For those familiar with research on the nature of nationalism, the evolution of the European Union represents something of a puzzle. As the institutions of the EU have extended their reach, and as the number of members has grown, it is not surprising that the EU has attempted to promote a deeper sense of European identity.
But in a Europe of nation states this represents a singular challenge. Once mass populations have been socialised into a powerful sense of national identity – as Germans, as Finns, or as Irish, for example – this is extraordinarily difficult to dislodge. To the extent that people's loyalties are thus deflected from commitment to Europe, the construction of a powerful European superstructure is impeded. Yet, the process of institutional deepening has continued. How has this been possible?
There can be little doubt that the European Union of which Ireland is a member in 2013 is profoundly different from the EEC that Ireland joined in 1973. Although the end goal of the European "project" is more usually taken for granted than defined, to the extent that this is a federation of European member states, significant progress has been made.
The EU is run by a set of political and bureaucratic structures that are unusual, but recognisably similar to those of a federal state.
It still lacks two of the defining features of a federation: it does not yet control military and security services capable of ensuring that its writ runs and that its external interests are protected, and its foreign policy functions are shared with member states rather than independently managed by the EU.
The EU also lacks many of the distinctive features that have helped to shape identity at the level of the nation. Rather than having a shared language, it is a linguistic kaleidoscope.
It is true that it possesses the elements of common culture in its shared religious past, notwithstanding the profound sectarian antipathies that have marked the Christian tradition in western Europe, but the importance of religion in Europe has been receding.
The EU does, however, possess the ingredients for the creation of a powerful myth of the past, stretching back to the Roman Empire (see, for example, Wednesday's Irish Times supplement, "The New Europe"). It also shares other features that are commonly built into nationalist ideology: symbols, including an anthem and a flag; a self-defined collective "mission", the pursuit of peace; and, perhaps the most central of all ingredients in the formation of a collective identity, an "other", a role once filled by the Soviet Union, but with several alternative candidates now available.
Accommodating the diverse states of Europe to this vision cannot be easy. For many of them, the “other” defined in the nation-building process is now a fellow member of an important political structure. For the Irish, in particular, whose memory of a struggle for national independence left its imprint on the collective consciousness, compromising this independence once again might seem a particularly demanding sacrifice.
Yet, it is possible that nationalist values actually helped Ireland to accommodate to Europe: the EEC was, after all, an important counterbalance to the traditional enemy, Britain, and EU membership has meant a significant enhancement of Irish autonomy at least in respect of its larger neighbour. Without this, for instance, Ireland would no doubt be effectively using sterling as its currency, but its leaders would have little voice in its management.
The rejection of the Lisbon and Nice treaties by Irish voters may well have encouraged a perception of the Irish as unenthusiastic Europeans, a perception only partly modified by the result of the reruns. But it is worth recalling that the proposed European constitution was brought down by French and Dutch voters, and that others would no doubt have followed suit, and would also have voted against other aspects of the process of deepening European integration had they been given a chance.
Survey figures show consistently that positive Irish attitudes towards the EU continue to surpass those of most other member states. Irish enthusiasm for membership of the EU may have been declining over the past decade, but it has been declining elsewhere too, and the Irish lead over the European average continues to be rock solid.
It may well be the case that the pillars on which Irish nationalism has relied in the past – such as its ancestral language, a perceived link to the Catholic tradition, and a militantly separatist version of history – have all been undermined over recent decades, leaving space for the growth of broader patterns of loyalty.
But the pace at which public opinion seems to have changed must remain something of a puzzle. Why have Irish citizens, like their counterparts elsewhere, been prepared to give up the distinctive green passport, to adopt the euro in place of the pound, and perhaps even to defer to European foreign and defence priorities? And why have Irish elites, like elites in other member states, been willing to surrender decision-making capacity and to forgo domestic promotion prospects (even if much brighter prospects beckon for the few at EU level)?
These questions are challenging, and raise a more general issue about the puzzle referred to above. Rather than exploring “Euroscepticism”, whose roots are not at all surprising in a union of nation states, should we not be exploring “Euronationalism”, the force that has played so remarkable a role in driving the European integration process?
John Coakley, professor of politics at UCD and author of Reforming Political Institutions: Ireland in Comparative Perspective, is a speaker today at University College Cork's conference on "Reflections on 40 Years of Irish Membership of the EU".