For years, experts in political matters have debated whether Europe constitutes a cohesive political entity or whether it is, as Metternich famously remarked about Italy, merely a geographical term.
The idea of a political Europe has been aspirational at least since World War I, when it became clear to many that if the European states continued to fight against each other, they risked being crushed by extra-continental powers; Europe itself would lose its significance, reduced to a mere geographical term.
Following World War II, France spearheaded the revival of the European project. Seizing the opportunity presented by Germany’s temporary weakness, Paris envisioned itself picking up where Napoleon had left off, but rather than relying on the Grande Armée, France aimed to extend its influence by promoting the seductive idea of continental pacification and brotherhood among European peoples; while also, of course, creating a formidable, unified power capable of countering the overpowering -- and overbearing -- dominance of the United States.
Many saw this as proof of French arrogance, a mistake often made by those who conflate politics with morality. Throughout history, the processes of national unification have typically originated from a central nucleus imposing its will on others, by any means available. France, in fact, was limited not by its arrogance, but by the lack of a solid foundation for that arrogance. In other words, France could not assert its dominance unilaterally; its force de frappe
alone was not sufficient: it required the support of the German economic powerhouse. Thus, the Franco-German axis emerged, albeit with some discontent on both sides of the Rhine, particularly as Paris persisted to view Europe as a continuation of France by other means.
Past national unifications succeeded under two conditions: when the founding nucleus held overwhelming superiority, and when it was able to negotiate compromises with reluctant regions (the first not necessarily excluding the second). The foundation of nation-states relies on a compromise wherein the common (national) interest supersedes particular interests, especially during critical junctures in the nation’s history.
Today, states are weakened by politicians’ inability to prioritize their nation’s higher interest over particular interests. If the particular interests of a specific category within a particular European country override the general European interest, the crisis deepens, potentially becoming irreparable.
The conflict between farmers from different European countries against farmers from other countries (both European and non-European) is arguably more detrimental to international relations than the Gaza crisis. It represents an unprecedented surge of agricultural nationalism; unprecedented not because it has never existed before (moving top-down, agricultural nationalism becomes agricultural regionalism, which in turn becomes agricultural localism, finally reaching “kilometer zero”), but because never have various European governments, plus the European Commission, been so responsive to it.
France’s young Prime Minister openly champions “l’exception agricole française.”
He thus endorses the demands of the country’s 500,000 farmers for protectionist policies against Italian, Spanish and non-European goods, as well as the relaxation of European regulations (except for subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy, or CAP, of course), particularly environmental measures aimed at addressing climate change.
Italian and Spanish farmers are rallying for similar protections against imports, including goods from France. Both the Italian and Spanish governments are siding with their farmers. Even Ursula Von der Leyen, in her efforts to maintain some cohesion within the European Union, appears inclined to support the farmers, to the extent of throwing away some key elements of the European Green Deal, which she had previously characterized as “Europe’s man-on-the-Moon moment.”
From one’s own perspective, individual interests always seem justified. Each specific sector of the society aims to advance its own agenda, sometimes even for its own survival. However, Hobbes tells us that the task of the state is, or at least should be, to harmonize particular interests with the general interest; and in cases of irreconcilable conflict, to impose general interest over particular interests.
Today, however, the opposite situation prevails, often to the applause of public opinion. And the more public opinion celebrates, the more governments are enticed to endorse particular interests that enjoy popular support. But public opinion fails to connect all the dots: agricultural nationalism
results in scarcer and pricier goods at supermarkets; agricultural nationalism indefinitely delays efforts to combat global warming (a cause that the same public opinion cheers for); agricultural nationalism undermines Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression, a cause that public opinion once fervently supported, although now with diminishing conviction; agricultural nationalism indefinitely postpones the realization of the peaceful and fraternal Europe we have been taught to cherish since our school days; and finally, agricultural nationalism inevitably derails the free trade agreement with Latin America, further impeding the free movement of capital, goods and people (another cause that public opinion cheers for), thus escalating international tensions and providing inspiration for protectionists worldwide to raise their barriers even higher.
All particular interests primarily seek financial gain. As governments become increasingly fragile and anxious about the upcoming European elections in June, they make promises to provide whatever financial support is requested. This generosity reinforces the belief that there is an endless supply of money available, fueling the aspirations and greed of other special interests. So much for the public debt, which continues to soar.
When we take all these ingredients and mix them together, it becomes clearer why the farmers’ war against Europe might resemble a pivotal moment that, more than Apollo 11 (“the man on the Moon”) will end up reminding us of Apollo 13 (“Houston, we have a problem”).