Walker's World: The regions are restive

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Oct. 8, 2012 at 6:30 AM
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FRANKFURT, Germany, Oct. 8 (UPI) -- The complexity of the way the euro has been coming apart at the seams is matched by the even more highly charged way that the states of Europe seem to be following suit.

Spurred on by opinion polls indicating that 70-80 percent of Venetian respondents want independence from their indebted and dysfunctional national government in Rome, thousands of Venetians took to their canals last weekend to demonstrate for the cause.

It isn't simply the legendary historical city that seeks its freedom but many in a much wider region, home to some 5 million people, which claims that once free of the burden of the rest of Italy it could become the richest single province of Europe.

This isn't altogether new.

The Liga Nord, the party that seeks autonomy for the whole of northern Italy, has been for the past 20 years a powerful player in Italian politics, part of the coalition that put Silvio Berlusconi into power.

The Venetian movement follows similar demands for local independence from Catalonia and the Basque region in Spain, Scotland in Britain and the Flemish-speaking districts of northern Belgium. Among that group, the Scots are the odd ones out, since the Venetians, Flemings, Catalans and Basques are much richer that the wider nation state of which they have been part.

The economic crisis has sharpened not just local nationalist instincts and traditions but has generated growing resentment that these hard-working and wealthy regions are paying for their lazier or less productive fellow-citizens. The combination of national sentiment and hard-headed financial calculation is a potent one.

But as the same time that some of Europe's traditional nation states are threatened with dismemberment, the nation states themselves have become in some ways stronger and more assertive.

Traditionally, nation states did this through military policies, keeping large standing armies, conscripting their young man and so on. Those days are over. Europe has de-militarized to a remarkable degree, spending on average just 1 percent of gross domestic product on defense, much to the unhappiness of their U.S. ally.

But the European nation states now assert themselves by arrogating more and more of the national wealth to its purposes. In France, 57 percent of GDP is spent by the state, a higher proportion even than Sweden, traditionally the most generous of the welfare state systems. To maintain this generosity, nation state debts have surged to barely sustainable levels, which is the fundamental reason why the euro is in such difficulties.

Moreover, the euro crisis is (to use the current vogue word in Brussels, the EU capital) re-nationalizing the European banking and financial systems. Money is being hauled back to the solvent North (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Finland) from the less-than-solvent South (Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal).

In the happy years before the crash of 2007, cross-border banking was growing at a rate of 16 percent a year and has since plunged dramatically. In 2007, the banks of the North had put more than $2.5 trillion into the South and that not have less than half that.

There are endless appeals (mainly from the South) for European "solidarity," which means relaxing the austerity terms the Northerners demand for bailing them out and this angry claims that Germany is being nationalist in putting its own financial system first.

This is attended by various unsavory images like front-page headlines of "The Fourth Reich" in Italian newspapers and Greek cartoons of Chancellor Angela Merkel with a Hitler moustache and swastika. It was striking that so few European voices hailed the fact that the European Union won by far the most Olympic medals this year; they preferred to trumpet their national scores.

So we have these competing currents of regional separatism, traditional and financial nationalism, all swirling within a broader context that sees the European elites seeking to address the financial crisis with "more Europe," a new thrust toward a federal European superstate. As EU Commission President Jose-Maria Barroso put it in a speech this month, this means Europe must correct "the flaws in the euro architecture and move toward a genuine economic and monetary union composed of a banking, fiscal and political union."

"The reality is that European integration remains the best alternative," he added. "We need more Europe."

Or as Merkel put it in a speech this month, "Europe is our fate and our future."

European voters, even when not beguiled by the siren song of regional independence, seem less and less ready to support their elites in this dramatic thrust to union.

Eurobarometer, the European Union's own polling organization, runs annual surveys of whether Europeans have a negative or positive feeling about EU institutions. In 2007, the result was 52 percent positive and 14 percent negative. In 2012, it had slumped to 31 percent positive and doubled to 28 percent negative.

At the same time, Euroebarmeter found that the European Union was still seen as the actor best able to tackle the crisis and more than half of Europeans said that "the European Union will ultimately emerge stronger from the economic crisis."

Regional, national or European; the three rallying points of political and cultural life and identify all seem to be in flux at once, just like the euro itself.

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