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Europe's Dangerous Creation Myth


At Politico Europe, historian Timothy Snyder deconstructs the creation myth of the modern-day European nation-state. According to Snyder, states like Germany, France, and Britain think of themselves as enlightened republics that learned from the follies of two world wars to become progressive nations prioritizing human rights, peace, and egalitarian prosperity. But as Snyder argues, this myth – frequently invoked by both liberal and conservative Europeans alike – ignores Europe’s colonial past and its present-day integration and interdependence. Here’s an excerpt:

Whether they are friends or enemies of the EU, Europeans believe in the fable of the wise nation. According to this narrative, European nation-states have a long and rich history. In particular, these nation-states learned from World War II that war is bad, and so bound themselves together in its aftermath in peaceful cooperation.

Friends of the European project like this fairy tale, because it tells a story of learning and progress, and confers a sense of superiority over Americans. But enemies of the EU like this narrative just as much, because it suggests that the nation-state was always present and was the agent that made decisions. If a nation-state chose to enter the EU, they reason, it can choose at any moment to exit.

And yet the fable of the wise nation is false. The history of the nation-state in Western and Central Europe is practically nonexistent; in Eastern Europe, it is longer but hardly glorious. Nation-states in the Balkans set the stage for World War I, and in its aftermath six new nation-states were created in Eastern Europe, all of which had been removed from the map by the middle of World War II.

Image: Delates at the signing of the Treaty of Rome, 1957. Via Politico Europe.


The article’s conclusion is interesting:

The notion that a British nation-state can be created in the 21st century is thus not conservative, but radical. British society stands before a leap into an unexamined future. Europe has prevented the dissolution of the British Empire from reaching the British Isles. Should Brexit take place, there will likely be no Britain, since Scotland and Northern Ireland will depart, but rather an England. This England will not have “exited” anything. English people will continue to negotiate with the EU, from weakness rather than strength.

Brexiteers imagine that England will somehow revive a British Empire. The options are indeed integration on the one hand and empire on the other, but the empires in question are no longer British. The EU insulates its citizens from the empires of today: China, America, Russia; Amazon, Google, Facebook. Should Brexit take place, today’s Brexiteers will be tomorrow’s agents of foreign empire. Some of them already are.

The historical function of the EU is to gather together the fragments of failed European empires. To forget this basic historical truth, as Europeans — and Britons in particular — have managed to do, is to risk the very form of life that they take for granted.