported by the United States.

Those policies and the dozens of other military interventions initiated by the United States in the years since 1945 made clear to Europeans that such an aggressive, self-interested approach was outmoded and could never lead to sustainable peace, only to more generations robbed of their futures.

As a result, the European Union they created is decidedly and unequivocally antifascist, and not only in instances in which fascism lies in contradiction to the bloc’s economic interests, but also in situations where fascism could perhaps be expedient for the pursuit of the union’s own political interests.

The formerly Stalinist states of Eastern Europe profited enormously from joining the European Union following the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Their membership ensured that their regained freedom would result not in chaos, but in growing prosperity and a transition to the rule of law — even as the United States repeatedly sought to play Eastern and Western European countries against each other.

The United States has never ratified the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a very Old World stance. In Europe, meanwhile, the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights is a legally binding addendum to the Treaty of Lisbon, which functions like a constitution for the bloc.

On this point, I can imagine every enlightened American saying: I want to be European, a citizen of the New World.
The idea pursued by the founders of the European peace project was as simple as it was brilliant: to interlink the economies of European nation-states and submit them to joint rules and controls to such an extent that no member could pursue selfish interests against another without harmful consequences. The aim was to subsume nationalism to practiced mutuality, with the resulting community of nations making Europe’s smaller countries more powerful than they would be on their own.

As mentioned, this idea was born as a consequence of historical experience, but it soon became clear that in the face of new and approaching challenges it was the most sensible concept for a free world. Certainly one of these challenges is steering the dynamic of globalization. And ultimately, globalization means nothing more than the demolition of national borders and the annulment of national sovereignty.
In this context, the European idea of a postnational political organization is the only one that has kept up with the times. In comparison, the national superpower approach practiced by the United States looks old-fashioned. That’s why it would be completely nonsensical to construct a newly unified Europe as a neo-imperial superpower in imitation of the United States.

The idea of the European project’s founding generation has — small step by small step — made astonishing progress: a shared market, a shared currency, shared laws, a shared administration and a shared bureaucracy. And it has led to what for Europe is an unusually long period of peace.

Yet the European project hasn’t yet led to a truly shared democracy. We have a supranational European Parliament, but we can vote only for national parties. And our Parliament has no right to initiate legislation. We also have a supranational executive in the form of the European Commission, but within the framework of European institutions, the Lisbon Treaty has transformed it into a sorrowful secretariat of the national heads of state and government.
Our most powerful institution is the European Council, where the national heads of state and government and the national ministers of certain portfolios make decisions that are sold as compromises among the member states, but which are, in reality, hurdles to a joint European policy.

The European political project, whose founding idea remains far ahead of global politics, is essentially trapped in an unproductive contradiction between postnational development and a re-emergent nationalism, between shared politics and the national selfishness of the member states.
There can be no compromise, just as there can be no middle ground between being pregnant and not being pregnant. For a long time, I thought that Europe was pregnant with the future. But the symptoms have become increasingly obvious: Europe is infected with a disease of history. The disease of nationalism.

This will lead to the death of the union. The United States continues to wrestle for global dominance with other world powers, and will do so militarily if required. Meanwhile, progressive Europe, which turned its back on imperialism and redefined itself as a project for peace, risks becoming a continent of helpless countries, a collection of bread crumbs on the table of global power. There will be significant misery and dismay in Europe — so much, in fact, that even “never again” could happen again. And everything would have to start over from the beginning.
We won’t be able to save the planet if we can’t save the New World. And I have now begun to suffer from my love for the New World. For Europe.

Robert Menasse
Oct. 8, 2019

 

Biographie

Menasse étudie la littérature allemande, la philosophie et les sciences politiques à Vienne, Salzbourg et Messine. Il soutient une thèse de doctorat en 1980 intitulée « Hermann Schürrer : le type du marginal littéraire » (en allemand : Der Typus des Außenseiters im Literaturbetrieb. Am Beispiel Hermann Schürrer).
De 1981 à 1988, il est assistant dans l’institut de théorie de la littérature à l’université de São Paulo au Brésil.
Depuis, il exerce l’activité de traducteur du portugais vers l’allemand. Il écrit aussi des romans, des essais, sur la culture autrichienne mais aussi des livres pour enfants.
Très concerné par la politique et la culture autrichienne, il publie couramment ses points de vue dans la presse autrichienne et allemande.
En 1998, il reçoit le Prix national autrichien pour l’essai et utilise l’argent gagné afin de relancer le

Récompenses

1990 : Prix Heimito von Doderer
1994 : Prix Alexander-Sacher-Masoch
1998 : Prix d’État autrichien pour la promotion de la culture
1999 : Prix Grimmelshausen
2002 : Prix Joseph Breitbach
2002 : Prix Friedrich Hölderlin
2002 : Prix Lion Feuchtwanger
2002 : Prix Marie Luise Kaschnitz
2003 : Prix Erich-Fried
2013 : Prix Heinrich Mann
2017 : Prix du livre allemand (Deutscher Buchpreis) pour Die Hauptstadt 2017
2019 : Médaille Carl-Zuckmayer (de)prix Jean Améry, qui est remis en 2000 à Franz Schuh.

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