Gaza, Catalonia and Romantic Nationalism

By George Friedman
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This did not mean that tensions did not continue to exist. In Belgium, French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemings have been hostile to each other since Belgium was established in the 19th century. Slovakia and Romania have large Hungarian populations, separated from Hungary under the post-World War I redrawing of the internal borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Occasionally there are mild nationalist rumbles among the Hungarians in both countries seeking reunification. There is a Scottish secessionist movement in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is peaceful now but it retains a secessionist movement. There are a variety of such movements in Italy.

For the most part, these movements have not been something to take seriously. Even the Catalan movement is far from achieving independence. Still, we are in a period of European history in which borders are not redrawn primarily due to states seizing territory from each other; rather, the odds that increasingly prevalent secession movements could change the borders are moving from the realm of the preposterous to that of the almost conceivable. That is not a trivial evolution because in such matters the trajectory, rather than the credibility at any one moment, is most important. As pressures build in Europe, what was inconceivable could become surprisingly practical in a relatively short period of time.

The European Summit to discuss the EU budget last week was a demonstration of the degree to which national interest -- and nationalism -- defines the existing European states. The issue in Europe is who is going to bear the burden of austerity that the European political and economic system is imposing. Whatever the idea of Europe might be, the reality is that the political power rests in the nation-states, and the presidents and prime ministers are elected by nation-states. They respond to their constituents, and the constituents want to deflect costs.

The ongoing EU budget dispute is a convenient opportunity for any government that wants to demonstrate to its public that it is being vigilant in minimizing the costs of austerity. The degree of acrimony and indeed hostility among the states -- which formed and shifted coalitions over the budget while trying to shift the financial burden to other states -- was startling if you looked at it through the eyes of 2000. The structures of the European Union are rapidly devolving into its constituent nation-states.

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The question of who will bear the burden within nation-states is emerging as an equally divisive issue. This in turn intersects with deep rivers of European history. Catalonia has long argued that it was a separate nation from Spain, based on history and culture, and historically it has had a degree of autonomy. The issue remained relatively quiet until it became clear that Spain's EU membership would have significant economic implications. The tradition of Catalan nationalism then turned from nostalgia to a vehicle to deflect economic pain by shifting it from Barcelona to Madrid.

Nationalism's Difficult Legacy

There is a profoundly important tradition in Europe of romantic nationalism. In its liberal form, it is the idea that every nation has the right to self-determination. The problem is defining what constitutes a nation, and for the romantics that was defined by language, distinct history, culture and so on. It is also defined by self-perception. A nation exists when its inhabitants see themselves as a distinct people. Implicit in romantic nationalism is a conflict. When one notion of romantic nationalism denies the legitimacy of competing claims by a nation's constituent parts, romantic nationalism can become oppressive rather than liberating. In response, the constituent parts sometimes invent national identities for a variety of reasons, destabilizing the whole. The European notion of nationalism can be quite destabilizing and in its most militant form can become brutal.

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"Gaza, Catalonia and Romantic Nationalism is republished with permission of Stratfor."

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