Sunday, September 21, 2014

Better together?

The Scots have voted to stay in the United Kingdom, and there seems to be a consensus, outside Scottish nationalist circles at any rate, that this was the right call. The prospect of breaking up a centuries-old nation-state at the heart of the developed world was keeping a lot of people awake at night.

Scotland is not the only place where sovereignty disputes are making headlines. In Catalonia the debate is still peaceful, if heated, while in eastern Ukraine there’s a shooting war going on over who should be in charge. Sovereignty is about who should collect the taxes and make the rules, but more deeply it’s about who commands enough loyalty to get people to risk their lives in a fight. The issues are as tangled as the populations.

The apparent orderliness of maps, with their sharp lines between different colored nation-states, obscures the messiness of real-world ethnic and linguistic groups that spill over imaginary borders and mingle in cosmopolitan cities. The idea that if you live in Spain you are Spanish and if you live in Russia you are Russian was always too simple, but the modern ethnically defined nation-state, as it emerged in the nineteenth century and gradually replaced the old feudal idea of diverse communities owing allegiance to a monarch, seemed a reasonable response to the need for large organizational units in a rapidly globalizing world.

A nation-state might be best understood as a defense alliance; when the Huns come sweeping in from the steppes, the more towns you can draw on for volunteers the better your chances are. Of course, aggression is also enabled by bringing more towns under your control; either way the nation-state was designed to consolidate power. And to wield power you need an organizing principle; a common language and culture seemed a reasonable one to adopt.

But the ethnic map is too complex and fragmented to fit with the map of consolidated power. And nobody likes being ruled by foreigners. Centralizing governments repressed regional cultures to varying degrees, leading to today’s map with a relatively homogenized France next to a restive, unreconciled Spain and the unhappy marriage of Belgium next to a fairly successfully unified federal Germany.

What’s the proper approach? Do the Scots and Catalans deserve their own country? What about the Flemish? Was the unification of Italy under Garibaldi a mistake? For that matter, is the EU a mistake? Is it possible to reverse course and go back to smaller, more homogeneous political units? If so, what happens to Britain’s national debt and the million or so residents of Barcelona who are not of Catalan descent?

I don’t have answers, but we can think about principles. One thing we can say for sure is that if we’re going to avoid more of what’s happening in Ukraine, we’re going to have to compromise; not everybody’s going to get everything they want.

There is an inherent tension between the desirability of broader global networks and the need for citizens to identify with the governments that rule them. The European Union has brought great benefits in increased trade and mobility while arousing great resentment as people sense that decisions involving their quality of life are increasingly made in Brussels rather than in their national capitals. Sovereignty requires loyalty, and bureaucrats don’t inspire loyalty. Britain can still get young men to risk their lives for Queen and country (even Scots!), but who is willing to die for Brussels?

The solution to most sovereignty disputes would seem to be some kind of federalism. But there are various models of federalism with varying degrees of success. A successful federation will accommodate local aspirations while inspiring loyalty at the federal level. Ask an American what his nationality is and the answer probably won’t be “I’m a Kansan.” The United States successfully inspires loyalty to the federation as a whole. The same is probably true of Switzerland or Germany.

The UK is not a federal state but may be moving toward that with more devolution in the wake of the Scottish referendum; protracted debates lie ahead. (Home rule for England?) Federalism may be the answer in Spain, which has granted a great degree of regional autonomy to its least contented regions but is still constitutionally a unitary state. But then the Franco dictatorship and its efforts to forcibly stamp out regionalism may be too recent for Catalans and Basques who see a better future for their countries as independent states in a federal Europe.

Which would, of course, bring its own problems of sovereignty. The hope for a peaceful resolution of sovereignty disputes rests on the degree to which democratic habits of open debate and willingness to compromise prevail. An imperfect solution can be accepted as legitimate as long as the process that gets there is seen as fair. Ultimately, sovereignty is less important than a commitment to the open society.

Sam Reaves

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