Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Dirty South

Flanders – future newest member of the EU?

I promise to return to the lighter, stranger, funnier side of German culture in 2013. But first, one more foray into the complex dynamics of an increasingly unstable European Union...

In my previous post about the chinks in the armor of the European Union, I mentioned reinvigorated regionalist and independence movements within national borders of EU member states. Among others, the Catalonians, the Flemings, and the Scots have made concrete moves in this direction in recent months (read this very interesting and informative profile of the movements from die Zeit. The author does a great job of concisely describing and comparing their situations and histories). Though I personally think the recent rise of referenda on independence have a lot to do with the present economic and cultural uncertainty in the EU at large, these local movements have long histories as well, and tell us a lot about the human story in general. Indeed, human nature seems to dictate that as long as one is comfortable and provided with basic needs and work, political and cultural differences can be and are put aside in the interest of larger political and cultural units. We probably also have to add authoritarian government to the list of unifying forces, as in the case of the USSR and Yugoslavia, which promptly broke down into their regional parts – and in many cases descended into serious conflict – following the weakening or downfall of the respective regimes.

Scotland's flag – a long history of resistance,
and finally an independent land?
So there were really two things that struck me when reading this piece in Die Zeit. First and foremost is the European – and I would argue worldwide – trend away from national identities and borders toward more localized structures. As any history student knows, the nation seems like an eternal edifice to us today because all of us were born in an era where the world would look completely foreign without national borders. But of course in many cases in Europe, the nation wasn't even born until the second half of the 19th century, so the memory of a pre-national society is much more salient in many Europeans' collective consciousness; I think there are lots of places in Europe beyond the above-mentioned territories where you could ask residents with whom or what they identify most intimately, and the answer wouldn't be Germany, Italy, or Spain, but Bavaria, Lombardy, or Andalusia (or even Munich, Milan, or Granada). In the United States, even as regionalism is being muted by increased long-distance and urban migration, states such as Texas are reasserting their historical rebellious identities in the face of the clearly-tyrannical Obama administration. In China alone there are perhaps a half dozen examples of regional movements struggling against a government that spends much of its time and effort trying to hold together and justify the idea of one China. There are countless other examples in post-colonial Africa, the Middle East, etc. The case of regionalism in the EU is particularly interesting, though, because its constitution has specifically encouraged the preservation of these unique identities, perhaps to the detriment of the Union itself. Interestingly, if the Flemings want their own country, the 'Belgians' – or whatever is left if the Flemings separate – would have to agree to their entry into the EU along with the rest of the member states. Likewise, Spain would have to agree to Catalonia's legitimacy as a state. Can the EU really survive if the regionalism ball gets rolling and gains momentum? I can think of quite a few other regions that could gain momentum if these first regions successfully gain independence (South Tyrol, Friesland, Basque, etc.).

The Catalonians – funding Madrid amid
economic instability in Spain.
The other thing that struck me as I read about these referenda was just how often regional and cultural divides are defined by a north-south border. Italy, Great Britain, Germany, the U.S., and indeed the entire continent of Europe have distinct cultural and political borders that run horizontally. Though the south of Germany breaks the mold by being the richer region in Germany, the southern regions of all of these examples are viewed by their northern counterparts as being less productive, more provincial, or less economically successful parts of their respective nations, just as southern and Mediterranean Europe is seen by the North as the delinquent participants in the European Union. In this context, I couldn't help but remember Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs & Steel, which, though flawed in many respects, does a pretty solid job of outlining in broad strokes the tendencies and trends of human movements, the proliferation of technologies and disease, and the distribution of cultures. In short, he points to the fact that all of these things tend to move much more readily and rapidly horizontally than vertically. This idea is based largely on the fact that weather and climate are huge factors in determining which microbes, plants, and lifestyles are possible or likely in a given place (geography and just plain chance also admittedly come into play). This is why a New Yorker would most likely feel more at home in London than in Savannah, Georgia, and it also reinforces itself because people from northern climes and cultures have a lesser tendency to migrate from north to south or the other way around. 

So I think my point with all of this is that I think that so much of the conflict within nations and continents is based on this inherent, fundamental difference between the sober, determined, industrious, colder, cleaner North, and the emotional, profligate, lazy, hotter, and dirtier South. At the small scale and the large – that is, at the continental or national, or even state level, these differences continue to strengthen and reinforce these regional (and linguistic!) identities. Where that leaves us in the globalized age remains to be seen, but I feel like humans – being animals that by nature organize in smallish groups – will always have a strong desire to identify with something on the local level. This tendency seems to be gaining traction again, perhaps as a backlash to the pervasiveness of global economies, culture, and technology. The question is whether the nation really has any relevance in this hierarchy as technology continues to render its borders irrelevant. The European Union just might be the perfect place to keep an eye on to find out.