I admit it. I’m a terrible Remainer. Sure, I hung a ‘Vote Remain’ poster in my window. Sure, I made the unprecedented step of discussing politics with my family in order to stress the insanity of voting Leave. And sure, when the United Kingdom (well, England and Wales) did vote to leave the European Union, I fell into a genuine period of mourning for my country and continent.
And yet when a march in favour of a final vote on Brexit takes place only 20 minutes from my doorstep, I somehow find myself over an hour late. By the time I reached the rendezvous on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile I discovered that my fellow Remainers were already heading home, their assorted EU flags trailing behind them in the early spring breeze. To my shame, I had missed the entire march.
Embarrassed, I was ready to write the day off and scurry back to my flat. But the sight of all those EU flags stirred a curious feeling inside me. After years of looking upon the UK’s near-ubiquitous Union Jack with little but disconnect and discomfort, I was surprised to feel something like pride rising through me.
For one thing, I admire the courage it takes to hoist the much-maligned EU flag in Britain at the moment. For millions of my Daily Mail-reading compatriots the marchers might as well have raised the Hammer and Sickle over Scotland’s capital. For another, I’ve always had a sneaking aesthetic admiration for the blue-and-gold banner. In a world where the migraine-inducing Maryland flag is allowed to exist, Europe’s placid halo of stars is a refreshingly understated work of vexillography.
But there was something deeper to the pride I felt. It was the feeling that I belonged, spiritually if no longer politically, to something bigger than myself – to a project that embraces unity and cooperation over division and suspicion. To a project that is attempting to transform a continent of war into one of peace. In short, I experienced a flash of what might be called European patriotism.
I say ‘flash’ because it only lasted a few seconds. Realising the starry flag had made me starry-eyed, I quickly snapped myself out of it. Why? Not because I think greater European integration and unity is unachievable – far from it. But if Europe’s future is a question of integration and unity, then European patriotism isn’t the answer.
This suggestion might run contrary to expectations. Surely, at a time when Europe is wracked with nationalism and distrust, a sense of shared pride is essential to overcome these divisions? After all, if Europe is to succeed then Europeans must want it to succeed: there needs to be some passion in the European project.
Right now the EU summons about as much passion among its supporters as a trip to the dentist. Brussels has become a byword for faceless bureaucracy – a ‘boring blob,’ as the European Council on Foreign Relations puts it. “We made a mistake,” admitted European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans in 2016. “We believed we could fill people’s heads with facts and forget their hearts.”
The results of this neglect are all too clear. Across Europe, it’s the emotive appeals of nationalist parties that have succeeded in capturing hearts (though they’ve largely neglected the filling-heads-with-facts bit). However much we may reject the politics, we can’t deny that the enthusiasm at a National Front rally or an AfD march is genuine. The flag waving, anthem singing and weird costumes represent real political passion. It’s precisely what makes nationalism such a potent and dangerous force to reckon with at the moment.
By comparison, Europe’s pro-Union forces seem a little lifeless. This year, Italy’s Democratic Party secured less than 20% of the vote in an election dominated by the Eurosceptic and xenophobic Northern League. The UK’s formally pro-Europe Labour Party has withered into a spineless stooge of the Conservative Party following the vote for Brexit. Even the victories seem lacklustre – the elections of Emmanuel Macron in France and Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia last year were marred by low turnouts.
With European integrity facing such glum prospects, Timmermans and many others believe European patriotism could be the answer – not just for reviving interest in the EU, but for depriving nationalism of its emotive appeal.
It seems like an elegant solution. Combat nationalism with patriotism: keep the passion, lose the hate. But it’s here that I start to get worried. Yes, it’s very easy to denounce nationalism as aggressive and artificial, and to praise patriotism as peaceful and natural. Politicians do it all the time. But at what point does national pride switch from noble patriotism to evil nationalism?
The question is trickier than you might think. After all, both patriotism and nationalism talk of pride, love, duty and service towards countries that are frequently indistinguishable. Is it nationalistic when flag-waving supporters of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn take to the streets? Then what about when pro-Europe supporters do the same?
