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European unification in the era of the network state

Manuel Castells
12 December 2001

The unification of Europe is significant as a source of institutional innovation that may yield some answers to the crisis of the nation-state. This is because, around the process of formation of the European Union, new forms of governance, and new institutions of government, are being created at the European, national, regional, and local levels. Together, they are inducing a new form of state that I propose to call the network state.

However, the actual content of this unification, and the actors involved in it, are still unclear, and will be so for some time. It is precisely this ambiguity that makes unification possible, while characterising its process as a debate rather than a blueprint.

The stages of European evolution

The European Union resulted from three outbursts of political initiatives and institution-building, aimed at defending the participating countries against three perceived series of threats in three historical moments: the 1950s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. In all three cases, the goal was primarily political, and the means to reach this goal were, mainly, economic measures.

In 1948, the essential goal of European integration was to avoid a new war. For this, a permanent accommodation had to be found with Germany. Furthermore, the Cold War called for an economically strong, politically stable Western Europe. The first move toward European integration was the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) created in Paris, in April 1951, which made autonomous national development impossible in the industries that, at the same time, were strategically central to any future war effort. This initiative led to the two Treaties of Rome, and the European Economic Community, oriented toward improving trade and investment among the six nations.

The 1973 and 1979 economic crises ushered in an era of euro-pessimism. The inclusion of Greece, in 1981, and particularly that of Spain and Portugal in 1986, brought in some dynamic new players. Yet it was the feeling that Europe could become an economic and technological colony of American and Japanese companies that led to the second major defensive reaction, represented by the Single European Act (SEA) of 1987, setting up steps towards the constitution of a truly unified market by 1992. Broader powers were given to the European Commission; the European Council (representing heads of executives) obtained majority voting procedures in several key domains; and the European Parliament received some limited powers.

The overall geopolitical environment suddenly changed again on 9 November, 1989, prompting another round of European construction. The end of the Cold War allowed a newly unified Germany with eighty million people and thirty per cent of the European Community’s GNP, to be truly independent of the tutelage under which it had been kept for over four decades by the victors of World War II. The essence of the negotiations amounted to fully integrating the German economy with the rest of Europe, by moving toward a single European currency, the euro, and an independent, European Central Bank.

By reinforcing the decision-making power of European institutions, particularly by making it more difficult to form a blocking minority vote in the European Council, European-wide policies began to take precedence over national policies in areas as varied as infrastructure, technology, research, education, environment, regional development, immigration, justice and police, in a process symbolized by the change of name from European Community to European Union (EU). In terms of the European construction, for all its limits and contradictions, the Maastricht Treaty signed in December 1991, marked an irreversible process of economic and political integration in the EU, a process by and large confirmed in December 1996 by the “stability (and growth) pact” reached in Dublin.

On the other hand, the diversity of situation among the countries negotiating their future membership, has led to ‘Europe a la carte’ – different levels of integration depending upon countries and issues. This ‘variable geometry’ of European construction, for all its incoherence, is an essential instrument of the construction itself, as it prevents frontal conflicts among major partners, while allowing European institutions to muddle through the challenges presented by the two processes that, at the same time, further and oppose integration: economic globalisation and cultural identity.

Europe between globalisation and nationalism

European integration is, at the same time, a reaction to the process of globalisation and its most advanced expression. It is proof that the global economy is not an undifferentiated system made up of firms and capital flows, but a regionalised structure in which old national institutions and new supranational entities still play a major role in organising economic competition, and in reaping, or spoiling, the benefits of it. Yet while most economic activity and most jobs in the world are national, regional, or even local, the core, strategic economic activities are globally integrated in the Information Age through electronically enacted networks of exchange of capital, commodities, and information. It is this global integration that induces and shapes the current process of European unification, on the basis of European institutions historically constituted around predominantly political goals.

The whirlwind of globalisation is triggering defensive reactions around the world, often organised around the principles of national and territorial identity. In Europe, this perceived threat materialises in the expanding powers of the European Union. Widespread citizen hostility to the process of unification is reinforced by the discourse of most political leaders presenting the European Union as the necessary adaptation to globalisation, with the corollary of economic adjustment, flexibility of labour markets, and shrinkage of the welfare state, as the sine qua non conditions for the integration of each country in the European Union.

