The hymn of the European Union is Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" from the 9th Symphony. It is a celebration of the French Revolution and the spirit of liberation that followed. The liberation was not only of the individual but also of the nation from dynasties. It was the combination of the notion of individual rights, national self-determination and national identity. The European Union was intended to embody these things. They are not lost but under strain, and the point of the strain is the nation, which, rather than forming a community, now forms competing parts in what is a zero-sum game. Where this ends is the problem, since the history of Europe after Beethoven was not what he would have hoped for.
Just as interesting is what happens to the Catalonias, the buried nationalisms within existing nation-states, that are now prepared to challenge the legitimacy of a country like Spain and demand liberation from it and the right to its own authentic nationalism. What began in the velvet divorce, peaceful and reasonable, now can become much less friendly under the pressure of severe economic pain. What other hidden nationalisms will emerge to use the shield of national self-determination to deflect economic pain? It is easy to dismiss this as an archaic sentiment and as something that cannot destabilize Europe now. But then there is little in European history to allow Europeans that kind of self-confidence.
It is important to benchmark this by the most extreme sort of consequence that we saw in Gaza. Zionism is a movement that grew out of European romantic nationalism. It drew on Jewish history, culture and religion to legitimize the right to a Jewish nation. Palestinian nationalism also grew out of European romantic nationalism. The idea of the nation-state, which took root in the Arab world in the late 19th century and was later promoted by Arab left-wing secularists in the 1950s, very much derived from the idea of nation-states' replacing European empires. The Palestinian national movement derived from this tradition, claiming the right of a Palestinian nation distinct from other nations.
Here we see the bitter side of the "Ode to Joy," rooted in geography. To have a nation, you must have a place that is its own. Ever since the French Revolution, nations have been fighting over their place in Europe. The occupation of Europe from 1945 to 1991 suspended the argument, and from 1991 -- the end of the Cold War and drafting of the EU-forming Maastricht Treaty -- until 2008, the suspension seemed eternal. Very slowly, the inconceivable is becoming far-fetched and the far-fetched merely unlikely.
Romantic nationalism can fulfill a people's dreams or nightmares and usually does both. Gaza gives us a sense of the nightmare, Catalonia a sense of the dreams. But in most places, and in Europe in particular, the distance between dreams and nightmares is not as great as people might like to think. Economic pain coupled with romantic nationalism, now bound together through a massive structure like the European Union that is incapable of understanding the forces that are lurking beneath the surface, have always had a way to generate nightmares in Europe.
It is all inconceivable now. But European history is the history of the inconceivable. I doubt that the founders of Zionism in the 19th century envisioned Gaza as their future.