Research into ‘postnational’ things is very fashionable at the moment. Yet there appears to be little agreement about the content of the term ‘postnational’. Worse, there even appears to be little discussion. And worse still is that there might not be enough awareness of the persisting inconsistency in the use of the term. Too few authors bother to define the term even vaguely when they use it.

By Eljalill Tauschinsky

This does not make it any easier to disentangle the different uses of the attribute ‘postnational’. Looking through literature one is able to distinguish differences in ‘flavour’ rather than meaning. The following list is of course in no way itself scientific. Indeed, scientific study would probably have to engage in content analysis to come to its definitions. While this is not what I will (or can) do, I nevertheless dare to give a view impressions on the uses of the term. Admittedly, they might be of a personal and thus subjective nature, as flavours and tastes generally tend to be.

Sweet: In some publications, ‘postnational’ appears to be a word for something new and exciting. Postnationalism is the next great thing, after nation states have turned sour. Any trend which is identified as new, and which is not clearly a strengthening of traditional 19th century nation states is dubbed ‘postnational’. And since nation states were responsible for the horrors of the 20th century, postnationalism is essentially good.

Bitter: For others, this term appears to be a menace. Nation states are seen to safeguard fundamental rights and social justice, and the postnational development – globalization- is threatening these values. These are probably fewer than the sweet proponent – through they appear to be increasing in number (or at least in volume of contributions). In their view, nation states are the sweet guarantors of most things good and to see their importance decrease is bitter.

Sour: To some scientists, researching something ‘postnational’ is saying, that the topic is complicated or messy and provides for a sour fare. Empirical observations are either over- or underwhelming, the situation is hard to describe coherently and conclusions are hard to come by.

Five Spice powder: Similar to the ‘sweet proponents’, but less opinionated, there a scientists who appear to put anything which is done outside the framework of a single nation state into the ‘postnational’ category. Classical international law is then just an embryonic form of the postnational constellation. ‘Postnational’ is thus an attribute of most contemporary developments and could be used as a doing away with the awkward ‘post-modern’ (or ‘post-post-modern’…). It is not used to convey any kind of judgment of a situation. Just like five spice powder, ‘postnational’ situations will contain elements of all kinds of tastes – which in turn makes this their specific characteristic.

Miracle Berry: Just as a miracle berry makes sour things taste sweet, some researcher focus on the ‘postnational’ situation bridging earlier divides. The miraculous thing is the new possibilities of the bright postnational world. Thus, private actors making public law is the prime example of the ‘postnational’ constellation, and it matters not whether they make national or international public law, or whether this can be distinguished in the first place. There are those focusing on the sweet outcome and the great qualities of such rules, and those focusing on the sour pedigree and the threat to democracy that this process poses, but the defining characteristic is the potential of postnational law to change its nature.

One can indeed see all these reactions too in the treatment of the EU. The EU is either ‘sweet’, because it overcame the member states and their animosities, or it stand for the liberalisation which it promotes is a bitter pill for the workforce, the environment and so many other things we hold dear. Many find the EU overly complicated and even messy. Some find the term ‘postnational’ simply to be a description of the EU, precisely because it is not a nation state. Yet some have doubts, as the EU itself is a normal public law organisation. For them the strong links to industry and the public private dialogue it engages in in some fields are the postnational elements to be studied. The EU then is ‘normal’ and not a ‘postnational miracle (berry)‘ at all.

While a mix of flavours often makes for a pleasant meal, the un-reflected use of all of them is relatively unpalatable. The discussions which invoke the term ‘postnational’ would benefit from greater reflection and clarity on the connotations that are implied and intended by the use of the word.

Eljalill Tauschinsky LL.M., M.Sc is a PhD researcher at the Amsterdam Centre for European Law and Governance. Her personal page can be accessed here.

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