PARIS — Considered anti-constitutional by Spanish courts (and denounced by the King), the Oct. 1 independence referendum in Catalonia fits in with a much broader, global trend: the identity awakening. Everywhere we see regionalism, nationalism as well as religious devotion growing in intensity, sometimes morphing into intolerance. It's the great paradox of globalization: Far from erasing the peoples' identitarian and cultural claims, it reinforces them.

This groundswell is patent in faraway lands such as Myanmar or Nigeria, but it doesn't spare Europe either. From the French and Dutch saying "no" in referendums on the European Constitution in 2005 to Brexit, from the rise of the far-right National Front in France to Hungary and Poland's rejection of multiculturalism, from Catalan and Scottish separatists to the rise of Salafism among Muslim communities, the identity awakening, be it ethnic or religious, is the great challenge of our time.

In his speech at the Sorbonne University, Emmanuel Macron brought forward the new political concept of "European sovereignty." But the identity awakening is a serious obstacle standing in the president's way. For there can be no sovereignty without nation. And 60 years after the Treaty of Rome, there is still no such thing as even a beginning of a European nation.

Withdrawal would be suicidal.

Europe is still just a civilization, not a nation. Although they share that civilization (fed by the legacy of the Ancient Greek-Roman times, Judeo-Christian heritage and the Enlightenment) Estonians, Greeks, Germans, Italians, Portuguese and Irishmen will never share this "community of experience" which makes a nation, as the French political scientist Pierre Manent has defined it.

Similarly, the definition of a nation according to 19th-century philosopher Ernest Renan — the will to live together — doesn't really fit Europe. France is a nation because a Parisian can accept to pay taxes for his fellow Frenchmen in Guadeloupe, in southern France or in Corsica. Europe isn't a nation because a German will never accept to pay taxes for a Greek. If Catalans and Castilians can no longer form a Spanish nation, it's hard to see how all the peoples of Europe could form a European nation together.


Macron at the Sorbonne University on Sept. 26 — Photo: monsieurlepresidentem via Instagram

The identity awakening in Europe is bound to undermine the prospect of a European nation. It makes peoples suspicious regarding supranational constructions. Rightly or wrongly, the peoples have the impression that the European institutions had denied their identities instead of defending them. They feel that instead of favoring European industrial producers and the European economic identity, these institutions' orders to open European markets has favored Chinese and Indian exports. They consider that instead of asserting European culture loud and clear, they swept it under the carpet (when former French president Jacques Chirac blocked attempts to include a reference to Europe's obvious "Christian roots" in the 2005 Treaty). Finally, the European institutions are accused of having promoted uncontrolled Muslim immigration and multiculturalism.

And yet, the European project evidently is in the interests of European citizens. Against such a demographic, industrial and commercial power such as China, against the U.S.' technological might and its legal, financial and monetary hegemony, no European nation can compete alone. Any withdrawal would be suicidal.

The Europe we must build is therefore a Europe of nations, one that respects the peoples, their identities and sovereignties. It must cease to be a technocratic machine producing stacks of internal norms but incapable of opposing the machine from across the Atlantic. It must distinguish itself with great projects, such as the creation of a European Amazon, or navigation system, something similar to Airbus and Ariane.

Instead of a fanciful "European sovereignty," what Emmanuel Macron is looking for is probably better defined as "European might" capable of promoting industrial champions and of resisting legal and financial constraints from overseas, as well as social, economic or environmental dumping. Only by refocusing its attention on the great projects that make it stronger will Europe spark the enthusiasm of all the many European peoples so busy worrying about their identity.

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