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Picking up the pieces. Disintegrating Europe

October 8th, 2017

For 160 million years, overlapping substantially with the age of the dinosaurs, the entire landmass of the world was gathered together into a supercontinent called Pangaea.  And for much of the last 30 years, many devotees of the EU have imagined a single supercontinental system of government, as first western Europe and then much of eastern Europe has gloopily coalesced under a twelve-starred flag.  Laggards were expected to be absorbed over time with improvements in governance or, in the very long term, with an increased recognition of its virtues.

It hasn’t worked out that way.  Britain has voted to leave the EU, destroying the aura of inevitability around ever-closer union.  At a subnational level, the stresses have been seen in other areas too.  Scotland came close to voting for independence in 2014 and a large minority are as enthusiastic for that cause as ever.  Catalonian nationalists are wrestling with the Spanish government to secure independence at the moment, the Spanish government having decided to take a far more confrontational approach to assertive nationalists pushing their luck than the British coalition government ever did.

Spain seems intent on a course that will provide it with either with a province that will at best be bitterly resentful and at worst ungovernable or with a new neighbour with a grudge against it that will last for decades.  Through mismanagement, a difficult but salvageable relationship now looks unsalvageable.

Three looks like a trend.  It’s a trend that might not have ended yet either.  After an informal independence referendum in 2014, Veneto is holding a formal referendum at the end of this month on a proposal for further autonomy.  So is Lombardy.  Opinion polls suggest that support for independence in Sardinia is at a level comparable with that in Scotland and Catalonia.  Flemish nationalism remains strong.  Pan-Europa is fissuring.

Why?  No doubt whole books will be written on the subject.  1066 And All That joked that the Treaty of Versailles was the cause of increased geography.  Certainly it was the spur for a bout of nationalist country-making. Numbers of states then stayed relatively stable while the pressures of outside forces (Russia and Germany before 1945, Russia and the USA afterwards) made co-operation between national groups essential.  With the collapse of the USSR, the defensive need for nation size lessened sharply, and as a result much smaller countries emerged in the early 1990s, feeling comfortable sheltering under transnational groupings like NATO and the EU.

After a 20 year pause, the process of fragmentation has restarted.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it has restarted in the west of the continent, far from a militarily resurgent Russia that is eagerly egging this fragmentation on.  It seems to reflect in part a lack of interest in wider international responsibilities that western European countries might be perceived to have.

Mere cultural difference isn’t enough – Welsh nationalism and Scania separatism, to take two examples, have not yet really taken flight.  I note that in every case where separatist sentiment is surging (bar Sardinia), the secessionist part is at least as rich as its host.

The strident nativism that has been seen at a national level in France, the Netherlands and Germany (to name three) seems to have been driven by the poor, the old and the uneducated.  Brexit seems to belong with this nativist trend.  Likewise, Lombard and Venetian demands for greater autonomy are led by the Lega Nord, kindred spirits to UKIP. On the other hand, Catalan nationalism, like Scottish nationalism, has dressed to the left.  There is more than one component to the centrifugal forces.

Paradoxically, it is potentially easier for unhappy regions within the EU to break away from their existing national boundaries.  The EU provides an outer framework or safety net to break the fall.  Scottish nationalists never found a good answer to the question of what currency they would use after independence, while the question simply doesn’t arise if everyone around you is using the Euro. 

But that is only true if the seceding state is allowed into the EU.  Again, Scottish nationalists struggled (ironically with hindsight) to answer the question of how it would deal with the disruption to its EU membership.  Would Spain veto Catalonia’s membership of the EU, and if so for how long?  Would other member states tolerate it doing so?

The EU has a tightrope to walk, therefore, between not interfering in member states’ own affairs and not irrevocably alienating potential future member states.  It has not yet found the right institutional tone in relation to Catalonia, failing to comment on Spain’s disproportionate use of force against citizens, though as events unfold it no doubt has further opportunities to tack according to the prevailing winds.  Meanwhile, Europe – including Britain – continues its descent into introverted identity struggles.

Alastair Meeks