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Another day, another country for Europe

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Author Topic: Another day, another country for Europe  (Read 25 times)
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« on: February 17, 2008, 10:25:33 pm »

Another day, another country for Europe

February 18, 2008

The transformation of the map of our continent.

In this season of extraordinary American politicians, it is worth remembering one who, albeit accidentally, put his finger on the upheaval that has been Europe over a century. Strom Thurmond sat in the US Senate until shortly after his 100th birthday in 2002. In his final stretch in that chamber he was a prominent member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Towards the end of the 1990s the committee was hearing testimony from the Hungarian Ambassador to Washington. After he had spoken, the senator apparently took him to one side and whispered: “When I was at school, you and Austria were one country, when did the two of you split up?” It had been eight decades earlier.

Before that divide much of Central and Eastern Europe was controlled by the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman empires. It is a geography quite unrecognisable from the Europe of today, and one that will change again as Kosovo declares its independence and becomes the seventh member of the former Yugoslavia to become an established nation.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought forth six states broadly acknowledged to be part of Europe, four others whose status is more contestable (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan) as well as the dilemma of where to place Russia itself.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia engaged in their velvet divorce 15 years ago. Membership of the European Union has more than doubled since that date. It has been a fantastic two decades for those who make flags or sell maps but it has been a thoroughly confusing period otherwise. There are today, if one includes some of the smaller entities such as Andorra and San Marino, some 50 or more states in this continent.

It is tempting to conclude that all this change is simply the impact of the end of the Cold War upon one half of Europe. Yet this would not be accurate. The shock has been more subtle west of what was once the Iron Curtain but no less substantial.

It has led to the rise of regionalism in Italy via the Northern League. It has produced radical devolution in Spain, not only to the Basques but the Catalans and the Balearics. Belgium cannot divine whether it is one, two or three countries. In the United Kingdom, it has produced serious devolution in Scotland, a semi-detached Northern Ireland and a more autonomous Wales. Even Germany, which would seem the exception, is actually more fragmented in many respects and both economically and politically weaker as a consequence of unification.

Perhaps the only sizeable nation in Western Europe that appears culturally comfortable within its borders is France - and even there many observers would contend that tensions have been exacerbated in the past 20 years.

It is a paradox of politics that while small convulsions often prompt massive comment, more seismic shifts pass by almost ignored. That is the case for Europe. If anyone had predicted in these pages in February 1988 that the atlas would look as it does now, they would have been dismissed. The notion then that Kosovo would become an independent nation would have been regarded as laughable.

Yet such a prophecy, while seeming wild, would not have been ridiculous. If one looks at the maps of Europe over the centuries - best set out in Norman Davies's incomparable Europe: a History - what is striking is the trend of that cartography.

Over time, two very different sorts of Europe can be identified. One is of a “micro-Europe”, a continent with a large number of small, independent states, some of which are so tiny as to be almost illogical; the other is a “macro-Europe”, where there is a smaller number of larger states, either explicitly through empires or implicitly via the kind of domination that the Soviet Union held over its nominally “free” allies in the Warsaw Pact.

The story of Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been one of yet another reversion from macro-Europe to micro-Europe. And significantly, this may prove to be a durable transformation. Macro-Europe developed as the result of outright force or the threat of conquest. Micro-Europe is what seems to occur if armies are left out of the equation. We live in what is a natural mosaic of a continent. If the various Balkan conflicts that led to the break-up of Yugoslavia were, as there is reason to hope, the last destined to happen on our soil, then more micro-Europe rather than less of it is surely to be the pattern of the future. If Gibraltar, for instance, is not to be a British dependency 50 years hence, then it is less likely to be submerged into Spain than evolve into a new form of Monaco.

This momentous move from a macro-Europe to a micro-Europe prompts one over-arching question that few across its political elite care to address at this moment. Its implications for the European Union should be seminal, but political leaders seem unwilling to acknowledge this candidly.

For the EU is, in many respects, a rather tragic institution. The macro-Europe vision that its founders had for it made eminent sense, to be fair to them, in the 1950s. Not merely the legacy of the Second World War but the need to compete with the Communist bloc made supra-nationalism an appealing concept. In the context of a micro-Europe, though, the model appears desperately outdated.

The new Europe that has emerged so suddenly demands something closer to a modern Hanseatic League than a Brussels-based one-size-fits-all formula. One last fact sums up the scale of what is taking place around us. In the many years that passed from when Senator Thurmond was at school to when he died, the map of the United States was amended but twice when Alaska, then Hawaii, achieved statehood.

With Kosovo, like Montenegro before it in 2006, departing from the jurisdiction of Serbia, Europe's increasingly complicated atlas has altered twice in fewer than two years.
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