Opinions on a federalised Europe

– This text was first published as a guest post on European Spatial Planning Perspective Blog, on the 30th of August 2012 –

From nation states to the EU

Throughout history and even more so in recent history the continuous problem of nationality, and implicitly that of the nation state, has led to an ever increasing number of violent conflicts. The conflicts, be them violent in dialogue or aftermath – be them warmongers, have managed to keep alive a flame of distrust and general seclusion amongst the countries of Europe.

We all hoped that the European project would change that. That it will finally bring an end to this continuous bickering, and set forth the promise of unified growth across the continent.

Recent years have seen the inflammation of religious conflict, albeit at a scale one could imagine might rhyme better with the times of the crusaders. And although plagued by this world-wide-web of religious conflict, Europe has never stopped maintaining its nationalistic issues – be it immigration related, be it work rights for EU citizens from other member states. Violence occasionally erupts, generally aimed at non EU immigrants, as only to remind us of this consistent fault in our upbringing – our fear of the man across the imaginary line called a border.

This continent is changing. New states emerging over years and years of ethnic struggles, regions aiming for more and more autonomy – all of them play their most solid card – ethnicity and/or nationality, in order to claim their god given right to an anthem and a flag. And this claim, this line of thought, does not stop at EU borders. As it has always been the case with this continent – ideas born out of conflict spread quickly.

In light of the above mentioned one cannot help but wonder: Under the mainframe of the EU is the nation state still viable? Can it still produce the best result for its population?

The problem with nations

At the turn of the XXth century the problem of nations erupted across the continent. It’s primary consequence – World War I. The primavera dei popoli that had begun in 1848 achieved its completion at the end of this gruesome conflict, and the Fourteen Points of Woodrow Wilson marked a victory of its philosophy. The all mighty European empires, that once ruled not only this continent, but almost half of the globe, crumbled. Some died. Some did not. And everybody thought that we can only go forward from that point on, only to find ourselves thrown in a whole new nationalistic conflict – World War II.

Achieving unity across this continent, so burdened with history and fairy tales of heroes and grand achievements, seems more and more to be an issue of union under an anthem and a flag, but that anthem and flag has to be the essence of the nation. Extreme right movements across Europe seem to be experiencing a revival of unprecedented magnitude. As the generations that suffered under the Cold War begin to fade out, we seem to forget what was a cruel reality only 20 years ago.

The EU came to be under a general optimism after the war. It was a time of less conflict and more willingness to work together. More willingness to create a continental fabric so tight, that excess and conflict would not have room to rise. But all this is now behind us, and this new age of conflict, of nationalism and xenophobic discourse is eating away at that fabric, like a dark mold on a piece of cheese.

In an interview for Der Spiegel, French philosopher André Glucksmann states the following: “The crisis of the European Union is a symptom of its civilization. It doesn’t define itself based on its identity but, rather, on its otherness. A civilization isn’t necessarily based on a common desire to achieve the best but, rather, on excluding and making the evil taboo. In historical terms, “the European Union is a defensive reaction to horror.” (link).

Nation & Identity

European Identity – this concept pops up more and more. And it started making news as economic crisis hit the continent. Because identity implies a sense of unity, and no one wants to be alone in face of this new danger. But this European Identity, if we look at it from a social and political point of view, comes second to most Europeans – first and foremost we are German, or French, or Polish, Romanian, Hungarian and only after that has been clearly stated will we admit to be being European. Those who favor the EU will insist, without missing a beat that this is a secondary issue, that we can be united and yet different – Unity in Diversity, In varietate Concordia as it stands as the EU motto. But no matter the optimism behind this, it’s failing us. Centuries of continuous conflict between neighboring nations have bred archaic mentalities, great exaggerations and inflammations with a more glorious past.

So how can we define and expand our unity if we cannot come to terms with this very basic and utterly very important question of European Identity? Why can’t we decide which affiliation is more important?

The obvious question that all this leads to is simple – How can we change the identity of a certain group of people, that have been raised, taught and led to accept nothing but the identity supplied to them by their nationality?

Although this might not be the best of examples, I have to call upon it to make a point: if one is to ask a regular US citizen where he is from, he will undeniably say he is American, and you would need a second question to find out that he is from NY or Texas. Now, an EU citizen, faced with the same question will almost always refer to his nationality first.

The Europe of Regions project is a very subtle way of attacking this problem – by moving financing from a national to a regional level, and promoting a certain regional identity, it is to be expected that the nation state identity will begin to lose its grip. This thinning of the nation state identity will then allow for editing, for penetrations and modifications, so as to impose these two new levels of belonging – a superior, European Identity, and an inferior, Regional Identity.

The Region has thusly become the long sought engine for development – financing, more administrative power, a certain feeling of independence. In time this will lead to improvements in the life of those within the region, and certain affection will become implied between the individual and the more ubiquitous Region. And following this logic, how many generations do we have to allow before that question of where you are from no longer answers with a member state but with EU?

Sizing up a Region

Using regions as development vehicles is a positive and accepted move. Development professionals across the EU have understood this move and supported it. However, one issue has been a continuous source of disagreement – how big should a region be?

Those that deal with statistics already have standards – the N.U.T.S. system. According to NUTS the EU is regionalized on three different levels of size – big – NUTS 1 – 3 to 7 million inhabitants, medium – NUTS 2 – 800 000 to 3 million, and small – NUTS 3 – 150-800 thousand.

These regions are based on pre-existing national subdivisions, either administrative or historical. This is practical indeed, as everything is already set in place. The people already identify with this type of region, there are administrative rules and certain governance implied.

This is also where the problem resides actually. By using preexistent regions, the much sought for thinner of national identity is gone. Because the collective minds of the people associate this with the national identity they already have. Moving the identity particle of these regions from a national frame to an European frame can quite easily become ammunition for extreme right and nationalistic movements, as a move to disrupt the nations unity.

It’s this writer’s belief that for regions to fulfill their purpose we have to start anew. By admitting first and foremost that a limit is only a line traced on a map. The Schengen space for example is one way to wipe out lines like this. And we must move forward. There are many cases within the EU, where trans-national regions would be highly beneficial. Because that is how the economy works.

Here is an example: say we have two administrative entities, called A and B. A and B are neighbors, and share a common limit. A extracts raw material and B has the processing facilities. However, A and B are not in the same region. So A has funding from C and B has funding from D, where C and D are the corresponding superior administrative level. Now, D considers that the best strategy for its development is to have raw material transported all the way from the other end of the region to B for processing. C on the other hand considers that export is best, so everything A extracts is sent to export to a different region. In the end you have this bizarre situation where A and B, although very close to one another, do not work together, because regional development and funding has other priorities. Of course, this example is absurd, and under the modern economy this would probably never happen. But as a philosophical example it is still valid.

So, the region is now the culprit. And here comes the trick – the trick is to devise an algorithm that will allow for the creation of new regions, with common purpose and unified administration, that can to a certain degree govern themselves, that can be transnational and multiethnic and that are created by free association. This is the type of region that would be a solid building block for a federal state.

One million follow up questions come next. How do you deal with language, how do you deal with cultural and ethnical differences? How do you convince the people that this is something viable? Geographical economy holds some of the answers, sociology and psychology, planning and politics some other. But it can be done. The French system of communauté is the proof to this concept. Education is going to be the deal breaker.

And yet, all through this one very important question has been left unanswered: are we to believe that the nation state will just wither and die? Or will it put up a fight?


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