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State Building and Legitimacy: The EU, Nationalism and the Young

If you ask me where I’m from, I say I’m British – if I replied with ‘I’m European’ I would most likely get a slightly odd look. The same applies for all EU member states, EU citizens identify as their member state first and foremost. Ask your American friend where they’re from and they’ll say the US, not their specific state. Ask your Indian friend where they’re from and they’ll say India, not their specific state which, like many EU states, has a powerful government and often a separate language or religion. Politically this is fascinating; the EU institutions control many of the laws which govern us, guarantee our rights to work, trade, study and live across 27 other countries, represent our interests at the WTO and in signing trade deals around the world, and keep us safe through the formidable soft diplomacy that accompanies a single market comprised of some of the most developed nations on Earth. Still, however, there is a fundamental tension with European institutions - they are not viewed as legitimate, and instead are seen disconnected from our fundamental sense of identity.


So what must a state do to build this sense of legitimacy? The answer to this is complex, but a few commonalities seem to prevail. Firstly, state legitimacy is viewed by many as beginning with violence. You only pay your taxes and follow laws because you know the state has a monopoly on the use of coercive force. You know that this coercive force is integral to your own safety and protection, whether it is police on the streets, military troops abroad or immigration officials at the border. The state is the product of dog eat dog, where the state emerged as the biggest dog.


The second key historical binder used by states is education. As a key socialisation mechanism to promoting language, cultural norms and what ‘normal’ looks like in terms of institutional set up and governance, education can be used as a key driving force in building a sense of association between otherwise disparate groups. This account explains the construction of French and German nationalisms, where linguistic unity combined with the printed press to spread common identity across comparatively vast geographical areas.


This account is incredibly simple and I am not claiming it captures all of the nuance, but it provides a starting point to analyse European institutions. If we look across Europe military policy is still, buy and large, determined at the national level. Concerted transnational efforts are predominantly handled by non-political organisations like NATO. Police forces are national, armies are national, in other words the perceived use of force exerted by the state seems to be at the nation-state level, rather than European. Education and schooling are handled at the nation-state level, with a country’s schools governed by the national government, not the European Union. The socialisation mechanism by which national culture and ways of viewing the world are handed down still exists, in spite of historically unprecedented institutional alignment with our neighbours. Even where the EU directly invests in a member state’s defence or education infrastructure through the European Social Fund, this has to be facilitated through the Member State’s national government. The impression given to the public is that the member state is dominant, even if this impression is not as true as it has been in the past.


In light of this approach, some of the actions the EU are taking could be viewed through a prism of trying to build legitimacy. The developments towards a common EU defence policy, more publically united foreign policy, expansion of Erasmus funding and introduction of Eurozone wide bank accounts seek to reframe the continent, rather than the nation, as the unit of analysis. Policies that place Europe-wide this or Europe-wide that are becoming prevalent. It is being made public that it is Europe that protects you, that allows you to travel and study abroad, that represents you on the diplomatic world stage.


It is here that young people come in. On the whole, young people tend to be far more supportive of the European Union than their elders. I would suggest that the difference is because different generations view the EU with different degrees of legitimacy, so will judge it by different standards. A young EU citizen will view the Europe-wide institutions as providing security, will learn and experience new cultures through Erasmus exchanges, will travel and live abroad knowing it is the EU that is the arbiter of their rights. A young citizen will understand that the nation state is their home, but that it isn’t the only thing that defines their identity. They will view Europe not just from an economic, pragmatic cost-benefit analysis perspective, but from an emotional one, and this distinction is crucial. Older voters, even middle aged voters who support the EU, will do so from a position of practical benefits. Young people will view it as a partial reflection of their identity and place in the world.


In many Eastern European, post-communist states there is a split between the young and old. In times of economic upturn, the old support democracy and in times of economic downturn they turn against it. The young support it whatever. For the old, democracy is viewed as being only instrumentally valuable, whereas for the young it is valuable in and of itself. If the European Union is to survive as a single entity governing a host of culturally diverse states, it needs to sell itself as fulfilling the traditional job of the nation state and as being valuable from an emotive perspective, not just instrumental.


I doubt that many EU citizens will ever respond as being ‘European’ rather than their member state. Equally it is certain that there is some variation within groups of young and old people, and by member state. If the EU can continue build a sense of legitimacy amongst the bulk of its younger citizens, however, I think it's long term future looks bright.


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