But all is not well between the nation state and empire: centre and periphery have their rules which at times collide, as witnessed of late. Are there any possible guiding principles that could minimize the force of collision?…
In 1887 the optometrist Ludwik Zamenhof published the fruits of his passion for constructing an artificial language in Warsaw, the city where he lived and worked. The slim forty-two page book International Language was initially published in Russian, but within a year there were Polish, French, and German editions, and finally an English language version, utilizing the author’s pen name, entitled Dr. Esperanto’s International Langauge. The rest is history. The pen name quickly became ascribed to the language. During his lifetime Zamenhoff witnessed the birth of the Esperanto movement. Within a decade of his death in 1917 a World Esperanto Association was formed, which flourished and currently has members in 121 countries, not to mention official relations with the UN and UNESCO. Undoubtedly the creator of Esperanto hit upon a deep-seated desire for a universal form of communication for which the multitude of languages in the world create a formidable barrier, providing his language with a symbolic weight that goes far beyond the actual number of its users.
Zamenhof’s work was published in Russian first since at the time that part of Poland was situated in the Russian empire and that was the official language. The Russian partition, one of the three partitions which divided up and swallowed the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth at the end of the eighteenth century, was particularly severe with Poles due to their recurrent uprisings. One of the major insurrections took place in 1830. The circumstances were quite unusual from today’s perspective. At another end of Europe the Belgians rose up and declared their independence from the Netherlands. Since there was a pact in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon among the powers that led to his downfall that the borders in Europe would not undergo any changes, the Russian Tsar, one of its signatories, felt empowered to intervene. The contingent of conscripted Polish soldiers which were a part of the Russian imperial army would have nothing to do with this repression of burgeoning national aspirations and staged their own insurrection, with the additional hope that Poles might regain sovereignty as well from their effort. Consequently, although the latter cause soon proved hopeless, the Russians were tied up in Poland, and the Belgians did maintain their sovereignty. The Poles, on the other lost a number of privileges they had retained earlier in the Russian partition, and the status of their own language started its downward slide—not to mention they had to wait the better part of a century longer for their own homeland to be free. Needless to say it was not to be the last time that Polish sacrifice had beneficiaries further off while bringing no immediate gains for Poles themselves.
Brussels, Belgium’s capitol, has become identified with a political experiment that parallels that of Zamenhof’s linguistic one. If within the idealist dreams of some Esperanto was a language to rise above national languages, the European Union was intended to unite the peoples of Europe above their own national states. And it seemed like an idea whose time had come, perhaps even in the vanguard of history. Whatever we might say about Esperanto and its ideal, it remains an artificial language that has no hope of transcending national languages or even regional dialects. What can we say about the European Union considering all the hopes that have been invested in it?
After its largest single expansion in 2004 the European Union has been viewed by a number of political thinkers as a contemporary incarnation of an empire. Formally, it remains an international organization, with elements of a transnational state, but features of empire have also been noted. The existence of an obvious centre and a periphery of the polity, to which the countries in East Central Europe belong, is taken a major sign of this. Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission for the decade following this expansion, boasted that the EU can be described as a “non-imperial empire.” Whether non-imperial or not any empire has centralizing tendencies which can have negative consequences beyond that of mere domination. The roots of the tension existing in varying degrees between the modern EU “empire” and the newly independent nation state of Poland can largely be looked for within this problematic dominion.
Anthony Smith argues “the nation is authentic when it is truly free, expressing itself fully and without constraint, and therefore responsible for its development and destiny.” How much of this relatively recently regained “freedom” did Poland surrender—voluntarily, this time—by joining a new empire? What, if anything, did it gain in return?
To rehearse the more obvious points, Poland joined the EU during the expansion of 2004 together with a number of other East Central European countries that had gone through the twentieth century experiment of the communist state imposed upon them by a modern ideological and violent totalitarian empire, the Soviet Union. Decades of communism and a centrally planned command economy also put the countries of East Central Europe at an economic disadvantage to older members of the EU, which partly instilled in them a sense of belonging to the periphery within the new association. But Poles had reason to pride themselves for their role in ending the Cold War, which partly counterbalanced such complexes. For a number of years there was little to counter the overall positive narrative of a country that might have started from behind, but was making headway at quite a reasonable rate. Even the long-lasting euro crisis starting in 2008 that devastated the Union hardly phased the positive narrative since Poles weathered it relatively well. Overall there is no denying Poland has flourished from membership in the EU. Moreover, together with its membership in NATO, Poland’s geopolitical situation is better now than it has been for over two-and-a-half centuries.
