4 april 2010

Guy Verhofstadt MEP versus Derk Jan Eppink MEP on the French identity debate (Vincent De Roeck)

Guy Verhofstadt stelde in de centrumlinkse Franse krant "Le Monde" dat Europa postnationaal moet zijn en dat het Franse identiteitsdebat tot de gaskamers van Auschwitz en de slachting van Srebrenica kan leiden. Derk Jan Eppink reageerde daarop in de centrumlinkse Belgische krant "De Standaard" in zijn gekende stijl. Ik vertaalde beide stukken in het Engels en zal deze hieronder integraal hernemen. Iedereen kan op basis hiervan zijn/haar eigen mening opmaken.

Europe must be post-national or it will perish!
(Guy Verhofstadt, Le Monde)
My op-ed on the debate over national identity in France (Le Monde, 12 February 2010) caused different reactions. There were many hundreds assenting comments from the readers of Le Monde. And there were strong negative reactions coming from the French officials, headed by Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner himself.

Their arguments were predictable. The op-ed was considered "a derogatory shouting game addressed at the French Republic". On the contrary, my op-ed exuded a warm affection, but a disillusioned love, for a France that is unfaithful to his own old model. The only thing I questioned in my op-ed is the nonsensical initiative of the French government to launch a public debate about the 'national identity', in what was clearly an attempt to win votes back from the National Front in the upcoming regional elections.

The fact that I was "a foreigner" was their second argument. I shouldn't have been allowed to express my opinion about something that ultimately only the French concern. Isn't there a better argument to persuade people of the nonsensical nature of the initiative than to exclude 'foreigners', 'aliens', in brief 'non-French, from the debate? I think not. It illustrates perfectly where a discussion of "national identity" always leads to: nationalism, the exclusion of "the others", the denunciation of everything or everyone that is foreign.

Narrow-minded nationalism

In almost every European country today, a debate about our social, cultural or political identity is held. But only because this is the newest kind of rug adorned the oldest form of nationalism. This is a new way to alienate itself from its multinational and multicultural traditions, starting with the old French republican values which no other country embodies to the same extent as France. Values form the basis of the European Union and they are under attack now.

This kind of "identity thinking" is the latest disguise of a narrow-minded nationalist ideology and that is best illustrated by the responses to the reactions in my own country, Belgium. Especially some Flemish nationalist extremists were offended with the message. And that was the moment when the representatives of the French Republic should have realized the nationalist extremist content of its proposal. How is it possible that the heirs of the French Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment share the same views on European legislation as the most ardent fans of the most narrow-minded forms of ethno-cultural nationalism? Which of them are wrong? And who decides what's wrong here?

The answer to this question is easy to trace. It suffices to look back to the past, to the late 18th century, to the eve of the French Revolution. When a debate erupted on the scene of political thinking, that for the entire 19th and much of the 20th century would govern the struggle between Herder and Kant, between Volksgeist and Enlightenment, between the soul of the nation, the glorification of its own national identity and the supreme power of Tradition and Custom, and the belief in general, immortal, universal human values. As Alain Finkielkraut in the demise of thought shows, Herder can be considered the founder of "identity thinking" - manifested by the glorification of its own national character, the elimination of words with foreign origin, the rediscovery of the folk songs, the return to the past and so-called "authenticity".

All this is necessary, his followers tell us, for the Enlightenment has destroyed the roots of the human kind and made it part of a greater "vacuum". The nation is not a social contract, an alliance of independent people, but a superior organization that predates mankind. It's not the man who creates society. He or she is born into an existing community to which he or she must adapt. In Herder's view, it is even a mistake to speak of 'people'. There are no people. There are only French or Germans or Belgians. The collective unconsciousness of every society is different and remains the main driving force of that society. Prejudice, tradition, obscurantism, conformism are positive forces that keep the nation strong, healthy and flourishing. Democracy and rational thinking, however, undermine society. The discovery of the 'national identity' is therefore necessary to achieve a collective unconsciousness, allowing us to bind all members of a Nation and to bring them together.

