We Europeans

The national political establishments find many ways to undermine the strenuous efforts made by the European Parliament to grab the attention of Europe’s publics: gerrymandering the candidate lists, putting forward ‘safe’ people who will not challenge positions back home, and so on. On top of this, there is every sign that, out of disenchantment with these political establishments, voters in the European elections will tilt in favour of the margins rather than the mainstream.

Regrettably, this and other things suggest a resurgence of nationalism, though not in its old form (at least we can be grateful for that!). The electorate’s reaction to dismal economies and unemployment is – with some justification – to put local, i.e. national, interests first. As the title of a famous comedy film about the British class wars of the 1950s put it: “I’m all right, Jack”. It’s ironic that, of all things, a vote for the European Parliament should be the pretext for people to behave so selfishly.

But, looking further ahead, I see the possibility of a radical return to our roots, in the form of an emerging spirit of regionalism. This has a lot of things going for it, not least the fact that current evidence suggests that the most successful bits of Europe socially and economically are the Member States, notably the Nordic countries, with populations of less than ten million!

In the words of the late A H Heineken of the Dutch brewing dynasty, “We have begun to realize that a state of thirty to fifty million people is hopelessly incompetent, with a deadening effect on provincial culture and a drearily standardizing effect on social life. For all purposes of internal administration we want a government which is accessible and economical, administering an area which is culturally unified and reasonably small.”

But, as with all radical ideas, there are a number of problems. The first is the headache of integrating the administrations of the individual components of Europe – currently the Member States – which would be multiplied by the number of entities involved. As Belgium has already found out to its cost, regionalisation results in increased layers of bureaucracy and higher taxes.

A second problem is defining what constitutes a region in the sense of a coherent community, culturally and linguistically, linked with the danger of harnessing a region to an exclusive cultural or linguistic identity and creating a series of ‘ghettoes’. A redistribution of dotted lines to respect ethnic, linguistic and cultural realities can also open a Pandora’s box of self-interest. Self-administration is no excuse for selfishness. Moreover, organising the world into units of ethnic exclusiveness is a daft idea which can have a debilitating effect on society. In the words of an 11th-century Hungarian cleric, “a kingdom of one race and custom is weak and fragile.”

Finally, we come back full-circle to the biggest problem of them all: the national political establishments and the dilemma of persuading them to forsake their power and their privileges. As the Irish author and philosopher Charles Handy said in his book The Empty Raincoat, “national parliaments in Europe’s larger countries, which are themselves federations of tribal regions, know that they are likely to be squeezed out if and when Europe becomes a fuller federation. Understandably, they do not relish the thought.”

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