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The case for a Europe of regions

The continent needs more democracy and fewer borders

October 19, 2014 2:00AM ET

Scotland’s independence bid may have failed, but the affair revealed powerful grass-roots support for a Scottish state. Although Catalonia’s referendum on independence, originally slated for Nov. 9, has been canceled under Madrid’s opposition, Catalonians appear determined to hold some sort of vote on that date to express their sentiments anyway.

Further afield, Russian speakers in Ukraine seem to have spoken their mind. Given the chance, perhaps the Basques, the Northern Irish, Flemish, Corsicans, South Tyroleans, Bosnian Serbs and others would give it a shot too. And across Europe, nationalist, anti-EU parties are on the rise, led by politicos who want beefed-up borders, fewer foreigners and more state revenue (or even territory) for their particular volk.

Is 21st century Europe reverting to the destructive, small-minded nationalism that triggered World War I and put the continent on a road to ruin a hundred years ago? And could the European Union’s vision of a united transnational Europe be out of step with the average European burgher?

One could be forgiven for concluding as much. But Europe’s not imploding. Nor is the EU’s greater vision out of kilter with the zeitgeist. Rather, the relationship among Europe’s nations, states, regions and shared institutions is in flux, and the rash of secession-minded movements underscores the necessity that it change more profoundly and rapidly.

Two nationalisms

First, let’s take a look at nationalism itself. There are two kinds of nationalism (and nations), namely the civic and the ethnic varieties. Both herald from the time of the French Revolution of 1789, when the people of Europe began to band together with their neighbors as one (nation) to demand rights and sovereignty. At a time when kings and empires ruled the day, the nation was a new form of identity linking people who shared language, a home region and culture. This progressive, liberating nationalism laid the foundation for our modern democracies, most of which are in nation-states.

Modern nationalism took two routes. One was the ethnic nation, infused with Romantic notions of seamless racial communities bound by blood, territory and destiny. In the world of ethnic nations, one nation is always superior and destined to rule over territory as well as other peoples. As intellectuals such as the British historian Eric Hobsbawm and German philosopher Hannah Arendt argued, the nativist ethnic nation was at the root of the 20th century’s terrible bloodshed. In power, ethnic nationalists inevitably pursue authoritarian courses at home and aggressive, expansionist policies abroad, like those that paved way for the century’s world wars and the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Civic nationalism is another story. Its members are bound by common values and political ideas, not biological or other pseudo-scientific characteristics. Civic nationalists — for example, John Stuart Mill — espouse tolerance, equality and individual rights. The civic nationalist may be proud of his nation, but not at the expense of other nations that have similar legal rights. Civic nationalism, for example, was at the heart of the Founding Fathers’ vision of the United States. 

What Europe needs is more civic-minded nation-states with flexible federal systems and self-rule for regions.

In today’s Europe, civic nationalism is, for the most part, the order of the day and the foundation of contemporary nation-state. The EU would be impossible without it; the EU’s supranational essence is the antithesis of the narrow, defensive, ethically defined polity. Our nation-states may have labels and majorities associated with one people (France, the French; Germany, the Germans; and so forth) but this doesn’t automatically manufacture inequality or foster discrimination. One can be proud to be German or French and still be a good, civic-minded democrat and EU enthusiast.

Until now, EU membership and the processes of European integration have worked to transform the nature of the European nation-state, making it more civic and less ethnic. In most of Europe, borders that were once impenetrable and militarized are today permeable and peaceful, open to the free flow of goods, people and ideas. By interconnecting Europe’s nation-states through trade, cultural programs, economic policies, political priorities and the euro, individual European countries look altogether different from how they did in the first half of the 20th century. National sovereignty has become more diffuse, with a considerable proportion of policy being set by the EU as well as locally.

New regionalism

In theory, EU membership implies that power within states is decentralized, with ever more decisions being made at the local rather than the national level. This is the Europe of regions — a favorite EU term — that has been at the heart of the European project since the beginning. In practice, it means imaginative forms of autonomy and federation, also called home rule, as well as cross-border governance where these regions straddle state lines. While the EU vigorously promotes regional governance, it often fails to live by its own principles and has over the years accrued much broader decision-making powers that could be exercised locally rather than in Brussels. As one German commentator put it in the weekly Die Zeit, the Scots have to be allowed to decide about more than the quality of their kilts.

This is the context for understanding — and evaluating — the confusing European landscape before us today. The Catalan and Scottish independence movements are largely civic-national campaigns — pro-EU, open to the world, environmentally conscious — pushed to drastic measures by stubborn states that refuse to loosen the reins. After all, Spain is still a central state that regularly locks horns with Catalonia over the wide-ranging autonomy that its people demand. The same goes for the United Kingdom’s relation to Scotland. And Brussels has hardly been generous in loosening its control in favor of Europe’s localities.

The answer need not be damaging all-or-nothing campaigns that set up new national states, new bureaucracies and new borders. What Europe needs is more civic-minded nation-states with flexible federal systems and devolved power structures including self-rule for regions.

Enhanced political and fiscal autonomy would take the wind out of separatists’ sails and undermine the need for referendums. It may even put a damper on Europe’s resurgent ethnic nationalism. Many of the far-right parties that have made strong gains at the ballot boxes in recent years — in Hungary, France, Italy, Romania, Belgium and recently even Germany — cloak their jingoist, racist agendas in the jargon of self-determination.

The critical lessons that Europe’s political elite would do well to take away from Scotland and Catalonia should be the same as the ones that invigorated European integration from the beginning: more democracy, fewer borders. There’s a middle road between out-and-out separatism and rigid centralized states, even if finding it will be time-consuming and contentious. 

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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