What will 2019 bring for the EU?

Updated: Apr 14, 2019

2019 is expected to be a crucial year for the EU, with the European Parliament elections of 23 May 2019 being eagerly awaited by some and feared by others. The ideological disagreement between Europhiles and Eurosceptics hardens and elements of the EU project are further challenged by the French yellow vest movement, which might gain even greater momentum now that it is being replicated in Europe’s largest economy in the form of the German Aufstehen movement. The future of the Euro, which celebrated its 20th anniversary on 1 January 2019, also remains uncertain.


As the discussion about the future of the EU continues and with the UK due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019, the internal debate in some Member States about secession will also likely continue. What justifies a group’s right to secede from a state, for example in the relation Spain-Catalonia, and what conditions must be in place in order for claims of secession to be legitimate? Nicolás Brando and Sergi Morales-Gálvez have identified two approaches to this question in the literature: ‘Remedial Right theories argue that a group’s justified secession depends on the grievances and injustices that a state has imposed on the group; and Primary Right theories defend a group’s right to self-determination and/or secession, regardless of the existence of injustices, provided that a majority of the group claims such a right’.


This in turn raises the question what defines a group and what constitutes a nation. David Miller has described the nation as ‘a community constituted by shared belief and mutual commitment, extended in history, active in character, connected to a particular territory, and marked off from other communities by its distinct public culture’. Certain elements of this definition were already formulated by Ernest Renan in 1882, when in his famous lecture What is a Nation? he stated that the nation requires the desire among the population to continue forming part of the nation (Renan’s famous metaphor of the ‘daily plebiscite/referendum’). The sense of sharing a common historical destiny among the population, in other words. In Renan’s view, moreover, ‘a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things which, properly speaking, are really one and the same constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the desire to continue to invest in the heritage that we have jointly received’. Renan’s idea of the nation continuously ‘reinventing’ itself has meanwhile been commonly accepted and has inspired more recent studies such as The Invention of Tradition or Imagined Communities.


Throughout Europe a backlash against the downplaying of national differences can be witnessed and anti-EU sentiments are rising. The longing of part of the electorate for a State embodying a spiritual dimension and a sense of belonging seems to grow. As the EU is increasingly painted as a technocratic usurper with which few citizens have developed an emotional bond during the last fifty years, the elections of May this year will be crucial indeed.


Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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