Why the nation state has had its day in Europe
The re-emergence of old regional loyalties in Europe is a natural evolution – and the EU should learn to accommodate it
For Europe, Catalonia’s preposterous quest for independence … opens an awful Pandora’s box. The European continent, painstakingly riveted together over the past five decades into a multi-ethnic community of 28 rule-based states, faces the danger of degeneration into a Babel of mini-states as separatist and autonomous movements are unleashed.
David Dodwell, Inside Out
I take a different view from my colleague, David Dodwell, here. I think the re-emergence of old regional loyalties in Europe is a natural evolution that was to be expected with the rise of the European Union – and the EU should learn to accommodate it.
Let’s also accept that it is already well under way. Britain wants out of Europe, much of Scotland wants out of Britain, Belgium has already effectively split into Flanders and Wallonia, and Germany is an uncomfortable 19th century concoction, as is Italy.
In France I recall visiting Carcassonne a few years ago and seeing the Catalan red and yellow everywhere, no French tricolour in sight. Even in the Netherlands I recall my grandmother’s scorn of The Hague as the home of lofty, impoverished loudmouths.
The unnatural thing here is actually the large nation state, a comparatively modern creation spawned by the great expense of modern military technology.
In warfare the old Greek city states mostly made do with spears, shields, and the stout hearts of unpaid citizen soldiers, which was not very costly. The medieval knight with his full body armour and charger cost more. Gunpowder armies cost more yet.
And now consider the enormous military expenditure to which Japan had to commit itself before launching the full Pacific War in 1941.
Yet its vaunted battle fleet was crushed by an even bigger one built by the United States, a union of self-governing colonies that subsumed their identities into a larger whole, by force when some of them resisted, to become the 20th century’s biggest fist-swinging tough.
Bigger is better, biggest is best. That’s the war-centred message of the nation state.
But nation states have always had trouble establishing identities to which their citizens could feel loyalty. They are mostly too ethnically diverse. Thus their leaders wrap themselves in national flags, bellow out national anthems, and make big speeches about national goals. If they don’t have an identity they will manufacture one.
Yet Europe was not always like that. Consider what was once called the Holy Roman Empire, a multi-ethnic complex of smaller states in central Europe, which lasted for hundreds of years. The European Union is something like that, or can be if it resists its more power-hungry bureaucrats.
And with a light-touch umbrella government to handle intra-regional and international relations at a time when the closest thing to a modern military threat is a buffoon in the White House, who needs nation states in Europe?
Let their peoples dissolve them if they choose. In Germany and Italy they have not existed for more than 150 years anyway, in Belgium little more than 200, in much of eastern Europe they never really existed at all and have since already split into their natural constituent parts.
The time of the nation state is past in Europe. Let it go. This is not a “degeneration into a Babel of mini-states.” It is a natural devolution of public administration made possible by the European Union.
It is also likely to introduce more efficient local government. Smaller states have always worked better than larger ones. Hong Kong and Singapore, for instance, put the United States to shame when it comes to fostering wealth and providing social services for their citizens.
Which brings up the question of what the Catalan independence movement portends for Hong Kong.
The answer is that there are no worthwhile parallels. Catalonia can possibly thrive as an independent economic entity even if Spain closes its Catalan border.
But now imagine Beijing closing its border with Hong Kong. That would be the end of Hong Kong, as likely in a matter of hours as of days. Hong Kong exists solely as a service economy to China and is inextricably bound to it.
Regional independence under an EU umbrella is a fine idea for Europe but a high degree of autonomy under a Beijing umbrella is as much Hong Kong can take. We thrive on dependence. Independence would destroy us.