Would you die for Athens?

, by Juuso Järviniemi

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Would you die for Athens?
Anti-austerity protest in Athens, 21 June 2015. Photograph: DTRocks // Wikimedia Commons ([CC BY-SA 4.0])

Nationalism gets strong criticism from many European federalists, and a brief glance at 20th century European history is enough to understand why. For its flaws, however, the idea of nationhood has made important contributions to the stability of our societies. As people are made to believe that they are kin with someone living at the other end of the country, it becomes much easier to justify to them why they should agree to pay taxes to distant communities, or why they should sacrifice their lives as they defend the strange region against an invader. If these bonds of loyalty can exist between Helsinki and Rovaniemi, then why not Helsinki and Athens?

Adding representation to taxation

Taxpayers in richer areas of a country may sometimes grudge about how their hard-earned money is wasted elsewhere. Social attitudes and political values influence how strong these grudges are, but differing national loyalties within states take the tensions to a new level. Think of Catalonia, where economic grievances fuel outright hostility as the question of nationhood is thrown into the mix. Move the tax money beyond a state border, and you will hear laments about “our taxes being poured to those lazy Mediterraneans”.

Without a doubt, one source of frustration is that the recipient of the tax money is called Alexandros, not Aleksi, and that there are lines on a map between where you live and where he lives. However, another problem is that in Helsinki one cannot vote on Greek economic policy. As long as fiscal policy powers lie at the national level, sending money from Helsinki to Athens amounts to taxation without representation.

During the Eurocrisis, support for struggling states was made contingent on austerity measures, which may be thought of as a way around this. Such ad hoc intergovernmental deals were, however, clumsy and elicited protest about foreign governments curtailing the national sovereignty of the recipient countries. A better-established system, based on democratic control rather than eleventh-hour backroom deals, would be the best of both worlds: the Finn gets her representation through the European Parliament, while Alexandros’s subsistence is not threatened.

This argument for strengthening the EU’s fiscal capacities this way has become a staple for federalists. Given that we already share a currency, bringing economic policies closer together is simply logical. The alternative is to revert to pre-euro times which were hardly the stablest of all. As we saw above, at the same time this would solve deeper democratic issues around supporting struggling Eurozone economies.

Blood on the streets of Athens

What about the ultimate sacrifice? A strong sense of belonging together, as well as training designed for the specific purpose of obliviating any lingering philosophical doubts, are undoubtedly required before an individual agrees to risk dying for their community. Would such a fragile bond be broken by something as obvious as your fellow warriors speaking a language you cannot understand? Not necessarily. After all, Finnish hakkapeliitta cavalrymen fought for the Swedish-led Swedish military in distant Central European battlefields in the Thirty Years’ War, but Finnish separatism from the Swedish kingdom was unheard of.

Why a Helsinki-based soldier should fight to the death in the marshes of Lapland may be based on the idea that if Rovaniemi is lost, Helsinki will inevitably suffer also. Helpless refugees may pour in, industries that used to help sustain Helsinki may collapse, and the hostile power may have an easier time progressing further. Manufactured kinship aside, political interdependence between two areas of the same country seems a rational reason to jump to another city’s defence.

Interdependence like this is not on-off, but rather a spectrum. Like war strategists at the top of the command chain may have to debate what towns to concede to an invader, we might ask whether Athens and Helsinki truly have such a special connection that it is worth a potential mauled limb.

What is certain is that the connections between European countries today are remarkably strong. If an economic crisis and empty wallets in Athens sparked recurring panic across Europe, including Helsinki, it is hard to imagine floods of blood on the city’s streets passing without notice.

Another point is that if an area, say the town of Lieksa in Eastern Finland, is part of a shared administrative unit, like a state, it shall be defended ‘in principle’ because that’s how Westphalian territoriality works. Given that the European Union has a broad array of policy competences, perhaps we should begin thinking of the EU, rather than the state, as our common administrative unit in this context. As such, all parts of the EU, including the Greek island of Lemnos, would be defended ‘in principle’, but the practical choices would be made according to the situation.

While the idea that Eurozone members’ economic interdependence is sufficiently strong to justify a common fiscal policy has been accepted rather widely among pro-European circles, the idea of extending the argument to military security may be more contentious. However, assuming that European integration moves forward not backwards, logically it is becoming progressively more sensible for generals, too, to treat Athens as not too different from Rovaniemi.

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