In his book “The New Middle East,” Shimon Peres wrote that “In Western Europe, particularist nationalism is fading and the idea of ‘citizen of the world’ is taking hold” (The New Middle East, Henry Holt, 1993, p. 98). It is sadly ironical that Peres wrote those lines at the height of a savage nationalistic war in the former Yugoslavia, and shortly after the replacement of Czechoslovakia by two separate nation-states.
Today, “Western Europe” is hardly a continent where people abandon their national identity to become “citizens of the world.” The fact that Cyprus became an EU member in 2004 did not mend fences between Greeks and Turks; if anything it convinced Turkey that it could get away with its occupation of the island. As for Brussels, it might host the European Commission but it also happens to be the capital of a dysfunctional bi-national state that was left without an elected government for nearly two years (between June 2010 and December 2011) because of nationalistic dissentions between the Flemish and the Walloons.
If Peres’s diagnosis (or prognosis?) was wrong in 1993, it is even more wrong today. Far-right nationalistic parties are on the rise in many European countries: the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in Austria, the Northern League in Italy, the Flemish Block in Belgium, and the Hellenic Front in Greece. The list goes on, alongside another phenomenon that has been sweeping Western Europe recently, i.e. secessionist tendencies that challenge the European nation-state.
The secessionist aspirations of Northern Island, of Catalonia or of Corsica are not new. What is new, however, is that some of those regions might actually secede to become independent states in the near future. According to recent polls, two thirds of Catalans support independence from Spain. The partition of Belgium is now openly discussed in Brussels. Scotland will hold a referendum in 2014 to decide whether or not to secede from the United Kingdom.
There are many explanations for the disintegration of multi-ethnic nation-states in Western Europe, but one of them is that the European Union makes it safe and affordable for small nations to secede.
The 1815 Congress of Vienna established a system of balance of powers, in which small nation-states were not viable. This system gradually crumbled following the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the emergence of a united and powerful Germany. With the dismissal of Bismarck by Wilhelm and the latter’s Weltpolitik, Germany ignited a power struggle that brought about the First World War. The 1919 Versailles Conference attempted to redesign Europe’s map alongside ethnic lines, but the newly independent nation-states were swept by Hitler in the 1930s. Post-WWII Europe became the central field of the global power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, and European nation-states on both sides of the Iron Curtain had to be strong and united to face a common enemy.
In Eastern Europe, artificial states that were kept together by the Communist iron fist fell apart with the end of the Cold War (tragically in the case of Yugoslavia, peacefully in the case of Czechoslovakia). In Western Europe, the European Economic Community (EEC) became a European Union (EU) with a common currency and federal aspirations. Between 2004 and 2009, Europe’s former Soviet satellites became EU members.
In the EU, is it politically viable and safe to be tiny: no small country is in danger of being conquered by a powerful neighbor or by a foreign empire (if anything, the Flemish would rather have France annex the Walloons and take over their subsidized economy). Being small in the EU is also a great deal economically, thanks to lavish EU subsidies and the euro (spendthrift countries can chronically live beyond their means and count on Germany to pay the bills).
Hence the secessionist appetite of small European nations that would never have dreamt of independence two decades ago. It is telling that Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, explained recently that his bid for independence is partly motivated by the aspiration of “playing a full part in the European Union, whose last big expansion in 2004 saw the admission of ten new states — six of them smaller than Scotland, and six of which had become independent since 1990” (“How Scotland will lead the world,” The Economist, 17 Nov. 2011).
The European Union has indeed succeeded in achieving peace on the Old Continent through economic and political integration. But this success has side effects that are becoming more palpable by the day. For many years, Europeans have claimed that their “peace model” could and should be applied to the Arab-Israeli conflict. With the Middle East turning Islamist and Europe reverting to its pre nation-state age, Israel has good reasons to be skeptical about the European peace model.
Having heard French soldiers cry “Vive la nation!” after the Battle of Valmy, Goethe claimed that he had witnessed a new historical era dominated by the nation-state. This era might be coming to an end in Europe, and it certainly is over in the Middle-East. No wonder Europeans view the Jewish state with envy: Israel is about to become the only nation-state on the bloc and the last soldier fighting the Battle of Valmy.