Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Nation states, regionalism and the EU

In the comments to my National identity vs European identity post, where I’ve been arguing that it’s perfectly possibly to have a sense of belonging to multiple different groups, and thus to have multiple different identities, commenter WG notes:

I don’t see the point in this multi-ID thing.

One other point. The break up of Britain may well be a result of belonging to the EU. Wales, Scotland, and yes, even places such as Cornwall, may well decide that they will be better off under the EU and free of England. Whether this was intentional or no people such as myself have resigned ourselves to the ‘regionalization’ of England and expect other regions to break away. There is a growing sense that we are returning to the Essex/Mercia/Northumberland scenario.

As a Devonian, a Dumonii, I am afraid that I and many friends will never submit to EU rule. You see what a can of worms we have opened here. We are back to fighting Imperial Rome.

I’d agree that the EU makes such things possible (regional development funds and the like being able to fill the cash gap previously provided by nation state apparatus), I don’t necessarily see this as entirely down to the EU.

The drift to localism

There has long been a strong (and notably growing over the last century or so) nationalist sentiment in both Wales and Scotland (not to mention Northern Ireland), and the United Kingdom was always a way for England to govern its provinces while making them feel less like second class citizens – the fact that the capital of the UK is London being a bit of a hint there.

Little wonder that, now that the previously much-needed military protection provided by the UK nation state machinery is no longer necessary for Wales and Scotland to live securely, and now that there is an additional layer of economic security above that of the UK being provided by the EU, that they are shifting towards greater independence.

This is not a phenomenon unique to the UK – witness the break-up of Yugoslavia, the division of Czechoslovakia, the ongoing troubles in Belgium, the revival of regionalist movements (in many cases, as with the Basques, more accurately described as nationalist – as many of these regions have long retained their sense of unique identity, culture, and in some cases language) in Spain and France and Italy, among others. It’s not even unique to Europe – witness the various nationalist movements that sprang up in the various European colonies during the mid-20th century. Indeed, as long ago as the 1950s Arnold Toynbee (among others) was identifying a new movement away from the old Great Powers and large nation states towards smaller national identities. As Toynbee notes in his A Study of History,

The cumulative effect of the two world wars has brought to the surface a tendency which had been at work for nearly half a century before 1914. In 1918 Austria-Hungary, one of the eight Great Powers which had been on the map in 1914, broke up. At the same date the break-up of the Ottoman Empire was completed. The Second World War was followed by the break-up of the British, French, and Dutch colonial Empires, and the number of Great Powers was reduced to two, while the number of juridicially sovereign independent states was increased, in the course of the next quarter of a century, to about 140.

The greater the number of nominally sovereign states, the smaller their average area, population, wealth and economic and military capacity are bound to be… the characteristic states of the new age are not units that can be thought of as being universes in themselves [unlike the former Great Powers, which were characterised by almost total self-sufficiency and independence of action]… Some states… are… confessing… that they cannot stand alone. The ‘developing’ countries are still seeking financial and technological aid from the ‘developed’ countries, and the states of Western Europe [this passage being written in the 1960s] – which, for four and a half centuries, ending in 1945, fought round after round of wars with each other to prevent any one of them from dominating the rest – are now trying to unite voluntarily, on a footing of equality with each other, in a European economic community.

These multiple tendencies can be summed up in a single formula: in the new age, the dominant not in the corporate consciousness of communities is a sense of being parts of some larger universe, whereas, in the age which is now over, the dominant note in their consciousness was an aspiration to be universes in themselves.

So, a trend can be identified throughout the 20th century towards smaller units with a broader, international outlook.

What is the best form of government?

Myself, I always reckon that the best form of government is that which is closest to the people – because that way it is far more likely to tally with what the people actually want.

Most nation states are the size and shape that they are purely thanks to accidents of history – even the island of Great Britain, while superficially a clearly-defined geographical entity, is made up of numerous different cultures, nationalities and peoples – some which have come voluntarily into the larger whole, others only thanks to military conquest; some have been parts of the wider unit for over a thousand years, others for far shorter a period of time. And, as I noted in that other post, some national identities can be very tough to shake – witness Cornwall, more than a thousand years after becoming part of England, or Wales after 700 years of unity with her larger neighbour, or Scotland, after just 300.

I see no practical reasons why London should govern Kent or Sussex, let alone Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland – the reason why the UK is ruled from London is entirely because, well, that’s the way it’s always been done. (Or, at least, that’s the way it’s been done since the middle ages, when most of the institutions of governance began to permanently locate there.)

