Once the coronavirus pandemic subsides, the nation-state will make a comeback. Even those who think they despise it must today envision its rebirth; throughout these days of lockdown and death, we have witnessed manifestations of strong, positive national identity in Italy and in many other countries in Europe. And of course, in Israel.
Italians and Israelis cannot help but feel a sense of great pride and emotion as their respective nations react, fight and survive both the pandemic and the selfish, bureaucratic international institutions. It has been moving to see Italians singing their traditional popular songs from their terraces, balconies and windows to boost morale, reminding us of how beautiful it can be to be Italian; it is touching to see the red, green and white flag hanging from windows.
Together, Italians anticipate Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte or President Sergio Matterella’s next speech. Not because they love them particularly, but because they find courage in the flag that hangs behind them, in being Italian, in finding again a strong historical, aesthetic, familial and even religious identity.
Israel is a country that has never lost its sense of identity, but is still striving to create it: we are used to war, to love for our country, and we can feel the same love in the words of the prime minister when he speaks to the Jewish people. Even when he doesn’t say it explicitly, the message is always there: We have worked so hard for our country, it’s in our DNA—a virus will not take it from us.
This is a feeling all the peoples of Europe are now feeling anew: We will find our strength inside.
Italy is discovering these days that the south is not its most unfortunate half, but the north; poor and rich are in the same boat, and so too are big and small businesses, and everything else Italy has built since World War II—schools, workplaces, institutions, healthcare facilities, universities, etc. Italy is a tapestry of these structures and of the lives of each of the inhabitants of “the boot”—not Brussels .
Indeed, the arrogance of neighbors like Germany, which once again is giving the impression it is thinking solely of itself, has been deeply irritating. States suddenly find themselves at war with one another, and above all there is the underlying sense of the betrayal of the European Union, the supranational institution par excellence. Even the most convinced Europeanists have become more Italian, or French, or English, at this time when lives are under threat—and tomorrow, this won’t be forgotten.
The borderless utopia has been called into question. The overcoming of national customs in favor of European ones, the mutual loyalty, the ultra-liberal culture proposed by the EU, along with its notion of solidarity and moralistic claims—nothing is certain anymore. None of it held up when faced with a true challenge. As the coronavirus pandemic spread, E.U. member states closed their borders one by one. Schengen has sunk. Italy, Spain, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Georgia and Russia have all closed their borders, prohibited the export of goods deemed essential, and withheld humanitarian aid.
After French President Emmanuel Macron initially declared that the virus had no passport and German Chancellor Angela Merkel preached open borders, both leaders imposed nationwide lockdown measures. In the end, national interest won out. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán isn’t Macron, but at this moment they sound alike: lock people down at home, surveil their movements.
We have already seen much written about the obvious clash between democratic values and the battle for life. There are those who focus on conscience and solidarity, while others instead focus on rights and punishment. However, what we intend to convey here is that the current crisis has revitalized the national idea, which draws its strength from one’s own customs, traditions, mutual loyalty and natural solidarity, and cast into doubt an international unity that has turned out to be rhetorical, useless, bureaucratic, more an impediment than anything else.
In its aspiration to change the course of history, the European Union has mistaken the nation-state for the imperialist state of Nazi fascism or Stalinism, as Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony has written, and has struggled to dismantle it. What a pity that the E.U. failed to understand the aspiration of nations to remain themselves and the strength that comes from being able to do this, and that nationalism only leads to evil when it’s wedded to imperialism and authoritarianism. In life-threatening times, Europe should have helped desperate nations to survive—but chose not to.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.