However, as suggested above, the significant phenomena evident in the EU after 2004 that defined it as an empire, at least in political theory, was the asymmetry between older member states and newer member states. The new states needed to learn their place among the other domains, and their historical narrative defined the larger polity and its centre. The highly tragic historical experience of the new member states from East Central Europe gave them a strong sense of the positive nature of their regained national sovereignty. To a more significant extent than they imagined at the time, this set them apart from the Western European members of the European Union who founded and shaped it. The foundation myth of the EU had primarily laid stress on the catastrophe of WWII that was to be prevented from ever recurring, and, among the establishment elite, the blame was laid on the nation state that had been responsible for much of the carnage. As simplified as this narrative is from the overall historical perspective it stuck for the founders and their geographical descendents. But there is a major problem with the myth. As Jakub Grygiel puts it in a piece in Foreign Affairs in 2016, “one of the greatest threats Europe faced in the twentieth century was transnational in nature: communism, which divided the continent for 45 years and led to the deaths of millions.” That communism could have been the source of such oppression and violence as the new members of the European project had endured during World War II and the Cold War seems not to have evoked reflection on the part of their more fortunate predecessors in the EU at any deeper level.
What needs pointing out, however, is that East Central Europeans have had difficulty in coordinating their narratives to promote a broader one more effectively to the Western member states of the EU. Another matter is the problems each of the countries have had with their own history. Aside from being victims attacked from two sides, by the Nazis and the Soviets, the experience of both totalitarian systems, especially during the war, was at times extremely demoralizing for significant portions of the occupied and subordinated societies, and each national community has its own skeletons of various sizes in the closet. However, as Michał Szułdrzyński, a Polish journalist at leading opinion-making daily, put it, Poles needed a period of time where they could feel proud of themselves: “A nation that regained independence also wanted to regain its memory. Poles did not want to be ashamed of their history before really having had time to be proud of it.” Still, some Poles should take John Paul II’s injunction to face up to past sins more to heart.
Regarding the EU perspective, quite possibly this lack of genuine empathy, along with the centralizing institutional thrust that evolved from the early primary foundation myth, as we might figuratively put it, is part of the reason for further misunderstandings between the countries of what came to be dubbed the Old and New Europe. No institution is incorruptible; neither the national nor transnational state is incapable of atrocities. And so while the Old European members of the EU are justified in their fear of the excesses of nationalism, they would do well to also consider the dangers of a centralized super state, which some see as an ideal counterweight. Even Immanuel Kant argued that a world federation would sooner or later resort to tyranny. Among other matters, with its lack of a substantive public sphere or vehicle for self-criticism, even the EU can theoretically be a threat to democracy. Are there any warning signs of this possibility? Can the EU really be called a “non-imperial empire,” or is imperialism knocking at the door?
From early on Brussels’ treatment of the members from East Central Europe can be described as a soft imperialism. Despite their moral right to membership, the new states were admitted under strict conditions that implied their subordinate status. More recently there are the extraordinary measures the EU Commission has initiated against the Polish government in 2017 to consider. Political scientist George Friedman, for one, notes the controversial judicial reforms of the Law and Justice Party at issue are hardly beyond criticism but neither can they be viewed as outside the bounds of liberal democracy. Dr. Friedman also cites acute political liberal/conservative differences as behind the rupture between the EU mainstream and Poland. These are worth exploring further. In his book Populism and the European Culture Wars, Frank Furedi enumerates a number of competing primary values between the “EU oligarchy,” as he puts it, and Hungary, that are helpful for understanding the issue. To begin with, the latter upholds tradition, the former is post-traditional; Hungarians value community, the EU promotes diversity. Subsequently in the author’s view, it has “has lost sight of the need to affirm the common good and prefers to deal with different identity groups than with individual citizens.” At the institutional level there is the attachment to the nation state in contradistinction to transnational institutions. To cap it off the value attached to popular sovereignty for the Hungarian polity contrasts with how the EU places much greater reliance on experts, often disregarding the popular will of a national community. Overall the contrast is between the largely top down value system of the empire and the elites that subscribe to it versus the organic values of the national community. Dr. Furedi also stresses the EU’s paternalistic view towards East Central Europe and the double standard applied to the allegedly more politically backward part of the extended union. His schema can also largely be applied in the case of Poland and its relation to the EU, with the caveat that for better or worse the EU “values” are likewise now present in Polish society to a greater or lesser extent.
