Milan Hübl (1927-1989)
History is written by the victors. Just now, it’s the centralists who are winning across much of Europe. They have spied their opportunity and seized it. But history hasn’t finished with them yet.
There are three reasons why we take an interest in regionalism on the mainland, and in the regions of France in particular. One is that a Wessex-centred world must view Brittany and Normandy as a more meaningful ‘next-door’ than Northumbria or Scotland, separated from us by Mercia. That’s an illustration of how seeing things from the perspective of the imperial states creates a bloc mentality that really does block out other aspects of geographical reality. A second reason is practical solidarity, because the Jacobin mindset is something that gets passed around Europe like a virus, finding new strength from new victims. When Alsatians, Catalans or Tyroleans suffer at the hands of control-freak states, we know very well that we could be next. The third reason is ideological solidarity, because English regionalism can be part of a trans-European ideal, the Europe of a Hundred Flags. If it fails to see itself in those terms, then it will fail to achieve its potential to engage and enthuse.
How fares the Europe of a Hundred Flags today? Very poorly, as one imperial state after another starts to roll back the gains made since the Second World War. Europe is being restructured in ways that threaten to undo all its achievements in terms of economic (and even political) democracy, social welfare, environmental protection and cultural autonomy. All these things need to be defended on a secure territorial basis, the basis provided by regional identity. Our assets. Our institutions. Our neighbours. Our land. Our way of life. London parties not welcome. Amazingly, the mainstream Left can’t even begin to understand the importance of this. Labour puts up candidates against the nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. What good can possibly come of that? Labour ekes out its existence as a parasite on the system, having no views on how to change it for the better. In some ways, it’s set to make matters worse. As its continental allies already are doing.
France has now definitively redrawn its regional map. The partly German-speaking region of Alsace has come off worst, merged with two French-speaking regions to create ‘ALCA’ – Alsace-Lorraine-Champagne-Ardenne, an area bigger than Belgium. It’s one of several such combinations, doomed to be known by their initials, just like, as one French MP put it, cattle-brands. Alsace heads a long list of regions to be abolished as their number is reduced from 22 to 13. Others include such historic names as Aquitaine, Auvergne, Burgundy, Limousin and Picardy. The one group who can celebrate are the Mouvement Normand, since the re-unification of Normandy is one feature of the plan. Wessex looks out at what will now be officially the coast of Brittany and Normandy; it’s only further inland that the chaos becomes evident! They can, as always, look back at Cornwall, with Wessex waiting to take its place alongside.
So have the Normans been good garcons and filles? It might seem so to the Alsatians and the Bretons. These two peoples are ones whose loyalty to the French State has often been regarded as suspect, as if loyalty isn’t something that has to be earned. Now they’re the two peoples most bitterly disappointed and with good reason to ask why they should remain part of a State that won’t even recognise their existence. Brittany remains truncated, while Alsace will be wiped off the map. A challenge has been launched in the Constitutional Council, alleging inadequate consultation, but for now the plan is to implement the cull on 1st January 2016.
During the debates it was made clear that the restoration of traditional provinces is not something that will be tolerated. Sometimes, as in the case of Normandy, it happens by accident, but accidents do happen. Reorganisation is about improving the efficient, functional operation of the French national territory, as viewed from Paris. Substitute ‘English’ for ‘French’ and ‘London’ for ‘Paris’ and it becomes a familiar story. Indeed, an article in The Regionalist in 1991 stated that “By introducing its own definition of Brittany, excluding Nantes, France has been able to sow confusion and to re-assure itself that Brittany is, after all, only a French region that France can make and unmake at will.” Before long the phrase was taken up by Silesian autonomists arguing that the division of Poland into artificial voivodeships is likewise a project to supplant historic provinces with regions that Poland can make and unmake at will. Napoleon is as much a hero to the Poles as to the French, having briefly liberated their country from the surrounding empires. Yet in both France and Poland, notions of national liberty are built upon the ruins of regional identity.
Cross the Alps and we find that the ruling party in Italy has introduced a Bill to reorganise the Italian regions, a cut from 20 to 12, replacing historic names like Piedmont and Tuscany with Jacobin-style geographical labels – Regione Alpina, Regione Appenninica, Regione Adriatica. The message is the same as in France, or England, or Poland: regions exist to help the centre manage its territory; they do not deserve to exist as something worthwhile in their own right or to be an inspiration to those challenging the centre’s monopoly of real power.
Two proposed casualties are the small regions of Valle d’Aosta and Trentino-Alte Adige, home to Italy’s French-speaking and German-speaking minorities respectively. Both these areas have a special regional status that was introduced following the defeat of fascism, in recompense for persecution under Mussolini. The German-speakers of south Tyrol feel particularly betrayed, with counter-demands now being made for greater autonomy, independence and/or re-union with the rest of Tyrol, from which this area south of the Brenner Pass was separated after the First World War.
With France and Italy deracinated, Spain can expect to be next. One of the happy peculiarities of regionalisation there was that the boundaries were left largely to the locals to decide. And one result of that was a relatively large number of single-province regions that saw no need to link up with their neighbours. These account for 6 of the 15 mainland regions. So while there are some large regions with a similar population to Wessex – Andalucia and Catalonia for example – there are others about the size of Cornwall – Cantabria and La Rioja. Both these smaller regions are required in their devolution statutes to allow for the possibility of merger with their big neighbour Castilla-Leon and no doubt will come under pressure to do the deed. It’s interesting that Spain is tightening up its anti-protest laws. Clearly, those in charge are expecting trouble.
