November 28, 2012

A QUESTION OF IDENTITY: The nation-state is shrinking to just a flag, some sports teams and a pile of debts. Well, in some places.

“The hour has come to exercise our right to self-rule,” says Artur Mas, Catalonia’s president, sounding like a 19th-century statue of a nationalist hero on horseback. Catalans vote on Sunday in what amounts to a referendum on independence from Spain. Scots are galloping down the same road: they vote on independence in 2014. And Flemish nationalists won big last month in Belgian local elections that you may have missed. If these characters get their way, the map of western Europe will undergo its first changes since Ireland became independent in 1922. . . .

Many national governments in western Europe have forfeited their best tools: national borders, currencies and wars (no fighting in this region since May 1945). They committed to free trade. Inevitably, then, the nation-state began withering away. Belgium in 2010-11 went 541 days without a national government – effectively becoming a failed state – and hardly anyone noticed.

The nation-state is shrinking to just a flag, some sports teams and a pile of debts. Catalans, Scots and Flemings might as well get out. They just shouldn’t think their own little states will be more use. They appear aware of this. They game-plan is to couple glorious nationhood with the European superstate. When Scots and Catalans realised the European Union might not admit them, they cooled on independence.

In fact, the EU’s recent rise exemplifies the demise of nationalism. During the economic crisis, the EU has been morphing into something of a federal state: central control over national budgets, European bailouts, perhaps banking union. Europeans have sulked, but they’ve mostly accepted this.

That doesn’t mean they love the EU. Nobody ever ran into the street drunk, waving the European flag. The emotional choice now isn’t between nation and Europe. Rather, people are gradually replacing nationalism with an array of transnational loyalties.

What do things look like, in a world where people are willing to die for “an array of transnational loyalties,” but not for their country? In Europe, at least, we may be on the way to finding out.