Sooner or later we have to acknowledge an awkward truth: there’s no difference between patriotism and nationalism. Nationalism is simply the name we give to national pride when we disagree with it. Pick up any newspaper: ‘we’ are portrayed as loyal patriots, while ‘they’ – whoever happens to be in our country’s bad books right now – are fanatical nationalists. And as reassuring as it might be to distinguish between patriotism’s good and bad qualities, it no more proves such a distinction exists in reality than the fact that I have acted both kindly and selfishly in my life proves I am two different people.
This is why the idea of encouraging a European patriotism makes me uneasy. Don’t get me wrong – I loathe the political immaturity, economic idiocy and moral abandonment of Europe’s current rash of nationalists as much as anyone. But if we think we’re going to solve these nationalisms by building a bigger, better nationalism, we’re only fooling ourselves. No matter how noble the intentions, there’s no guarantee that our shiny new European patriotism wouldn’t end up resembling the very nationalisms it was intended to replace.
Don’t believe me? Take a look across the Atlantic: nearly 250 years ago, a similar project was underway with the creation of the United States. The country’s founding fathers, believing a healthy love of country to be essential to the success of their new state, tried to encourage a ‘noble patriotism’ of ‘virtue and wisdom … coveting neither power nor riches.’
They failed. In material terms, of course, the USA has gone from strength to strength (though Trump’s long-promised tariff war may soon see to that). But the aggressive, militaristic, oppressive patriotism of much of US political culture today bears an uncanny resemblance to the ‘delirious jealousy’ and ‘inflammatory ravings’ the founding fathers hoped their enlightened patriotism would prevent.
It didn’t take long for the rot to set in. As early as 1798 – only 22 years after the thirteen states declared their independence – politicians were already using patriotic appeals to whip up support for the oppressive Sedition Law, which prohibited, among many other things, any ‘scandalous or malicious writing or writings against the government.’ By the time of the 1812 war with Britain, the ‘genuine patriotism’ of the US government was demanding that citizens show unquestioning loyalty to the Commander in Chief. Trump would have been proud.
Europe is not the USA, you cry. True. But no state is immune to dangers of patriotism. In India, the universalist patriotism preached by Gandhi has become the mindless oppression exercised by Narendra Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. And here in Europe, the enlightened nationalist philosophy of Guiseppe Mazzini, ‘father of Italy’, sank within the space of a few decades to the murderous patriotism of Mussolini’s Fascist party.
There seems to be something about patriotism which makes it inherently unstable as a foundation for progressive, liberal politics. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic fixation with past glories. Or perhaps it’s the exclusionary nature of it – the obsession with who does and doesn’t belong, whose patriotism is real and whose is fake. Either way, as a political tool patriotism’s track record is nothing short of a horror show.
Now, picture yourself in Europe in the not-too-distant future. The election of the next president of the United States of Europe is underway. What’s to stop a European Donald Trump from stirring up a xenophobic, hateful European nationalism in order to win votes? We know from bitter experience that Europeans aren’t immune to such appeals. Would we hear chants of Europe First? Europe for Europeans?
This might all sound faintly ridiculous now. And yet it’s still too plausible for me to laugh.
These musings might seem to raise more questions than they answer. If the EU shouldn’t be a patriotic project, then how are people going to feel passionate about it? If I’m not proud of Europe and my European identity, why should I care about European integrity and unity? Why did I even bother trying to go to that march on the Royal Mile?
For me, the answer to these questions is simple. I care about the EU because I care about the principles that underlie it: peace and cooperation, democracy and human rights, sustainability and tolerance. And I’m passionate about the EU because I’m passionate about these principles. These aren’t European ideals, by the way; they’re universal. They should be cherished and championed wherever they appear, whether it’s Europe, South America or even deep in Orwellian China.
Do I support a united Europe? As the next stepping stone in our quest for a more united, peaceful world, of course I do. Not just because those goals are worth fighting for, but because Europe is currently the most promising place on earth to move beyond the tired, bloodstained ties of nationality. Unlike patriotism, achievements like the Schengen Area and European Convention on Human Rights provide a sound basis for pushing politics in this direction.
So the next time there’s a pro-Europe rally near me, I’ll still turn up. What’s more, I promise I’ll actually be on time. But any passion I feel for the European project won’t be for the flag, but for the universal principles it tries, however falteringly, to enshrine.