Perhaps this controversy would have remained a purely philosophical debate if the French Revolution of 1789 would not have broken out. The ideas of the Age of Enlightenment triumphed. The Republican values of liberty, equality and fraternity were at the core of revolutionary France. And they were also propagated throughout the whole of Europe. It was a revolution without borders, a revolution to establish a republic including all citizens. Napoleon was finally beaten by a coalition of European states. But the ideas of the French Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment could not be restrained by force of arms. For more than two decades, two kinds of society couldn't be reconciled and kept standing opposite to each other. An enlightened, republican, revolutionary Europe, against a conservative, traditional, (even monarchical) Europe. A stand-off between an essentially French, rational and universal vision of harmony and an emotional and German identity approach. At the time, you were a German, while you could become a Frenchman. This difference brought forward the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and there were two more wars to follow. Many French and Germans witnessed three wars in their lifetime. And it was the German poet Heinrich Heine, who spent many years in exile in France, who warned early for "a German answer" to the French Revolution. An answer that precisely came in the year 1933 when Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels declared "the end of the French Revolution".

The German answer

But perhaps it is the conquest of Alsace-Lorraine by the Germans in 1870 that demonstrates the incompatibility of the French republican values and the concept of 'national identity'. For the Germans, the annexation was merely a matter of individuality. In their view, the conquest was legitimate. Alsace-Lorraine was, in race, language and historical tradition a part of Germany. No, argued the French, led by philosopher Renan. While it is true that the people of Alsace-Lorraine belonged to the German race, it was not their will to join Germany. They'd rather remain part of the French State, and that will was more important for Renan than their origins. The nation is a covenant, or, as Renan put it, "a daily renewed plebiscite". Man is not the prisoner of his identity or his nation, but its justification. Rereading Renan's "Qu'est qu'une nation?" would have sufficed for today's French officials to realize that they dwelled on this issue. It would have been clear enough to make them realize that this is no matter of language, race, religion, interests, or geography, or even a matter of military necessity or common history. It is not a fixed given, no historical accident, no vague feeling of togetherness. It would have been enough to make them understand that a nation is a matter of conscious solidarity, a real voluntary decision to live under the same laws and principles.

A cog in a machine

Does this mean that "identity" does not matter? That it is meaningless and has no meaning? No, not at all, but the word is abused once again. What was named the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century is now the modern, globalized world. "Identity" would play the role of beacon or anchor on this wobbly planet in these uncertain times. This would even be correct if "identity" would be a collective term that applied to every person in the society and would have the same impact or effect. But that is not the case here.

First of all, there are as many identities as there are individuals out there. Each person is unique. And to put him in a category or label him, implies an injustice. It would cause harm and it would reduce the individual to an (un)willing cog in a greater machine that we call "society". Economist Amartya Sen has demonstrated very clearly the vital difference between the unique identity in the political rhetoric and the multiple identities that exist in the real world. The unique identity is an illusion, and a dangerous one resulting from our desire to classify the world in terms of religion, culture, nation or civilization. Our fate is then irrevocably fixed, tied to the unique identity for each in the same group. It implies, as Sen continues, a reductionist view of reality, a vision with no consideration for the wide range of other identities and properties that undoubtedly exist in each individual. The unique and reductionist view of political identity hurts the freedom of the individual in the real world. Not that that choice is equally for everyone. Far from it. And even that is infinite. But the difference with the reductionist view of human identity, is that man does not only inherit its individuality and personality, but also builds and creates it itself - in freedom and with consciousness.


The one-dimensional quest for a common 'identity' is of a very different kind. It leads to the deployment in society of certain ethnic, national, cultural or religious "containers" or "bunkers" of whom man cannot escape. Inevitably, this will end in violence, in riots in neighbourhoods, in hatred, in war in the world. The "murderous identity", as writer Amin Maalouf puts it. The murderous twentieth century was the tragic illustration of this. The 20th century has taught us that the ultimate consequence of identity thinking are the gas chambers of Auschwitz. And the reason why this is so, is not difficult to trace. "Identity" means that a group of people ascribing specific characteristics, which are often radically different from someone with a different identity. 'Different' means 'different'. And by using the concept of "difference", this is only a short step towards 'hostility'. By reducing humanity to its own group, noble principles such as law, tolerance and non-violence are only valid within its own group. It was 'identity' that kept Serbia from extraditing its war criminals. It was "identity" that deterred the global Muslim community to excommunicate Osama Bin Laden.