At another level, the recent problems of the national states and the voter’s rebellion shed light on the issue which now extends beyond the East Central European “periphery.” To begin with, among the multiple crises that have buffeted the EU, one has been deemed cause of the rise of populist and demagogue politicians. The clash between Poland and the EU during the former’s long-lasting constitutional and rule of law crisis initiated in 2015 mentioned above has been framed along those terms. Yet there is arguably another side to the coin. Dr. Furedi, for one, sees greater danger from the post-nationalist anti-populists in Brussels who steer dangerously close to denying the validity of representative democracy. Such an argument cannot be completely discounted with regards to the tensions between the EU and Poland. Moreover, for considerably longer than the rise of the populist politicians, the question of the so called “democratic deficit”—structural and otherwise—has been noted by students of the Union. Dr. Furedi argues that to a great extent the EU’s democratic deficit gave rise to the populist reaction. It certainly does seem many of the accumulated heavy-handed moves of the Eurocrats have fuelled negative reactions at the level of large disaffected populations in the EU. In a number of countries this response has been far more radical than any comparative groups in Poland, such as the rise of the nationalist AfD in Germany that actually entered the Reichstag. And it is not without reason that the British decided in a referendum in 2016 to leave the often overbearing transnational institution. Closer to the historic core of the EU, the fact that populists in Italy gained the lion’s share of the popular vote in the 2018 February elections speaks for itself.
Granted, it cannot be ignored that national leaders pawn off their insufficient solutions to problems to their electorate by blaming Brussels. For example, the Italians’ inability to reform their state and mend their economy has been blamed on EU intrusiveness. Not to mention policies by powerful member states themselves, such as Angela Merkel’s unilateral open door policy aggravating the migrant crisis in 2015, which certainly played their part in provoking the trans-European voter rebellion.
Governance, however, is only part of the problem. National pride on the part of members of a national community needs considering. During a debate at the European Parliament in November of 2017 on the purported breaking of European law by the Polish government in the course of its abovementioned crisis, Guy Verhofstad, a Dutch member, called a massive grassroots march celebrating the country’s independence day holiday a few days earlier a fascist event. The march, which took place in Warsaw, did indeed have some participants who held racist banners. The event had its critics in Poland who condemned it outright, but even supporters condemned the banners. Those who flaunted the banners were decidedly in the minority. And despite its size of approximately sixty-thousand participants the event was comparatively peaceful—in fact many families participated. Unlike the violent antifa protest during the G20 summit in Hamburg in July of the same year, or the police brutality in Barcelona during the illegal referendum for Catalonian independence some months after the summit, there was no need for police intervention in Warsaw, and no one was injured nor property destroyed.
The Polish journalist Łukasz Warzecha analyzed the comments made during the debate that he considered to be grossly unfair and, among others, noted that for the Dutch member of parliament national pride is virtually incomprehensible:
Pride in one’s own state, history, and nation in most countries of the old EU is something not only suspect, but unknown and immediately associated with extremism. Indeed, quite often that is the case over there. It is enough to look at Scandinavia, where open pride at being a Swede or a Dane is only expressed by extreme nationalist groups. For various MPs of Verhofstad’s ilk it simply is unfathomable that in Poland it can be a dominant sentiment.
According to Steven Grosby, the nation can be understood as “a social relation.” Along this line it can further be claimed national pride is the communal version of a major personal aspect of human dignity—the sense of self-worth people are entitled to—and no national community can flourish without it at some level, in whatever manner it is felt or expressed. Its strength is one of the ingredients of national identity that members of the nation palpably sense. This is likely one of the significant differences between a national community and a transnational one such as the European Union. An issue seldom discussed—and hard to measure—is the sense of pride of EU citizens in the polity. How deep can it be for an institution that is largely a faceless bureaucracy? No doubt for some there is an affinity toward an idealized vision of what the European Union stands for. In psychological terms, however, a sense of pride can be measured by whether or not one feels slighted by what might be considered unfair remarks and criticisms. And the response of the citizens of the European Union in this respect is rather cool or largely academic. In contrast many Poles do feel the sting of negative criticisms toward their nation, whether from European politicians or media, which stems to no small degree from a hurt sense of pride. At times these external criticisms do bear elements that should force Poles to confront uncomfortable truths, but often enough they represent biased generalizations of the type Mr. Verhofstad was guilty of that feed the sense a growing number in the country have that double standards are applied toward them, i.e. Poland is treated as peripheral to the continent’s centre with little attempt to understand it.