National identities and the logic of the nation state

Will some people have a strong attachment to England or Britain? Well, of course – otherwise we wouldn’t have the English Democrat or British National parties. But based on a look at pretty much every national identity in existence, we can see that there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that these identities would necessarily be lost should England/Britain become part of a greater whole. In fact, if the 20th century has shown us anything, it is that being part of a larger whole can have precisely the opposite effect, and make these national identities even stronger. (And not just the 20th century. Wales has never existed as a united, sovereign state – prior to the English conquest it was characterised by its tribal nature; Welsh national identity only began to arise during the period of the English conquest and subsequent occupation.)

Does this mean that WG’s hint of the potential for armed resistance to the EU’s supposed attempts to impose itself on the peoples of Europe may come to pass? Well, possibly. But – as noted in that quote by Toynbee above – most states these days are too small to be fully sovereign, independent and self-sufficient. Not even Britain as a whole can exist without some dealings with its neighbours and the wider world – let alone such economically implausible units as Wales, Scotland or Cornwall.

Where the UK has been providing that extra layer of security for its various regions for the last 300 years, the appearance of the EU on the scene has given another option – Wales and Scotland can now dream of independence from rule by London by replacing the economic safety blanket of the United Kingdom with that of the European Union, and the military safety blanket of the British Armed Forces (arguably increasingly unnecessary for smaller European states since the end of the Cold War and the decline of wars between nations in Europe during the last 60 years) with that of NATO/the UN.

The flaws of nation-level governance

As I say, I see the best form of government as that which is closest to the people. The current British system’s primary concession to that idea is the retention of parliamentary constituencies, and the idea that Members of Parliament are supposed to represent their constituents in Westminster. But in practice, local voices and concerns are rarely heard in the House of Commons – the business of government is focussed at too broad a level to give due consideration to all the worries of all the various constituencies. The existence of County and Borough councils is one of the strongest indications of this inability of central government to give due consideration to local issues. The House of Commons is instead concerned with *national* issues, like infrastructure (Heathrow expansion, motorway building and the like), security and the economy.

Despite my attraction to localism, There are always going to be areas like these that are better ruled
from a higher level. But for me, the broader the area over which these areas are governed, the better – because no nation state (bar possibly Russia, perhaps America) is sizeable enough to be self-sufficient, and most of these issues are better dealt with on as broad a scale as possible. Take infrastructure – much more of a concern in mainland Europe, where ensuring that railways, roads and electricity networks link up effectively is essential, but also in the UK with concerns about flight paths, shipping routes and the like. Take the economy – the last year has been the ultimate proof that individual states are more or less powerless on their own. Take security – in an age of international terrorist attacks and rising levels of cross-border crime, co-operation between states is increasingly vital.

Where the EU fits in

This is a major part of the reason why I think the EU is a good idea – albeit an idea that has been poorly implemented and ill-thought-out. Especially since the introduction of the concept of subsidiarity, the guiding principle of the EU has – in theory, at least – been that issues should be dealt with at the most appropriate level, and that the most appropriate level should always be considered to be as close to the people as possible.

Hence the EU’s concept of regions – because the lower the level at which people are governed, the more appropriate the responses should (in theory) be. And bar some of the smaller EU member states like Luxembourg or Malta, few current European states are actually overly logical or efficient units, but instead are often sprawling entities with vast geographic and cultural differences within them, perceived as units only thanks to the accidents of history.

After all, we’re all trying to find the best possible system of government to make the greatest possible number of people happy and prosperous. If you were to look at the world entirely dispassionately and work out how best it could be run, there would be some elements that would be sensible to impose on a global level (much like the UN and World Trade Organisation – albeit in a different form to those deeply flawed institutions); but I doubt anyone working out a new global geopolitics would pick many of the existing nation states as sensible lower-level units of governance. (I also doubt anyone would pick Europe as a sensible unit of governance – but as we don’t have the option of an effective global structure at present, it’s about the largest we can currently hope for, and so will have to do.)

In short, I still have a strong sentimental attachment to the idea of Britain, and to the idea of England (I wouldn’t have spent so much of my life studying their histories if I didn’t) – but I don’t see any particularly convincing arguments to support their continued existence as practical units of governance, bar “they exist”.

And that argument, after all, applies equally well to the EU…