In brief, on the concept of 'identity' we can never build a peaceful and prosperous society. More generally, 'identity' is a symptom of our inability to accept the world as it is. The future of Europe is far from a quest for national identity. And certainly the future lies in a juxtaposition of national identities. Europe today, the Europe of Nations, is a relic of the past. It is a Europe that is incapable of solving problems. And it is hardly a Europe that will play a significant role in the multi-polar world of the twenty-first century. In brief, the future of Europe and the European Union must a be post-national one or there won't be any future for it at all.

Guy Verhofstadt persists in his errors!
Within the EU, nation states are the rule.
(Derk Jan Eppink, De Standaard)
When Guy Verhofstadt compares the French debate about national identity with the spirit of the Vichy regime in Le Monde, he was labelled "a little crazy" by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Verhofstadt's reasoning is even getting crazier. In De Standard, he wrote: "the ultimate consequences of identity thinking are the gas chambers of Auschwitz."

Verhofstadt lives in a world that does not exist. He acts like he is out of this world. In the current European Union, nation states are the rule, not the exception. French, Italians, Poles, Swedes, Danes, Britons, Dutch, Germans... They all define their identity primarily through their adherence to a nation state. They feel part of a community that is connected by language, history, public opinion, tradition and values.

Belgium is the exception to that rule. It is not a nation state, because everyone in Belgium has its own identification: Flemish, Walloon, French, Brussels, Belgian or European. In the absence of a nation state, many residents of Belgium - including Guy Verhofstadt - see some kind of Ersatznation in the European construct.

I am from a nation state myself and I immediately recognize its characteristics. In the Netherlands, the national identity is galvanized through an "orange feeling", rendering the use of the word nationalism pointless. The Dutch are nonetheless a nationalistic people, even though they deny it. The French are not ashamed of their nation state, as Verhofstadt has noticed after his article in Le Monde. The Germans have to talk carefully about their "national identity" because of their history, and so do the Austrians. The British have a strong national identity because they are the only Western European country that managed to win the Second World War. The Polish national identity is rooted in its resistance to major neighbouring countries. A post-national Europe is a fiction. New EU member states joined the EU to strengthen their nation state in a bigger concept.

What is European identity? This European identity does not exist, except perhaps in the European Parliament. There is a common European culture, rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, where the European states have derived their value system from. This culture has provided us with the building blocks upon which our societies are organized with democracy and the rule of law. But a Finn and an Italian do not have the same "European identity", because they are not the same people. There is no such thing as a European people or even a European public opinion. The current Europe therefore remains a "Europe of nation states" voluntarily pooling parts of their sovereignty in Brussels to achieve some degree of added value, such as a single market or a single currency. I am therefore in favour of a "United Europe of States."

Even in a globalizing world where far-away continents are continuously getting closer, the need for identity is growing. Who are we and where does our society stand for? This process takes place in many European countries. These questions are further triggered by the massive immigration of people from different cultural and political backgrounds. In his first Citizen's Manifesto, Guy Verhofstadt wrote about "the tension between Western values and Islam" in areas such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and equality between men and women. Now he says the exact opposite. Today, he labels anyone who dares to talk about that tension a "nationalist". Verhofstadt now denies these tensions and diminishes Western values. The ultimate consequences of his thinking are cultural surrender and nihilism.

His reference to Auschwitz is absurd. The 20th century was marked with totalitarian philosophies and their claims of universality. Auschwitz was the result of National Socialism and the labour camps of Stalin and Mao were rooted in communism. Both ideologies strived for world domination in the name of atheistic theories, such as devastating perverted racial science and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Both ideologies denied the national identity of nation states.

Verhofstadt is on the wrong track. He is in favour of a federal state at European level, just like many other Belgian politicians. They are looking at Europe to become their Ersatznation because they cannot solve the problems in their own country. The Belgian model has become way too expensive. The Belgian system is now beyond reform and Brussels beyond any control. European federal idealism is an attempt to escape from the Belgian reality. Verhofstadt calls for a European tax and a Europe that should issue bonds and accumulate debt. He repeats all the mistakes of his previous Belgian governments.

In the ALDE group in the European Parliament, Verhofstadt presides over Irish people, Finns, Dutch and French members, Italians, Spaniards, etc. Do they dare - like their leader - to state at home that their "national identity" is a criminal concept that would ultimately lead to the gas chambers? I would suggest that Guy Verhofstadt gathers his liberal group and makes his argument again. I'll be happy to watch it.


