As Scotland votes on independence from the United Kingdom, the spotlight is on why stable, prosperous countries in Europe face the threat of disintegration.
By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent In London, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2014
By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent In London, The Straits Times, 15 Sep 2014
HISTORY is replete with examples of countries which, defeated in wars or convulsed by revolutions, collapse or become fragmented.
However, if the people of Scotland vote this week for independence - thereby breaking up the United Kingdom - they would be doing so not because the British state has failed them or because they face either economic hardship or political discrimination, but simply because they feel like it.
And if Scotland goes its own way, several other European countries may follow suit: Spain faces a similar separatist referendum and could disintegrate as early as the end of this year, and it may be followed by Belgium, Slovakia and Romania, with Italy and France not that far behind.
In short, we may be on the cusp of a new wave of European revolutions, bloodless but nevertheless profound in their implications. Understanding why some of the most prosperous, stable and well-governed countries in the world are now facing the threat of disintegration is, therefore, not just a useful academic exercise, but a vital contingency planning task.
First, it is important to realise that Europe's current separatist tendencies have nothing to do with similar movements which convulsed the "old continent" in previous centuries, for they are not about people yearning to be free by demanding to be recognised as nations.
The Scots have been treated as a nation as far back as 1603, when it was actually a Scottish king who took over the crown of England. Belgium's Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloons were similarly recognised as distinct national entities for over a century, as are the Catalans and Basques in Spain, and the Hungarians of Romania and Slovakia, to name but just a few protagonists in Europe's complicated ethnic patchwork.
The real dispute today in Scotland and elsewhere in Europe is not, therefore, about the recognition of nations, but about the demands of these nations to acquire the apparatus of new states.To be sure, some of the nations now wishing to secede were on the receiving end of years of neglect and often also outright discrimination. The English have frequently treated the Scots with condescension, French-speakers have often marginalised Dutch speakers in Belgium and, as late as the 1970s, any expression of Catalan or Basque national identity would have earned a jail sentence in Spain. But those days are long gone: all these nations now have their own local legislatures, flags, anthems, separate sports teams and regional governments; the Scots even print their own banknotes and stamps. Bizarrely, however, instead of calming down separatist demands, autonomy plans have only made these worse.
Lack of state identity
ONE explanation for this curious outcome - that the more powers are handed over to constituent nations in Europe, the more they feel dissatisfied with their countries of residence - is that some of the constitutional measures put in place are simply faulty. It is not by accident that the problem is now most acute in Britain, a country which wrote countless Constitutions for all its former colonies but somehow considered itself above the need to have a written Constitution for itself.
The real answer to the United Kingdom's national problem is to create a federal state, one in which each nation has equal rights and shares equal responsibilities. Instead, the British granted varying powers to Scots, Welsh and Irish, but none to the majority English, who have no Parliament of their own.
"Devolution", as the process of transferring powers from the British government to the Scots is called, has proven to be a particular disaster, for it gave a Scottish government dominated by separatists enough power to claim credit for any popular measure, while still blaming the central British government in London for anything that went wrong.
Another explanation for the rise of separatism is that today's European states have neglected civic and patriotic education and, as a result, have failed to create a sense of belonging which transcends that of their component nations. Britishness was an identity born out of Protestant Christian disdain for Catholics in Europe, and the acquisition of imperial territory. The British Empire has gone, and religion is no longer a binder, so nothing is left to glue the country together, apart from the Queen, which the Scots have cleverly claimed as also their own.
It was noticeable that during the current independence referendum campaign, every single British politician has struggled to make an emotional case for keeping the kingdom united. The same problem is obvious in other European countries as well: half a century after emerging from dictatorship, Spain has still not adopted new words for its national anthem largely because its nations cannot agree what these should be.
Either way, the result of this failure to forge a state identity is that the separatists - with their romantic views of past glories of their nations - have succeeded in portraying themselves as modern, while those who wish to preserve existing states are, curiously, castigated as yesterday's men.
BUT the biggest reason for Europe's current wave of assertive nationalism is that it is both a reaction to and a product of globalisation. In an age when borders no longer matter and ideologies have evaporated, the "call of the nation", the reminiscences of the past, are appealing.
Nationalism is such a draw precisely because it is not a rational feeling: at its very basic, it depends on nothing more than the promise of a glorious future based on an often fabricated, supposedly glorious past. Scottish nationalists have said nothing about what they would do to keep their country prosperous; instead, they tearfully evoked the allegedly wonderful days when Scotland was a separate kingdom. Previous generations of nationalists warned their people about the sacrifices they were expected to make, the blood they were expected to shed so that their nation would be free.
But globalisation has allowed the current generation of European nationalists to pretend that independence requires no bigger sacrifice than casting a ballot paper in a box - and comes cost-free.
The Scots are told, for instance, their country will be both independent and operate the British pound, that their nation would not need to spend much on its security and armed forces, because others in Europe would do it for them. It may all strike outsiders as nonsense, yet judging by current opinion polls, almost half of the Scottish electorate believes it.
And so do the Catalans in Spain, who are planning to hold their own independence referendum this November; they too pretend that they can pick the bits they want out of Spain, discard the rest and get others to pay their bills. That too is the result of globalisation, and of the existence of the European Union.
Desperate to avoid their countries' disintegration, Europe's politicians are rushing to offer their separatists every conceivable concession. The British government is promising that, if the Scots give up their independence quest, they will be given even more powers, including the right to raise their own taxes, while still getting subsidies from London. Meanwhile, the Belgians have selected a separatist leader as their next prime minister, in the hope that with greater powers he will also become more responsible.
Perhaps such measures would work, but only as stop-gaps. For if Europe's current states are to survive, they will need to reinvent themselves and forge a new purpose. This is doable: it is noticeable that throughout Britain, the Union Flag is now flown from public buildings much more frequently, and the Scottish flag also flies on public buildings in London. Still, forging a new identity is a task for generations.
In the meantime, however, all that European leaders can do is to keep this challenge in perspective, and not to allow themselves to be paralysed by the spectre of separatism. For next to a broken Britain, the worst outcome will be a Britain which is inward looking, obsessed with preserving its territorial integrity and no longer interested in shouldering its international responsibilities.
One thing is, however, certain: if the current nationalists succeed in establishing new states, the first thing they would do is to deny others the same right. The Scottish government is already rejecting demands for a separate status from some of its remote islands. When it comes to nationalism, what is good for the goose is never good for the gander.