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What Holds Europe Together?

Krzysztof Michalski


Solidarity and Freedom

Kenneth Murphy

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1The Europe Paper is right to focus on culture as a source of European solidarity. Thankfully, such solidarity can be cultivated; it is not something you either have or don’t have. Indeed, Europe’s history demonstrates how solidarity and national consciousness can arise when nurtured.

2It is a historical fact that the tendency towards amalgamation into larger political unions reached its climax between 1860 and 1870. During that decade, Germany and Italy united, the American Union was preserved, the Danubian Empire established itself in a form that lasted until 1918, Canada achieved a federal union, and the British Commonwealth came into being.

3After 1870, this movement toward unification was arrested. All true “nations” had, it seemed, been united. But this was a mere rationalization after the fact. It assumed that the amalgamation of peoples into larger unions required national consciousness to exist before national unity could be achieved.

4But when one examines the pre-1870 unifications closely, one sees that political union often preceded national consciousness. Such can be said of the states that forged the United States, of the cantons that entered the Swiss federation, of such unions as that of the Flemings and Walloons to form Belgium. Back then, political union did not depend upon ethnic or cultural homogeneity; on the contrary, peoples of different language, ethnic origin, religion, and history overcame particularism in order to unite.

5Around 1870 a centrifugal tendency took hold, and over the next century nationality was invoked to divide, rather than unite. As nationalism was understood before 1870, the movement towards unification had by no means been completed. Political federation of Belgium and Holland, of the Scandinavian states, and of the Balkan states were no more inconceivable than the union of Prussia and Bavaria, of Piedmont and the Papal states, of the Flemings and Walloons, or of Switzerland’s German, French, and Italian-speaking peoples.

6But these potential unions were not realized. Indeed, some unions disintegrated. Norway and Sweden separated; eight successor states arose in the Danube basin after the disintegration of the Habsburg Empire, seven on the western marches of the former Russian empire. Just a decade ago, Czechoslovakia divided into two countries and Yugoslavia into five, with two more chafing for independence. This centrifugal tendency remains strong even where union survives: sub-nationalist movements are powerful in Belgium, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

7Originating as a passion to overcome the particularism of petty states, the philosophy of nationalism during the twentieth century ended up justifying particularism. Where once it ameliorated conflicting loyalties, it proceeded to stoke separatist sentiments.

8Although exponents of this later nationalism imagined they were carrying on in the tradition of Washington, Cavour, and Bismarck, they were, in fact, reversing them. The older nationalism reached out for unity among particularists by cultivating a common consciousness, whereas latter-day nationalism emphasizes an exclusive particularism. The older nationalism of 1860–1870 supported political unification; nowadays, nationalist sentiment is an agent of disunion.

9The difference is one of inclusiveness versus exclusiveness. Under the older nationalist philosophy, a tenuous sense of common nationality was invoked in establishing political unions. As those unions came to be seen as, and were proven to be, beneficial, strong feelings of common solidarity developed. But there are no guarantees. Witness the anxiety in George Washington’s Farewell Address over whether the people would ever feel themselves to be not merely Virginians, but Americans.

10Opponents of the European Union forget how little developed the sense of national solidarity was when the British, the French, the Americans, the Germans, and the Italians achieved political unity. Seeing the powerful sense of nationality that developed under those unions—indeed, as their consequence—they assume, falsely, that only people who already possess a sense that they are one can, or should, be joined together politically.

11This stands history on its head. People can live together politically only if they have a strong national feeling, but the fusion of tribes into nations is inexplicable except on the hypothesis that national feeling develops from the experience of living together successfully. By treating strong nationalism as the cause, rather than the consequence, of political union, today’s latter-day nationalists promote a doctrine that divides mankind into ever-smaller particularist communities.

12Note that the type of nationalism that inspired larger political unions flourished in the interlude before the fall of the mercantilist conception of state policy. The period from 1776 to 1870 was the golden age of free trade and of political emancipation throughout the western world. It was an age when the reforming passion was centered on abolishing privileges, removing restraints, and restricting state authority; an age dominated by the conviction that humanity could achieve its promise through emancipation, rather than planning and regulation. It was in that age of diminishing political interference that so many great political unifications were achieved.

13Indeed, the correspondence between the ascendancy of liberal philosophy and political unification, and between authoritarian revival and political disunion, is striking. The question is whether it signifies a real correlation of cause and effect, or is merely a curious coincidence.

14This question matters today because enlargement of the EU, and the simultaneous quest for ever closer union, comes at a time when half of Europe has been liberated from squalid, dictatorial regimes. The thesis that the diminution of authoritarian government promotes unity and that its increase is divisive can be fortified by many suggestive historic examples. The American Revolution, for example, took place at the culmination of the mercantilist regime, and the colonists declared their credo in the Declaration of Independence in the same year—1776—that Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations.

15The American revolt was a powerful advertisement for the truths Smith taught; that an absentee government was exploiting the colonists by restrictive and discriminating laws; that King George III had established “an absolute tyranny over these states … cutting off our trade with all parts of the world.” It was the accumulation of these grievances that led to “separation.” Discord among the separated states, each exercising its own sovereignty, led, along with the writing of the U.S. Constitution, to their subsequent union.

16Examine the powers granted to America’s new national government, the powers denied to it, and the powers taken away from the states, and you find that the U.S. Constitution’s authors were inspired by the conviction that a federal union was an escape from the particularism of the sovereign states. They believed that the union could be maintained only if it, in turn, was a limited sovereign.

17In the Bill of Rights, which the American states demanded before they would ratify the Constitution, the federal government was denied the powers that were then recognized as the instruments of tyranny. In short, the union was a method of emancipating the people from regimentation by the separate states.

18So American history lends weight to the hypothesis that evolving political unity diminishes state authority. That presumption is supported by numerous other examples. Indeed, the young national monarchies in England and France found their greatest support among people seeking emancipation from the intimate tyranny of petty princes and local magnates. Unification of Germany and of Italy marked the culmination of experiments in customs unions and currency agreements that were clear expressions of a longing for relief from parochial depredations.

19This is also the pattern of Europe’s Union. As the authors of this paper elegantly demonstrate, economic growth and liberalization begins the process of unity. But to assure liberty, consciousness of the need for solidarity must run parallel with a consciousness for the desire for freedom.


Kenneth Murphy (London) is a Senior Fellow of Smolny Collegium, Saint Petersburg State University, Russia, and a Director and Editor in Chief of Project Syndicate, a global association of newspapers. Author of Unquiet Vietnam, London, 2005; Capitalism with a Comrade’s Face, Budapest, 1998; Retreat from the Finland Station, 1992.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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