Thus, since the acceleration of the integration process coincided since the 1990s with rising unemployment, widespread job insecurity, and greater social inequality, significant sections of the European population tend to affirm their nations against their states, seen as captives of European supranationality. It is revealing that, with the partial exception of Britain, the political establishment of all countries, both at the centre-right and on the centre-left, are unquestionably pro-European, while most public opinions are sharply divided at best. Xenophobic reactions against increased immigration fuel nationalist politics, including in some countries, such as Austria and Switzerland, the extremist brand of nationalist politics that European citizens seemed to have rejected for good.

This insecurity is enhanced by the growing multi-ethnicity and multi-culturalism of European societies, which trigger racism and xenophobia as people affirm their identity both against supranational and against cultural diversification. The linkage in the public mind, between crime, violence, terrorism, and ethnic minorities/foreigners/the ‘other’, leads to a dramatic surge in European xenophobia, just at the high point of European universalism. This is, in fact, in historical continuity with the previous unification of medieval Europe around Christianity – that is, an intolerant, religious boundary, exclusive of infidels, pagans, and heretics.

Stretching the elastic of democracy

There is an additional, fundamental source of people’s distrust of European institutions: what has come to be labelled ‘the democratic deficit’. Significant powers affecting the livelihood of citizens have been transferred to the European Union, mainly to the European Council and the Council of Ministers, representing European nation-states, and to the European Commission acting on their behalf. Essential economic policy decisions have even been placed under the control of the European Central Bank. Between the act of choosing, every four years, from two different options of government, and the daily management of a complex, pan-European system, there is so much distance that citizens feel definitively left out.

There are no ‘European conflicts’. Besides farmers littering the streets of Brussels with their produce (still unhappy in spite of being entirely subsidised by all other Europeans and, indirectly, by most of the developing world), expressions of transnational collective mobilisation aimed at European decision-making are negligible. The apprenticeship of European citizenship is absent, to a large extent because European institutions are usually happy to live in their secluded world of technocratic agencies and deal-making councils of ministers. (For instance, the possibilities of using networks of computer-mediated communication for the dissemination of information and citizen participation were still all but ignored at the dawn of the new century).

Thus, confronted with a decline in democracy and citizen participation, at a time of globalisation of the economy and Europeanisation of politics, citizens increasingly affirm their nations. Nationalism, not federalism, is the concomitant development of European integration. And only if the European Union is able to handle and accommodate nationalism will it survive as a political construction.

But if nations, independently from the state, become the sources of identity-based legitimacy for the construction of Europe, the issue arises : which nations? The retrenchment around the principle of national identity is strengthening the nation-states against the European Union in some countries, while reinforcing the European Union against the current nation-states in others. The search for identity as an antidote to economic globalisation and political disenfranchisement also permeates below the level of the nation-state, adding new dynamism to regions and cities around Europe. Regional and local governments are currently playing a major role in revitalising democracy, and opinion polls show a higher degree of citizen trust in these lower levels of government, compared with national and supranational levels. Both cities and regions have established European networks that coordinate initiatives, and learn from each other, putting into action a novel principle of cooperation and competition.

The key element in gradually establishing the European Union’s legitimacy, without jeopardising its policy-making capacity, is the ability of its institutions to link up with subnational levels of government – regional and local – by a deliberate extension of the subsidiarity principle. Under this principle, Union institutions only take charge of decisions that lower levels of government, including nation-states, cannot assume effectively. The real process of re-legitimisation of Europe appears to be taking place in the burgeoning of local and regional initiatives in economic development, as well as in cultural expressions and social rights, which link up horizontally with each other, while also linking up with European programmes directly, or through their respective national governments.

As Orstrom Moller writes, the future European model may be made up of the articulation of economic internationalisation and cultural de-centralisation.

For example, the reward for local football teams in their national competition is to become ‘European’ – a goal that many teams can reach, in contrast with only a few three decades ago. At the same time, a significant proportion of players are ‘foreigners’. The result is that people mobilize around the identity of their city, as represented by a group of largely foreign professional players competing in various European leagues. It is through this sort of basic life mechanism that the real Europe is coming into existence – by sharing experience on the basis of meaningful, palpable identity. How then, can unification proceed between the high winds of globalisation and the warm hearth of locality ?

