Why the elite wants to obliterate borders

Politicians present their sniffiness about national sovereignty as something progressive and liberal. It is anything but.

Angus Kennedy

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UK foreign secretary William Hague, in threatening recently to storm the Ecuadorian embassy in London and arrest Julian Assange, displays the same degree of contempt for national sovereignty that Western nations have shown repeatedly since the end of the Cold War. The examples of this contempt are legion, from invading countries to bring about regime change, to the unelected officials of the Troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF) lecturing and threatening Greece into sacrificing itself on the altar of the interests of the European Union. And in each case, the core principles of national self-determination and of democratic sovereignty, once championed by Woodrow Wilson and Lenin alike, are more likely today to be attacked as the fig leaves of dictators.

Thierry Baudet’s The Significance of Borders is a rare counter to such views. A controversial Dutch columnist for NRC Handelsblad, a lawyer and historian at the University of Leiden, Baudet argues that representative government and the rule of law is impossible without the nation state. But today, he argues, the nation is under attack from two directions.

First it is under attack from supranationalism, that is, from institutions like the European Court of Human Rights, the UN Security Council, and, most dramatically, the European Union. So while nations retain sovereignty at a formal level, increasing degrees of ‘material sovereignty’ have been acquired by supranational organisations. Baudet argues, for instance, that the official aim of the EU ‘is the negation of the concept of statehood’, because the nation state is held responsible, most notably by German theorists, for war. The EU’s immanent federalist logic leads to the necessary extension of its bureaucratic power (taking more and more countries into its orbit). Or – as an illustration of the attack on the democratic basis of national sovereignty – take the contempt in which the ECHR holds Britain for denying convicted prisoners the right to vote: this despite the fact that parliament voted 234 votes to 22 against the proposal. It seems the ECHR is happy to demand Britain change laws upheld by its own democracy.

Second, self-government is also under attack from below. Firstly, in the form of multiculturalism and its official support, legal pluralism (where the law is applied with cultural ‘sensitivity’ rather than justly). Secondly, from cultural diversity, which rejects the idea of a British or a Dutch identity in favour of overlapping multiple, provisional and lightly held, identities. Baudet gives the example of the Dutch crown princess, Máxima, who declared in 2007 that ‘the Dutch identity does not exist’, that the world has ‘open borders’ and that ‘it is not either-or. But and-and.’ When royalty – once the very symbol of national sovereignty – refuses to discriminate between citizens and outsiders, then even the most ardent internationalist might begin to smell a rat.

As Baudet argues, without a community of interest, a ‘we’, there is nothing. He notes that the ECHR outlaws ‘discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status’. Everyone must be treated equally. Baudet is correct to point out that such a widely drawn attack on discrimination ‘must necessarily implicate the citizens’ indifference towards those criteria’. Any form of particularity, of which nationality is one, is denied in the name of a totalising universality. The effect is not the widening of ‘minds and sympathies’ but rather their ‘Balkanisation’. In the process, the law becomes ‘no longer “ours” or “from within”, but from “out there”’. Our responsibility is eroded and our capacity to decide for ourselves (however we constitute that ‘we’) is further diminished, both at the level of the nation state, historically the basis for constituting a self-governing ‘we’, and at the level of the individual citizen.

The case of Hungary is a good example of how these two trends – the supranational and the multicultural – come together to the detriment of democracy and sovereignty. By backing the corrupt socialist government of Ferenc Gyurcsany against the right-wing Fidesz and Jobbik parties in 2010, the EU destabilised public life and actually fostered the very nationalism it sets itself against. It didn’t just pour fuel on the fire of populist reaction, but also blew on the flames by branding Hungary a savage throwback to darker times. Most disturbingly, EU criticisms of Hungary ignore the fact that Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government was freely elected with a massive majority.

However, Baudet’s book is open to criticism is on two points. Firstly it understates the degree to which the dismantling of the nation is actually a project of national elites. The nation is not being attacked from without so much as from within. National politicians have long sought refuge in Brussels from their own responsibility to make and drive through policy. EU-blaming has always been a useful way of passing the buck for unpopular decisions. Yet in hiding behind the EU or the ECHR, national politicians share the very same contempt for sovereign democracy as Brussels.

One of the main reasons for this contempt is not only the hostility to nationalism generated in the aftermath of the First World War but also the defeat of the internal opposition to nationalism, represented internally by the left, and externally by the Soviet Union. Nationalists won a hollow victory by defeating the two poles against which a declaration of being British or Dutch made sense. With the content of nationalism gone, there is no way back. Neither plastic-flag waving nor opposition to supranationalism will help. Traditions cannot simply be reinvented.

Baudet does correctly locate the problem as being one of trying to steer a middle road through two concepts of the nation: the radical Enlightenment concept of the nation as an act of the rational and universalist will; and the Romantic concept of it, in Tzvetan Todorov’s phrase, as ‘a community of “blood”’. Yet I am not convinced that Baudet’s path between the two, ‘multicultural nationalism’, is that different to multiculturalism. Arguing for genuine tolerance (which reserves the right to judge and disapprove and to discriminate), rather than multi-something, might be a better solution. It is also necessary to frame the problem correctly. The danger is not, despite Baudet’s fears, that national loyalties will be replaced with ‘tribal or religious’ loyalties: the danger is that there will be no loyalty to any community.

Secondly Borders, while noting the problems of being a ‘we’, makes little reference to those of being an ‘I’. As Albert Camus put it in The Rebel: ‘I rebel – therefore we exist.’ Baudet will be aware from his own controversial position in Holland that to dissent from the orthodoxy today is usually met with outraged offence: ‘You can’t say that.’ So at the same time as there is a hostility to national identity there is a parallel hostility to any identity which fails to conform to type.

This is part of a much broader and deeper problem: the erosion of the authority of the sovereign subject. And here is the paradox: while the nation state has indeed lost authority, the state has simultaneously acquired an unprecedented level of power to intervene in the hitherto sovereign private sphere, from what we eat and drink to how we bring up our kids.

Baudet’s conclusion, his diagnosis, though, is on the mark. We are stuck – stuck, that is, between past and future, between tomorrow’s unaccountable super-EU and yesterday’s ‘we’. As Baudet puts it, ‘the present, supranational “in between” concept of European integration with an EU that is stuck somewhere halfway between a federation and mere intergovernmental cooperation, is unsustainable’. Something must give. We must find a way to resist those who presume to act on our behalf. In the process we must rediscover what it means to be an individual today and what it means to be a ‘we’.

Just as it is necessary to defend the family and our personal lives from state interference, so we must also defend our nations from interference by those who do not represent us. One way of doing this is, of course, to uphold the principle of national self-determination, to defend nations like Syria from external intervention. Another way is to try to think through what we value about where we live and how we interact. This requires, in the first place, freedom – of the individual and of the people. As ever, we must start at home, set off from where we are.

Angus Kennedy is head of external relations at the Institute of Ideas and convenor of The Academy.

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