At 5/4/10 08:30, Anonymous Bruce Graeme said...

Guy Verhofstadt fulmineert tegen het nationalisme. Uitgerekend nu in het post-multiculturele klimaat veel mensen vinden dat landen zich beter zouden terugtrekken uit de Europese Unie. De thans wijd verbreide en terechte verwerping van de multiculturele consensus binnen Europa sluit juist mede een heropleving van het traditionele nationalisme in en laat het tot haar recht komen!
Een reactie te vergelijken met de versterking van het nationale bewustzijn in de 19de eeuw tegen het vage, maar vooral voorbarige streven naar een kosmopolitische verbroedering: het denkbeeld van alle verbroederde naties tot één wereldstaat.
Net zoals toen, misschien zelfs meer dan vroeger, laat zich voorlopig de nationaliteitsgedachte in sterke mate gelden. Natie betekent de erfelijk geworden geestes- en gemoedsgemeenschap van mensen die zich vooral tenopzichte van zeden en kultuur verbonden voelen. Nationale taal, nationale literatuur, nationale kunst, nationale politiek, nationaal recht, nationale religie, nationale 'zeden en gewoonten', al deze eisen hebben dit goede dat zij de ontwikkeling van eigen krachten en aanleg bij iedere natie bevorderen.
Voordat de, misschien ééns mogelijke, vereeniging van alle naties tot één gemeenschap plaats vindt, moet eerst, door konkurrentie, iedere groep tot haar hoogst mogelijke produktie worden aangespoord, moet eerst de eigenaard van iedere natie, van ieder volk zo sterk mogelijk tot uiting komen, opdat in de toekomstige eenheid een zo rijk mogelijk verscheidenheid zij begrepen.

At 5/4/10 08:59, Anonymous Bruce Graeme said...

The rediscovery of ethnic identity
Dario Durando

The rooting of the individual within a "communitarian" environment characterized by strong linguistic and cultural ties represents the most effective antidote to the atomization and "anomie" typical of societies that Tonnies and Durkheim classified as "mechanistic" and which today could be called post-modern: unified at a global, artificial level because grounded in a sell-producing society, directed from the center of production of culture and information. In this global society the individual is increasingly alone. He is lost in the immensity of the social environment and exposed to an uninterrupted flow of information -- usually the product of other information. He is becoming less and less able to determine his own destiny and remains manipulated by those who hold the supreme power: the circulation of information.

Consequently, the so-called ethnic revival, the reappropriation by various ethnic groups of their own identity, the reevaluation of the "roots" of people and communities (i.e., the distinctive traits of their specific cultures), constitutes the most powerful weapon against global levelling -- the obliteration of differences, the depersonalizing fusion typical of "the melting pot" of global society. It is a powerful weapon against the universalist ideology of post-modernity, mythologized by the followers of so-called "weak thought."

Ethnic identity offers individuals and groups considerable certainty in an uncertain world. If territory is added to ethnicity, together they constitute the deepest dimensions of human experience.

The rediscovery of a sense of ethnic belonging that reflects the individual's need for identity in today's atomized society is the first and most important step in contraposing the culture of differences and specificities to the universalistic and standardizing ideology of post-modernity

French ethnic groups (Bretons, Flemish, Alsatians, Provencals) and Italian ones (Sardinians, Northerners belonging to the Italo-Gallic dialec, Ligurians, Piedmontese, Lombards, Northerners belonging to the Venetian group with Friulan -- South Tyrollans being something entirely different) clearly can only be located within the state to which they actually belong, whose structure has to be transformed in a federalist direction in order to allow each of them to preserve their cultural and linguistic characteristics (which, among other things, translates into a contribution to the cultural wealth and diversity of "French people," "Italian people" etc.).

Within the context of the existing unitary states, federalism is the most advisable solution for the protection and development of ethnic specificities.

ethnic groups that, because of anthropological, cultural and linguistic characteristics profoundly different from those of the hegemonic nation of which they historically have been a part, and because of the strength of their roofs in a given territory, can and must legitimately aim toward some form of self-government within a continuum that ranges from being part of a federal state (renouncing sovereignty only in foreign policy and security) to a confederation of sovereign states, to pure and simple independence. The Scots and the Basques belong in this category .

For Europeans the only institutional framework within which the recovery of ethnic belonging can take place is a federal one


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