The excitement around the Scottish independence referendum has subsided, but the problem remains that ethnic groups and national minorities question state structures in Europe. Only for a few European countries do the state borders coincide with the distribution areas of national identities. The notion of the nation state – strictly speaking – is deceptive. Sovereign states are contingent entities in Europe: On the one hand, they break cultural connections; on the other hand, they combine — and often poorly — communities which differ in traditions, habits, and values under the same roof of a legal, economic, and political organization.
It is time to think about the future political map of Europe.
The Scots are not separatists
In connection with the Scottish referendum, we have often heard that in Europe, the signs of the times point not towards separatism but towards growing together, that the future is not the “small states” but a politically united Europe. Consequently, the political elites, the heads of government and presidents of the European countries as well as representatives of the EU, welcomed the failure of the Scottish referendum.
Nevertheless, a reorganization of political structures at the level of national cultural identities doesn’t necessarily mean separatism for Europe. The need to organize within such communities as a political identity must not be a rejection of European integration. The agreement on the European level does not preclude efforts to establish local structures corresponding to a feeling of togetherness among peoples and cultures. Especially when people feel like Europeans on a global-political level, it is understandable that they reflect on their cultural identity on the local level, drawing from the tradition and the eventful history of each nation.
Therefore, it was completely incomprehensible from a European perspective that European officials should begin, shortly before the referendum in Scotland, to discuss whether an independent Scotland should simply be granted immediate entry into the European Union. Scotland previously belonged to the EU, and it would be in the interest of a united Europe to have no doubt of the continued existence of this association, no matter the outcome of the vote. Just because there were no clear rules for such a case, the responsible leaders, if they really cared about Europe, would have to tell the Scots: “No matter how you decide: You belong to us now, and you will belong to us in the future.”
Instead of that, more or less overt threats were voiced from all sides, so that it would be hard for the Scots to become a member of the EU as an independent country. This shows that it wasn’t the idea of a unified Europe these politicians had in mind, but the stability of their own government structures. The fear that this could fall apart if other nations followed the example of the Scots led them to question the membership of Scotland to Europe.
The little ones are not the problem
But the big problem for the European unification is not the small states, which are based on national identities – one can see that very well in Eastern Europe. On the contrary, small governmental entities can really appreciate the benefits and safety of a European community. The political leaders of the more or less well welded state structures of old Europe are skeptical of European integration because they look at each topic that is conferred on the Community as a risk of losing their own power.
European borders are neither old nor natural. Over the centuries, the political map of Europe has changed frequently, and nothing suggests that this will change in the future. One must have no fear when facing such changes, as long as one does not seek to prevent aspirations for peaceful change by all means – but does take them seriously and shape it politically. Then Europe is not threatened; rather, as a community of satisfied people, it can only win.
Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Back to the future