Across Europe, the 2008 financial crisis has spawned new, happy-clappy parties and movements of the Left. Their leaders talk a lot about greater public ‘involvement’ in decision-making but are (un)surprisingly cagey about who will actually take the final, unappealable decisions. Spain’s Podemos is an example, opposing Catalan independence in favour of having some undefined wider ‘influence’. Moves to get the SNP into formal coalition with Labour are part of the same outflanking manoeuvre that tries to tempt with fleeting political concessions instead of agreeing the need for lasting constitutional changes. (Though getting to look at the real UK accounts certainly WILL be tempting for Salmond and Sturgeon!)
Among the large continental states, that just leaves Germany, where the possibility of re-drawing regional boundaries has come to the surface several times since 1949. So far, the democratic Germans have always put firm proposals to the vote and not since 1952 have the voters decided to agree a regional merger. (Even that was largely about re-uniting an area that had been split by the zones of occupation.) Germany is often quoted as the model for other continental countries. In France the debate was driven – or poisoned – by the idea that France needs regions of ‘European scale’. Yet Germany is actually marked by huge diversity. There are regions like Bavaria, almost as big as Ireland, but also tiny city-states like Bremen and Hamburg.
So what is a region of ‘European scale’? Does the EU have a view? The EU, sensibly, doesn’t. European statistics are kept on the basis of regional and local units that ultimately are determined by the Member States’ own legislation. Sometimes that works in favour of identity, as when Cornwall obtained Objective 1 regional aid status, for which it would not have qualified as part of a slightly more prosperous Devonwall area. Sometimes it can result in a kind of statistical apartheid. Welsh local government is planned to be reorganised again (for the third time in 50 years). The Williams Commission that looked into the matter disappointed any nationalist who might have longed for the reconstitution of Morgannwg or Gwent. The reason? That west-east split, linking depressed coalfield areas to their respective, wealthier coasts, would endanger European aid. So the poor coalfield has to stick together, separate from the coast. In terms of the infrastructure European aid might fund, it’s nonsense, as transport largely radiates from Cardiff and Newport, following the valleys from south to north.
So much for a Europe that works for its peoples. Instead we have inflexible funding rules – the Europe of the figures – re-shaping our very constitution, for good or ill. The most sensible boundaries – in terms of community geography – may be ruled out in favour of much less sensible arrangements in order to save the funding.
Who are the EU’s real masters then, if not us? A generation ago there was the fervent hope that an alliance of europeanists and regionalists might be the twin millstones that would grind away the imperial states, dividing up their powers between them. If the EU hasn’t been the most active of allies, it’s perhaps because the European ideal has been much more easily co-opted by the centralists, by those who wish to write the imperial-state idea wider still. And that shouldn’t surprise us. The EU is the creature of the treaties that establish it and those treaties are written by the Member States. They may concede consultative institutions like the Committee of the Regions but they aren’t going to sign their own death warrant. Rather than meet the financial crisis by cutting their own wasteful spending and devolving power, they look to save money by cutting out somebody else’s tier and centralising power instead. Money has to be saved now, urgently, if the centre itself is to be saved. Attacking any identity lucky enough to have been respected this far is the quickest win. The promise in ‘The Vow’ to not abolish the Scottish Parliament some time down the road is significant not because it was said but because it was thought necessary to say it.
More recently, the EU bureaucracy itself has realised the importance of keeping its national paymasters sweet. Barroso could have opened up a debate on internal enlargement, about the further treaty changes needed to avoid any ambiguity over what happens when part of a Member State secedes. His neutrality was just too Pilate-like for the EU’s own good. It came across not as neutrality but as change-weariness. Not more treaty negotiations. Just to please the Scots and the Catalans. Do they really think their national freedom should matter that much? Juncker has already set the tone of his presidency, sceptical about environmental and social protections that hinder Europe’s bid to join the race to the bottom. His warning to Greek voters about the kind of government they should or shouldn’t elect is further proof that the ‘post-democratic’ Europe advocated by Peter Mandelson is firmly taking shape.
Regionalists have always been wary of Europhile claims, while equally distancing ourselves from Eurosceptic adoration of the imperial states. There is a genuinely third way that is not about those states, nor about a Jacobin map of Europe where identity is to be erased as a barrier to ever closer union. Actions produce reactions and the current war on identity will produce a renewed determination to resist. A determinaton to build a different Europe, the Europe of a Hundred Flags, in place of the worthless regimes in London, Paris, Rome and Madrid – and of their Brussels puppet. (That so many assume Brussels to be the puppet-master just shows how well the imperial states know their work.)
We should increasingly expect to see nationalist and regionalist parties succeed at the polls, making inroads into the dead thinking of Europe’s indistinguishably conservative / socialist establishment, while seeing off those equally indistinguishable challengers who are just more of the same.
It’s been said, and not wholly in jest, that a nationalist is a regionalist who means it. One who isn’t fooled by the Labour Party or the Parti Socialiste into backing change that isn’t really there. Many regionalists, who’ve been deliberately moderate to win concessions from the centre that are now being torn up in scorn and suspicion, will be asking whether separatism is such a dirty word after all. States with a more authoritarian tradition will be turning up the heat. States with a less authoritarian tradition will be trading clunking old chains for sleek new wires. Either way, advocates of autonomy will need to be careful who and what they trust.