Another Day, Another Country For Europe

Tim Hames

The Times
February 18, 2008

In this season of extraordinary American politicians, it is worth
remembering one who, albeit accidentally, put his finger on the
upheaval that has been Europe over a century. Strom Thurmond sat in
the US Senate until shortly after his 100th birthday in 2002. In his
final stretch in that chamber he was a prominent member of the Senate
Armed Services Committee. Towards the end of the 1990s the committee
was hearing testimony from the Hungarian Ambassador to Washington.

After he had spoken, the senator apparently took him to one side and
whispered: "When I was at school, you and Austria were one country,
when did the two of you split up?" It had been eight decades earlier.

Before that divide much of Central and Eastern Europe was controlled
by the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian or Ottoman empires. It
is a geography quite unrecognisable from the Europe of today, and
one that will change again as Kosovo declares its independence and
becomes the seventh member of the former Yugoslavia to become an
established nation.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union brought forth six states broadly
acknowledged to be part of Europe, four others whose status is more
contestable (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan) as well as
the dilemma of where to place Russia itself.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia engaged in their velvet divorce 15
years ago. Membership of the European Union has more than doubled
since that date. It has been a fantastic two decades for those who
make flags or sell maps but it has been a thoroughly confusing period
otherwise. There are today, if one includes some of the smaller
entities such as Andorra and San Marino, some 50 or more states in
this continent.

It is tempting to conclude that all this change is simply the impact
of the end of the Cold War upon one half of Europe. Yet this would
not be accurate. The shock has been more subtle west of what was once
the Iron Curtain but no less substantial.

It has led to the rise of regionalism in Italy via the Northern
League. It has produced radical devolution in Spain, not only to the
Basques but the Catalans and the Balearics. Belgium cannot divine
whether it is one, two or three countries. In the United Kingdom, it
has produced serious devolution in Scotland, a semi-detached Northern
Ireland and a more autonomous Wales. Even Germany, which would seem
the exception, is actually more fragmented in many respects and both
economically and politically weaker as a consequence of unification.

Perhaps the only sizeable nation in Western Europe that appears
culturally comfortable within its borders is France – and even there
many observers would contend that tensions have been exacerbated in
the past 20 years.

It is a paradox of politics that while small convulsions often prompt
massive comment, more seismic shifts pass by almost ignored. That
is the case for Europe. If anyone had predicted in these pages in
February 1988 that the atlas would look as it does now, they would
have been dismissed. The notion then that Kosovo would become an
independent nation would have been regarded as laughable.

Yet such a prophecy, while seeming wild, would not have been
ridiculous. If one looks at the maps of Europe over the centuries –
best set out in Norman Davies’s incomparable Europe: a History –
what is striking is the trend of that cartography.

Over time, two very different sorts of Europe can be identified. One
is of a "micro-Europe", a continent with a large number of small,
independent states, some of which are so tiny as to be almost
illogical; the other is a "macro-Europe", where there is a smaller
number of larger states, either explicitly through empires or
implicitly via the kind of domination that the Soviet Union held over
its nominally "free" allies in the Warsaw Pact.

The story of Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been one
of yet another reversion from macro-Europe to micro-Europe. And
significantly, this may prove to be a durable transformation.

Macro-Europe developed as the result of outright force or the threat of
conquest. Micro-Europe is what seems to occur if armies are left out of
the equation. We live in what is a natural mosaic of a continent. If
the various Balkan conflicts that led to the break-up of Yugoslavia
were, as there is reason to hope, the last destined to happen on our
soil, then more micro-Europe rather than less of it is surely to be
the pattern of the future. If Gibraltar, for instance, is not to be
a British dependency 50 years hence, then it is less likely to be
submerged into Spain than evolve into a new form of Monaco.

This momentous move from a macro-Europe to a micro-Europe prompts
one over-arching question that few across its political elite care
to address at this moment. Its implications for the European Union
should be seminal, but political leaders seem unwilling to acknowledge
this candidly.

For the EU is, in many respects, a rather tragic institution. The
macro-Europe vision that its founders had for it made eminent sense,
to be fair to them, in the 1950s. Not merely the legacy of the
Second World War but the need to compete with the Communist bloc
made supra-nationalism an appealing concept. In the context of a
micro-Europe, though, the model appears desperately outdated.

The new Europe that has emerged so suddenly demands something closer
to a modern Hanseatic League than a Brussels-based one-size-fits-all
formula. One last fact sums up the scale of what is taking place around
us. In the many years that passed from when Senator Thurmond was at
school to when he died, the map of the United States was amended but
twice when Alaska, then Hawaii, achieved statehood.

With Kosovo, like Montenegro before it in 2006, departing from the
jurisdiction of Serbia, Europe’s increasingly complicated atlas has
altered twice in fewer than two years.