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Euro 2016 Lessons: How Great Soccer And Good Nationalism Can Save Europe

The singular French joy of beating the Germans.
The singular French joy of beating the Germans.
Dominique Moïsi


PARIS — Call it the "glorieuse incertitude du sport" — the glorious uncertainty of sports. During the finals of soccer's just completed 2016 European Championship, Portugal saw its singular star Ronaldo taken out of the game after an injury, but won anyway against a favored host French team that had overcome its eternal nemesis, Germany, in the semifinals. But even if the team lost in the end, France can claim to have "won its Euro."

But beyond the results on the field, can we learn some geopolitical lessons from the Euro 2016? In the middle of the competition, Britain — and more precisely, the English — decided to leave the European Union through their Brexit referendum. While people across the continent were passionately following the fate of their respective national teams, the European Union was facing the most serious crisis of its history.

Quest for identity

Yes, indeed, there are lessons from the Euro 2016 that Europe should not ignore. The first and most important is linked to our emotions — it is called: nationalism. When we sing our own national anthems with fervor. In this increasingly globalized world and under the double impact of interdependence and transparency, that quest for identity of peoples only reinforces such expressions of nationalism. It is a nationalism in a more moderate and "civilized" guise, due in part to the same European Union structure now at risk, but it is a nationalism that is nonetheless felt more than ever.

In 1982, in a memorable World Cup semifinal match between France and Germany, the brutal and intentional body slam of German goalkeeper Harald Schumacher into French player Patrick Battiston spontaneously brought back memories from World War II against the "dirty Boches."

The day after this year's Germany-France game, the Germans warmly congratulated the French for their victory. The Franco-German reconciliation has indeed strengthened over time. More than 70 years separate us from World War II. But because of this passage of time, there is less of a European impulse, if not less Europe tout court. It would be crazy to think that in this period of profound doubts about our future, we could somehow just rush towards ever more integration and federalism.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Europe as a political and economic structure is more necessary than ever, because there are fewer and fewer Europeans and less European weight in the world — all the while, challenges continue to accumulate at our continent's borders.

More than neighborhoods

But those who think that more Europe right now is the only answer to these challenges maybe didn't notice — or understand — the emotions coming from the stadiums. The nations of Europe are not the equivalent of the "contrades", those rival neighborhoods of the Italian city of Siena that each year indulge in a fierce competition in the central piazza to win the Palio horse race.

To go back to the founding fathers' small Europe, as some desire, would not solve the problem either. Two of its members, France and the Netherlands already rejected the European Constitutional Treaty in referendums in 2005. It would further ostracize countries such as Poland, Croatia, Hungary and Romania who feel deeply European, even though doubts remain about their political and democratic development.

The Euro 2016, though it will remain bittersweet for the runnerup host France, has only reinforced the image of this continent as a land of football — and as a land of peace. To acknowledge the strength of nationalism does not mean giving in to the nasty rise of populism. It is quite the contrary, one needs to use it as a way to respond to those negative forces. The European Soccer Championship therefore stand out as the peaceful and modern expression of European nationalism.

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