The current crisis – not too strong a term – began a long time ago. And in a sense part of it really is the European Union’s fault. The EU’s failures, or rather shortcomings, play a part in this story but the greater share of it is the consequence of the EU’s successes, not its weaknesses. Across much of Europe, previously unquestioned ideas about the nation state – and its sanctity – are now subjected to some interrogation. The United Kingdom has some recent experience of this and so, of course, do Belgium and Spain. This moment has been building for some time; even, perhaps, for more than a quarter of a century.
The collapse of the Soviet Union unblocked a drain, reopening history. From the Baltic to the Caucasus, new states emerged or re-emerged, blinking in the sunlight of what was, undoubtedly, a real form of liberation. Yugoslavia was more complicated and, of course, more terrible but, again, could be portrayed as a kind of freedom-seeking even if the ancient claims to statehood enjoyed by some of the newly-independent successors to Yugoslavia were more tenuous than others. Still, this could, like the Velvet Divorce splitting Czechoslovakia, be considered acts of historical housekeeping, tidying up messes imposed by the dog days of imperial history. Artificial borders and artificial 'unity' were things of the past.
The emergence of these new states was seized on by secessionist movements in the west too. If Estonia could be its own place, run by the Estonians themselves, then why should the same rules not apply to other, perhaps more obvious, candidates for statehood too? The Baltics, like the Bosnians, might be sui generis but they contributed to an air of possibility. And at the heart of it lay the EU. It is not, I think, altogether coincidental that the SNP’s long, slow, rise to power depended, at least in part, upon discovering that the EU could offer security to a new Scotland. We would strike out on our own but not be on our own. We would still have a home port; indeed a larger harbour than that which we were leaving.
The EU idea, after all, was attractive. Just look at the manner in which all the other new states of Europe were clamouring for admission. For them, too, the EU (and, in some instances, NATO) offered security as well as opportunity. A modern Europe which had space for everyone from Germany to Malta. This satisfied an inchoate desire to be part of something larger than ourselves without having to surrender everything which made us distinctive.
Indeed, the EU’s inclusive architecture was part of the appeal. From the protection of minority languages to the guarantee of seats in the Council of Ministers and, for a while anyway, your own European Commissioner, it seemed to be a place where everyone could find a home. In that respect, without necessarily meaning to, the mere existence of the EU encouraged separatist movements and the revival of ancient, sometimes long-buried, nationalisms. The 'Europe of the regions' could also be a Europe in which those ancient nations – Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders and so on – could re-emerge as something more than just regions. All the flowers would bloom again and this would be – some dreamers hoped – a patchwork Europe of the kind familiar to us from maps of a much older Europe before the great consolidation of nation states began. Identity was keenly local but it could be protected by a trans-continental pooling of some sovereignty.
If that was one trend, it ran parallel to another: the nagging, and growing, sense that Europe imposed chains as well as liberty. The Italians and, for a while, the Greeks might have been happy to allow the Germans to run their monetary policy (the Germans would, after all, surely do it better than the Italians or Greeks themselves) but, unavoidably, this came at a price. Chiefly, policy run to suit German interests first and others second. Eat your muesli, Frankfurt (and Brussels) told everyone else.
Strengths taken too far eventually become liabilities. The more the EU talks as though it is a real government, the more it encourages resentment against its perceived failures, whether those be measured in terms of democratic 'legitimacy' or even, sometimes, actual policy. Catalans (and some of their Scottish admirers) ask why the EU does not do more to uphold Catalan democracy, forgetting that it is Madrid, not Barcelona, that has clout in Brussels. And, besides, the EU is not a government but, instead, a collection of governments.
The Catalans, then, make the same mistake as some of our own Brexiteers. Like the Brexiteers they exaggerate Brussels’ power, albeit for different and diametrically opposed reasons. Power devolved is power retained but sovereignty pooled is also sovereignty retained. That applies to Madrid most obviously but it is also the case that the mere holding of a Brexit referendum refuted one of the premises upon which the Brexiteers made their case: namely that the EU was a motorway with no exit, leading up to some kind of 'United States of Europe'. It turns out there is an exit and (who knew?) the United Kingdom was sovereign all along.
Political actions, however, invariably spawn political reactions. The postwar period was marked by a great coming together; our new era, in which power shifts east and the old order is placed under increasing strain, seems – at least for the moment – to be encouraging centrifugal forces. If we take a long view, this ought not to surprise us: success invariably begets failure.
It remains the case that most times the EU is put to a democratic voting test it either loses or only narrowly prevails. Frequently, of course, this reflects the manner in which referendum votes are used to protest against national governments (even in pro-EU states such as France or Ireland). But even so, popular enthusiasm for the detail, rather than the idea, of Europe is invariably weaker than Brussels supposes.
In response to this, the EU has a choice: it can be an organisation of affiliated states pooling sovereignty and markets or it can double down on the integrationist dream. At some point, however, doing the latter is liable to spawn further resentment and rebellion. A Europe that successfully drew the poison of nationalism then becomes the begetter of fresh nationalist insurrection. It does so as a result of its successes and because of its inadequacies. The Goldilocks Europe, being neither too large nor too small has not yet been reached. And perhaps, on account of these conflicting forces, never can be.