One of the best commentaries on the significance and consequences of Europe?s current financial and economic crisis appeared in the New York Times on May 21. Gabor Steingart?s ?It Takes a Crisis to Make a Continent? argues that we should understand what is going on in Europe today as part of a plodding process that is turning the European Union into something that will gradually replace the nation-state.
The nation-state, of course, is a European invention. Before the seventeenth century, centralized states simply did not exist. Europe then looked like much of the developing world now?although there were titular rulers (kings), they had little power over their territories and populations. Instead the main authority figures in most people lives were local lords (warlords in contemporary parlance) and ecclesiastical figures. But beginning in the seventeenth century a process of centralization and state-building began in Europe, followed a century or two later by the emergence of nationalism. By the nineteenth century, Europe was composed largely of nation-states?a form of political organization that proved much more successful in extracting and marshalling economic and military resources than its competitors. It was this form of political organization, of course, that enabled Europe to conquer much of the globe. And it was the obvious superiority of this form of political organization that led much of the rest of the globe to adopt it, even when lacking the background historical development that gave rise to it in Europe in the first place.
Having originated the form of political organization that defined the modern era, it is perhaps fitting that Europe should be the place where this form may be reaching its end. The combination of powerful, centralized states and nationalism proved ultimately explosive in Europe, giving rise to two world wars that almost destroyed the continent (as well as much of the rest of the world). After 1945, Europe began building new political forms and organizations meant to tame nation-states?but they may now be replacing them.
Steingart argues that what we are seeing today in Europe is the ?birth of a state.? Although the terminology is faulty (the EU is not a state in formation, but rather something different), the argument is not. As in the seventeenth century, late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century Europe has been undergoing the struggle between two types of political organization?modern nation-states and a post-modern alternative. Just as during the early modern period centralizing monarchs fought to overcome the political power of local, regional and religious leaders and the local, regional and religious loyalties of their people, so today do we see the EU struggling to overcome the powers of nation-states and the national loyalties of European citizens. As Steingart notes, it often takes a crisis to push political development forward?to give political entrepreneurs an opening to re-shape existing forms and loyalties. The current financial crisis has made Europe?s leaders confront something they knew but tried to ignore, namely the disjuncture between the EU?s economic and political development.
However, it is now clear that debt crises and economic mismanagement in one part of the EU cannot be ignored by the other parts?the continent is too intertwined for that. Europe?s leaders have thus been forced to deal head-on with the reality that if they do not want to go back, they must go forward: economic integration without political integration is a chimera. And so, in front of the sentiments of their citizens, they have decided to plod ahead and nudge the EU?s political development another step forward. From now on the economic and financial policies of any member country will be of direct concern to the others. The ?central? government in Brussels will exert much more oversight and power over ?local? level governments and leaders than ever before.
That European publics remain resistant to this is only to be expected. As during the great era of state building in the seventeenth century, popular sentiment today is a lagging indicator rather than a leading one. For better or worse, politics is often the shaper of societies rather than the other way around.
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, students of European history may well look at the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the way students of European history look at the early modern period today?as a time when Europe developed a new form of political organization that has the potential to reshape the globe.