Alex Massie

The Belgian Conundrum

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Ages ago - light years in blog terms in fact - Megan noticed The Economist pointing out that the euro has lessened the pressure that Belgian politicians might otherwise face to settle their differences and observes:

Now that the European Union has taken over the currency, as well as many of the trade and customs functions of traditional federal governments, Belgium as a state suddenly looks a lot less necessary. One wonders if the current era of economic integration (assuming it continues) might not bring increasing political balkanization.

Well, yes indeed. The same might be said of the United Kingdom. Moves towards greater regional autonymy across Europe are a direct response to the increasing power of the EU itself. As political life becomes more centralised on one supra-national level, so the forces  - and attraction - of localism become ever more powerful as voters seek a more flexible, responsive form of government in the areas of political life that have the most immediate impact upon their everyday lives.

This should not surprise; for many people what globalisation - seemingly so distant, so impersonal and yet also so very irresistible - strengthens their attachment to smaller platoons. Globalisation breeds localisation, if you will. These trends are  not opposed to one another, however. On the contrary, localism is only possible in the context of an increasingly prosperous, peaceful and open world.

Take the United Kingdom for example. John Steinbeck once wrote that it was wrong to consider Scotland a lost cause, for she merely remained an unwon cause. And there's been many - millions even - of Scots who have been sentimental Jacobites at one point or another. But most of the time for most of us, the head has ruled the heart. The old cause might tug the heart, but sober calculation of the national interest concluded that the Union - with all the security and economic guarantees it offered - was the better deal.

The EU has helped change that calculation, offering some of the same financial and trading advantages as England provided in 1707. An independent Scotland would not be cut adrift to survive alone so long as it was  a member of the EU. It is not accidental that, an oil-related spike in 1974 excepted, the SNP's long, slow rise to prominence in Scotland should have coincided with the party's decision to embrace the promise offered by Europe.

Granted, this means that the party sells a less powerful form of independence than some might like, but it's inconceivable that the SNP could afford, even if it wished to, to turn away from Brussels. The EU has another advantage: it can be used as a defence against the "Little Scotlander" charge some Unionists are keen to make against supporters of independence. We're all internationalists now, don't you know?

Jonah Goldberg prefers to see this as failure. Apparently Belgium's political crisis - though, you know, not having a government doesn't seem to have been the end of the world - is evidence that the EU is useless and that - ha! - all those euroweenies who brag about how brill Europe is are just plain wrong. Well, granted many eurocrats are dreary folk, but the emergence - or re-emergence - of localism should be seen as evidence of success, not failure. When did peace and prosperity become such terrible things?

Here's some more of Goldberg's argument:

But here's the hilarious irony of all this: The European Union is in effect subsidizing nationalism in Belgium and across the Continent. As the EU assumes more of the responsibilities of states -- regulations, the economy, currency, possibly even defense -- the cost of independence becomes lower.

Look at Scotland. The Scots are moving, perhaps inexorably, toward national independence from Britain. A referendum on breaking away is scheduled for 2010 and seems likely to pass. And why not? Scotland didn't formally become part of Britain until 1707, when it caved in to English threats to its trade and the free movement of people across the border. Now, thanks to the EU, such threats are illegal. And it's hardly likely that England would declare war on secessionist Scotland.

A similar process is underway in Kosovo, which wants to break from Serbia (the U.S. backs that idea) and get EU candidacy like Croatia and Macedonia. The Basques in Spain aren't far behind. In the past, ethnic enclaves probably couldn't make it on their own. But now the EU provides a safety net.

The catch-22 is delightful. By scaling back the job description of a nation-state to a few ceremonial duties, ethnic minorities see fewer risks and a lot more rewards in breaking away. Countries such as Slovakia get to trade on their votes in the EU and the U.N. They get their own anthems and sports teams and to teach their own language and culture. It's like a McDonald's franchise. Sure, you man the register and keep the bathrooms clean, but the folks at corporate HQ do the heavy lifting. That's why the Basques, Scots and Flemings are looking to open their own franchises. The question is whether the nationalist hunger of such McNations can be satisfied by just the symbolism of autonomy.

Where to begin? Firstly, Scotland is not moving towards "national independence from Britain". How can you declare independence from yourself? Mr Goldberg may believe that England and Britain are synonyms (though if he doesn't his editors should) but they're not. Secondly, it's far from certain that a referendum will be held in 2001, even less certain that it would be a Yes/No vote on independence and still less clear that it would pass. Britain itself did not exist as a state until 1707, so one might as well say that England didn't become part of Britain until 1707 either. Apart from that, the second paragraph is relatively unobjectionable, though "caved" is an emotive word to describe a rational, if still melancholy, calculation of the national interest.

(One might note that a similarly hard-headed calculation is also behind the best of modern nationalism and that, not for the first time, the advantages of the Brittanic Union will be sold in the form of hard currency...)

At least Goldberg doesn't go down the euro-loopy road travelled by some sceptics who see the entire Brussels project as a mission to destroy the nation-state - and especially Britain - as part of a Franco-German plot to achieve by insidiously peaceful means what - collectively albeit at different times - they had previously tried to do by war: the destruction and break-up of Britain.

Still, the jury is out. One might note that Belgium has not broken up yet and that Catalan nationalism is a less potent political force than it was a decade ago. But what is there to be afraid of here? The dreaded "Balkanisation of Europe" doesn't mean war. And why am I to suppose that Scotland is a "McNation"? There are, pace Rick Blaine, parts of Glasgow where I'd suggest an American conservative might wish to think twice before expressing such an opinion. But really couldn't it be enough to have a pop at Brussels without insulting other countries and peoples? Clearly not.

Now it remains to be seen if the re-emergence of a patchwork quilt-type of European map actually takes place. It may not. But I don't see that this would necessarily be a terrible thing. One future for Europe is indeed as a mosaic of smaller, nimbler states better able to respond to shifting circumstances. Sovereignty on some areas would be pooled  - eg defence - while states would enjoy a free hand domestically. A confederal approach may not happen, of course but it's not something to be terrified of (provided it's built in a proper and consensual manner).

Identity endures. It's not something that can be wished away or destroyed by lines drawn on a map by bureaucrats. That's fine.  But it doesn't have to be threatening either. Hell, Scots know this fine well since we've maintained a sense of ourselves despite 300 years of incorporation into a new, larger Union. Despite that incorporation, however, Scotland retained its own judiciary, educational and religious institutions and systems. The question now is whether Brussels and London might just swap places. Edinburgh-London-Brussels is a long address. Why not shorten it? The argument is tempting and worth considering.

Godlberg seems to think that the EU has failed since it wanted to destroy national identity but that's not really true: it wanted to change the way we think of nationality and, in the European context, it's largely succeeded in doing so, decoupling patriotism from nationalism in ways that have been overwhelmingly healthy.

The re-emergence of Very Old Europe is, then, a tribute to the EU's successes and, consequently, rather more than the chance for a few cheap jokes at the Belgians' expense (not that there's ever anything wrong with said jokes).

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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