From here to there: forming the European ‘network state’

That the process of European integration is as advanced as it is at the turn of the millennium can be partly explained by the fact that the EU does not supplant the existing nation-states. On the contrary, it is a fundamental instrument for their survival. But this convergence of interests still had to find an institutional expression to be operational. It found it in a complex and changing geometry of European institutions that combines the control of decision-making by national governments (the European Council, its rotating presidency, and regular meetings of the Council of Ministers); the management of common European business by a euro-technocracy, directed by the politically appointed European Commission; and the symbolic expressions of legitimacy in the European Parliament, the Court of Justice and the Court of Auditors. The relentless negotiations within this set of institutions, and between the national actors pursuing their strategies, may look cumbersome and inefficient. Yet it is precisely this indeterminacy and this complexity that make it possible to accommodate in the EU various interests and changing policies, not only from different countries, but from the different political orientations of parties elected to government. (The process becomes even more complicated with the introduction of a single currency and with the process of enlargement.) The European Union is essentially organized as a network that involves the pooling and sharing of sovereignty, rather than the transfer of sovereignty to a higher level. Together, its institutions epitomize the network state.

The network state is a state characterised by the sharing of authority (that is, in the last resort, the capacity to impose legitimized violence) along a network. A network by definition, has nodes, not a centre. Nodes may be of different sizes, and may be linked by asymmetrical relationships in the network. Not only do national governments still concentrate much decision-making capacity, but there are important differences of power between nation-states, although the hierarchy of power varies in different dimensions: Germany is the hegemonic economic power, but Britain and France hold far greater military power, and at least equal technological capacity.

However, regardless of these asymmetries, the various nodes of the European network are interdependent on each other, so that no node, even the most powerful, can ignore the others, even the smallest in the decision-making process. If some political nodes do so, the whole political system is called into question. This is the difference between a political network and a centred political structure. Amongst the responses of political systems to the challenge of globalisation, the European Union may be the clearest manifestation to date of this emerging form of state, probably characteristic of the Information Age.

In the end, however, the unification of Europe will probably not be fulfilled only by skillful political engineering. In the context of democratic societies, Europe will only unify if its citizens want it to do so. And it is unlikely that this acceptance will take place exclusively on the basis of instrumental interests of managing globalisation, particularly when this management will certainly hurt considerable sections of the population.

From here to there: forming a European identity

European unification, in a long-term perspective, requires European identity. However, the notion of European identity is problematic at best. It cannot be built around Christianity. It cannot be built around the notion of democracy: first, because democratic ideals are shared around the world; secondly, precisely because democracy is in crisis in its current dependency on the nation-state. It will be difficult, and dramatic, to build it around ethnicity at a time when Europe is becoming increasingly diverse in ethnic terms. It is by definition impossible to build it on national identity, albeit if the preservation of national identity will be necessary for European unification to proceed. And it will not be easy to defend a European economic identity as core economic activities become globalised. Do most people feel European – besides feeling French, Spanish, or Catalan – according to opinion polls? Yes. Do they know what it means? In their majority, no. Do you know? Even with the euro in circulation in 2002, its extra-economic meaning will be lost unless there is a broader cultural transformation of European societies.

So, by and large, there is no European identity. But it could be built, not in contradiction, but complementary to national, regional and local identities. What could be the content of such a European identity project in the Information Age? Everybody has their preferences. But if we ask, what are the elements that actually appear in the discourse and practice of social actors opposing globalisation and disenfranchisement, without regressing to communalism? Then a picture begins to emerge. Liberty, equality, fraternity; the defence of the welfare state, of social solidarity, of stable employment, and of workers’ rights; concern for universal human rights and the plight of the ‘fourth world’; the reaffirmation of democracy, and its extension to citizen participation at the local and regional level; the vitality of historically/territorially rooted cultures, often expressed in language.

Most Europeans would probably support these values. Their affirmation, for instance in the defence of the welfare state and stable employment against the pressures of globalisation, would take extraordinary changes in the economy and in institutions. But this is precisely what an identity project is: not a utopian proclamation of dreams, but a struggle to impose alternative ways of economic development, sociability and governance. Probably, only if these embryos find political expression will the process of European unification ultimately be accomplished.

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