Patriotic Europeans?

by Terence MacNamee

German leader Angela Merkel has been warning people about Pegida. This is a loose association of citizens demonstrating against supposed Islamic influence in Germany – in fact, Islamic influence in Europe generally. It is a populist movement, based in East Germany, and it is unclear who leads it or what it really wants apart from putting large crowds in the street.

The “Pe” part stands for “patriotic Europeans”. This is odd. There never has been a European patriotism. Leaders of European integration like Jacques Delors have always cautioned against people feeling patriotic about Europe. They associate patriotism with the destructive wars of the past. Indeed, Europe has always been a hotbed of patriotism, but the patriotism has been about one particular country and directed against another or others. The patriot was ready to kill or be killed in the defence of his country. In the past seventy years we seem to have got over that.

Yet as George Orwell pointed during the War, patriotism is the one emotion with which you can be sure to mobilize people. They may not fight for ideologies or abstract principles, but they will fight to defend their own country. This has not really changed, even though we have had peace in Europe now for several generations. If it had, we would have allowed our nation-states to wither away and formed a “United States of Europe” with a federal capital like Washington.

A politically united Europe has not happened, obviously; all we have been able to manage is the European Union. But it is also important to recognize that the EU’s capital, Brussels, is just an “empty centre”, a producer of bureaucratic regulations and never-ending mediation efforts among the member states rather than any substantive vision. As far as ideology or emotion is concerned, it is a gaping hole. Any attempts it makes at promoting pan-European spirit remain at the level of meaningless slogans and bla-bla. If a European patriotism were ever to arise, it could not be centred in Brussels.

The European patriotism inscribed on its banners by Pegida is a patriotism against something – the Islamic civilization – and indeed the fires of patriotism are always stoked by having some big bad enemy you can fight. But as George Orwell pointed out so long ago, patriotism is not necessarily aggressive or pugnacious; it can just be a pride in your own country, even if it is an unreasoning pride. Could we Europeans ever have a “soft” patriotism like that? What would it look like?

It would be a pride in the achievements of Europe, which have been contributed by the different countries in spite of the fact that for most of history they have been “Warring States” doing their best to annihilate each other. It would be pride in the reaching out to the rest of the world that was involved in the voyages of discovery – with an appropriate hanging of heads in shame about the imperialism and colonialism that followed. It would be pride in the production of ideas which changed the modern world, from the French Revolution to Communism.

It would have to avoid claims to universalism. The trouble with us Europeans is that we think our ideas apply not only to ourselves but also the rest of the world. But we are just one great civilization among several. Patriotism should have no trouble with this. The traditional patriot loves and defends the particularity of his country, without thinking that every other country should be like it. A European patriotism would need to be based on the particularity of Europe, and its particular contribution to a world it no longer leads.