Thursday 3 June 2010

Neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire

I have in the past compared the European Union to the old Soviet Union simply in terms of the political structures in place; the one is as unresponsive to popular pressure and as bureaucratic as the other. But there are other historical examples which are perhaps even more meaningful in explaining the political condition of modern Europe, a place where the nation state appears to be dying, replaced by a supranational empire. But what kind of empire, it’s legitimate to ask? Will it be a new Roman Empire? A Roman Empire, certainly, but not the one that normally comes to mind, not the realm of the great Caesars, merely that of the petty tyrants.

Consider it this way. The nation-state, in its modern form, is a largely artificial creation; the child, not of nationalism, as is usually assumed, but of the Age of Enlightenment. The European Union might be said to be a reaction against this, a process by which the nation state will be rendered obsolete. But all the evidence suggests that there is no European identity as such. Rather what can be seen is the liberation of a patch-work of local identities, formerly sublimated within the nation state. What we can see, in other words, is Transylvanian, Basque, Breton, Flemish, Scottish and a host of other fragmentations; what we can see is a revival, it might be said, of the crazy patchwork of the Holy Roman Empire. How the Gods of History love irony!

This process of division and subdivision is likely to continue, always looking inwards, towards ever more parochial loyalties. Consider the Scots, whose sense of identity - once the bogus tartanry is removed - has an entirely negative basis, along the lines of 'we are Scots because we are not English'. But once the old 'oppressive' English state is factored out, once the sense of historical grievance is removed, what then? How will the Gaelic Highlands see the Saxon Lowlands? How will the east sit with the west? How will Glasgow sit with Edinburgh? I can’t answer these questions; I do not have sufficient prescience. All I can say is that more and more prince-bishops and margraves are likely to emerge in a modern form as we move wider still and wider.


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  2. Thanks, Adam. Cycling Revolution? :-)

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  4. "Think Czechoslovakia. The split was a financial mistake for the Slovaks, but a peaceful split nonetheless."

    I admit I have made no great study of the nations, but it was my understanding that, until the bust anyway, both nations were growing faster than the combined had managed.

    Democracy is above wealth.

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  6. Ana, Indeed. But some might argue that Europe today is now more Yugoslavia than Holy Roman Empire.

  7. Ana, an unpredictable future is not a flaw or a weakness, but merely a fact of life.

    Te EU system of subsidiarity (administration at local, regional, national and transnational levels) is at least theoretically more flexible than the 'nations and nothing else' model that conservatives seem to favour, and more capable of giving expression to subnational identities.

  8. Nobby, in some ways yes.

    Brendano, to me it's fragmentation presided over by a bureaucratic monster.

  9. The Urdu poet Ghalib wrote.

    We are unitarians our devotions lie in eradicating pomp
    The articles of faith are remnants of the vanished nations

  10. Actually as someone who spends far too much time (for professional reasons) poring over statistics in such matters I would dispute those statements about Slovakia, and posit that its split from the Czech Lands was a major factor in (once the rather isolationist and authoritarian rule of PM Meciar was over - that is, after 1998) promoting relatively radical economic reform, which has led, in the years since 2000, Slovakia recording rather MORE rapid growth than the Czech Republic. I have the official figures in front of me now: GDP growth averaged around 4% per annum in CZ, and around 6% in SK, in 2000-08. Yes, GDP per head is still (slightly) lower in SK, but it was always was the relatively impoverished "partner" in the "federation".

    And, sure, there are two major concerns that strike me about the Slovak economic reform; (a) large-scale investment from foreign car manufacturers have been a major factor in creating the economic boom that Slovakia experienced for much of the last decade. Fine for now, but if (or, surely, when) they move on to other, cheaper, places of manufacturer, and if consequently Kosice becomes a Detroit or a Dagenham...ruin beckons, unless innovation brings about a suitable replacement. and (b) - and shocking to many Czechs though it is, who can't believe their neighbout got their first, Slovakia's adoption of the Euro...must have some relation with the future of the Euro...

    In any case there is NO significant movement (as evidenced by representation politically , at either national or local level) for reunification with the Czech Republic. The cultural differences between the two peoples are a not negliable reason for this.

    And I disagree too that Scottish national identity is purely negative (of course there is an England-hating undercurrent to parts of it, that is undeniable). One strength (which I fear England largely lacks now) is the maintenance (and enthuisastic participation of a significant proportion of the population) in a traditional culture (ceilidhs, etc), even if it is true that some of the accompaniments of this (tartanry things) are largely relatively recent (and largely English) "invented traditions".

    But that apart, the separate legal and education systems, the particular religious context are positive unifying national things that (in a small country) largely enjoy the loyalty and support of the populace. And if London can tolerate Birmingham as the second city of its country, then Edinburgh-Glasgow relations will work out fine. Indeed, the relationship between those two cities might, in some ways, be a bit like Washington & New York. Well, perhaps.

    In any case I would expect an independent Scotland to associate itself quite closely with the countries that we now think of as "Nordic" - I think philosophically and socially they have gone in a similar direction. (They are all immeasurably more left-wing and supportive of a strong and interfering state than England, in any case)

    (Full disclosure: i'm half English, half Scottish, but Catholic, so kind of Ulster Irish Glaswegian Scottish, grew up and currently live in England, went to university in Scotland, St Andrews)

    And in the case of Belgium...what happens to Brussels?

    And if only the EU generally did support subsidiarity in anything other than rhetorical form. Bullying centralization writ large is closer to the reality, unfortunately.

  11. Rehan and Dominic, thanks. Brussels is right in the middle, between the Flemings and the Walloons!