The Rise of Euro-Tribes

Brian Elmer on how the ‘Balkanisation’ of Europe is boosting separatist movements

Imagine you are looking at a globe. The rotating map shows the world’s land mass and oceans. Different colours help you to spot the political boundaries so your eye goes immediately to the largest countries in terms of geography: Russia, Canada, Australia, China, etc. But if you look at the continent of Europe, you may need a magnifying glass to identify the various borders, because Europe is the most politically fragmented region on our planet. It wasn’t always so fragmented. In 1914, there were 22 different independent states. In 1939, the number was 31. Now it is 44. In other words the number has doubled over the past century.

Why has this happened? First of all, the large multiethnic Empires that existed in the early part of the last century, the Hapsburg Empire, the German Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire have fragmented, although in the case of that last one, it lingered on under the guise of the Soviet Union until the end of the Cold War. In their place appeared (or reappeared) a plethora of new states such as Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. The latter two themselves fragmented – into two states, in the case of Czechoslovakia, and into no less than seven in the case of Yugoslavia. Each of these new states contains a supposedly homogenous people, united in their ethnicity and national identity.

This kind of political fragmentation is often referred to as Balkanisation, appropriately enough as Yugoslavia is in the Balkan peninsula. We should not be too smug about this in western Europe, however, as this impulse to Balkanisation is very much present here too. It seems to be a kind of European disease. If you consider yourself to be in some way different to your neighbours – ethnically, linguistically, or religiously – the appropriate response is to break away and draw a national boundary around your territory. We call this nationalism or separatism but I suspect that if it was happening elsewhere, in Africa for example, we would call it tribalism.

There has, of course, been a countervailing force to all this, in the form of the European Union. However, sharing some elements of sovereignty doesn’t seem to have dampened down the widespread urge to separatism. Witness the recent convulsions in Catalonia. The Catalan independence movement is not advocating withdrawal from the EU, and, of course, Spain will remain in the EU in the event of a Catalan secession.

The American humourist P. J. O’Rourke once wrote, ‘You can’t swing a cat in Europe without sending it through customs.’ In the era of the Shengen Agreement that may not be so true but we know what he means. There are parts of Europe where an international frontier is never that far away. And the trend towards further fragmentation is still powerful. There are serious secessionist movements in (among other places) Brittany, the Faroe Islands, Corsica, Alsace, the Basque regions of France and Spain, Sardinia, the Veneto, Northern Italy in general (so called ‘Padania’), Wales, Scotland, and Belgian Flanders. In the case of the latter, it seems that only the presence of francophone Brussels in the midst of the non-French-speaking Flanders has prevented a country as small as Belgium from dividing.

The question of size is worth pondering. I started out by asking you to imagine looking at Europe on a globe. Now take a look at our own island, Great Britain (magnifying glass needed again). It is that little smudge of red to the left of Europe. It would fit three times into the state of Texas alone – and Texas isn’t even the biggest US state. I don’t know what a Texan might make of the idea that Britain should be subdivided into three separate nations. He or she would probably be wondering what overwhelming ethnic, religious or linguistic differences made it so essential to break up a country that was already 138 years old when Texas was admitted to the Union. It would surely be a surprise to learn that ethnic, religious, or linguistic differences scarcely exist.

In this respect, Great Britain is of a piece with other examples of Eurotribalism (and, incidentally, I would certainly class Brexit as a Eurotribalist phenomenon). It is often not clear why perceived differences make new national boundaries essential. Also, we should not minimise the potential for conflict inherent in all this. Tribal conflict in Europe may not all be safely in the past. Think of the internecine conflicts in former Yugoslavia, the Irish ‘Troubles’, the Basque separatist terrorist campaign, and the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine. These are all conflicts which revolve around issues of disputed national boundaries.

It makes you wonder how much Europe has advanced from Simon Winder’s description, in his book Germania, of the 19th-century continent as a ‘small, bitter and crowded landscape somehow incapable of (or indeed allergic to) the broad ranging uniformity of the Chinese Empire or the United States.’

Brian Elmer is a former social worker

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