From a respected Polish perspective, patriotism is among the strongest and most positive manifestations of national identity. And whether Mr. Warzecha is right or not about the lack of a sense of patriotism—or national pride—on the part of other European citizens, there is evidence that those citizens still likely have some form of substantive national identity, in whatever manner it may be expressed or described. Pierre Manent puts it this way: “as weakened as it may be, the nation remains the decisive framework of European life.” On account of the fact that they are far more rooted in their native soil than the EU, it is the nation states that have retained the sense of political identity and the trust of their populations. As the general sense of crisis deepens in the Union, a survey conducted by Chatham House in 2017 found that 60% of Europeans wish for more of the competencies vested in Brussels to return to their native states. The Polish percentage of 77% was high but not outstanding.
It should be recalled that early in the twenty-first century Europe was considered a beacon to the world. When Poland entered the EU such optimism was the dominant mood. Jeremy Rifkin’s The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future is Eclipsing the American Dream from 2004 expressed the hope inspired by the polity. However, less than a decade later crisis seemed to be the key word, and it is more accurate to say there are many Europes rather than an “ever closer union.” Ivan Krastev’s 2017 book was simply entitled After Europe, and the author pointed out that the thought of the end of the European Union would have been inconceivable a decade earlier, and while not inevitable, was at least on the minds of many opinion-makers. Mr. Krastev is one of the East Central European intellectuals who cares as much about the fate of Europe as his own Bulgaria. In the Polish public sphere reflection on the EU is more mundane than in the past, since participation in “Europe” is now a reality. Polish analysts favorably inclined toward the EU often focus on the boundaries which they believe are important for the relationship. Political philosopher W. Julian Korab-Karpowicz, for instance, stresses “Europe has a place for a well functioning European Union based on the economic interests of its member states. Respecting their cultural integrity, aiming at cooperation and developing in peace; stimulating innovation and scientific-technical exchange, but avoiding excessive bureaucracy and overly invasive integration.” Moreover, he argues, national cultures are supported by the nation state and create a cultural diversity that would otherwise be lost.
Polish society is divided along a number of lines, hardly unusual in any pluralistic society. Nevertheless, despite heated rhetoric and even acrimony, there is little or almost no violence or extreme protests. The largest demonstrations by whichever faction remain fairly peaceful. More in line with other countries, however, divisions hardly fit the old continuum of left and right—at least not at their deepest levels. The new divisions have not been adequately named. Michał Kuź, a Polish political scientist, has coined the terms “localists” and “internationalists” to describe the most pertinent current divide within European societies. The proportions of the parties of the divide are naturally different in Poland than in countries of the old Europe. It is relatively easy to indicate which of the parties in the political landscape of the country within the localist and internationalist divide places more emphasis on patriotism, but the attitude toward the EU is not so simple. Poles generally consider themselves European, and their attitude toward the EU remains quite positive across the board, with only a small percentage of genuine Eurosceptics present in the society. To put it in more traditional terms, in Polish society there is a small group of cosmopolitans and strong nationalists at opposite ends of the spectrum, while most citizens range somewhere in between. But the divide naturally does play a role as to how this attitude toward Europe is expressed, or patriotism itself for that matter.
There is something in both the nation state and empire that strikes a deep and meaningful nerve in the organization of human affairs but does not necessarily go easily together. Christian political thinkers such as Pierre Manent and John Milbank debate the benefits and weaknesses of both. Dr. Korab-Karpowicz has pertinently pointed out that cosmopolitanism and patriotism have their own place and are not necessarily at odds with each other. Cosmopolitanism directs us toward humanity; patriotism creates more authentic community. The European Union is hardly “humanity,” but it is often associated with cosmopolitanism for those who wish to transcend community, often enough in an unreflective manner. The EU has its place, but the national community has a much stronger one in the allegiance of most Poles. Their patriotism still has its sensitive and inward looking side as well as the potential to be open, and if this potential is not upset from the outside, it could partly contribute to strengthening the EU. But all is not well between the nation state and empire: centre and periphery have their rules which at times collide as witnessed of late. Are there any possible guiding principles that could minimize the force of collision?
Dr. Furedi observes, “The experience of history indicates that popular sovereignty and the values associated with its exercise is the most robust foundation on which public life can flourish.” Empire must bow to the nation state in the latter’s ability, however unsightly it seems to carry it out at times, in Poland and elsewhere, to foster this socio-political good. Few can predict how the EU will evolve if it indeed survives. An “ever closer union” is also a possibility and would be welcome by many in Poland if it entailed the erasure of the boundary between centre and periphery through the latter gaining true equality, but not particularly welcome if such goods as popular sovereignty are curtailed or lost. From the perspective of a member nation state, a genuinely “non-imperial empire” is likely the most promising means of keeping the polity relatively effective, with national and cultural—as opposed to ideological—diversity flourishing, and also keeping tensions, which are unavoidable, between the EU and the nation states at levels where they can be more readily resolved.
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