Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The North will rise again
The European debate is generally put forward as a contest between nations and those who would dissolve them into a European superstate and usually argued in terms of legitimacy. Does an entity called Europe have the right to gradually dissolve the political and civil practices and traditions of historic nations into a supra-national structure? There’s no doubt that this is an accurate description of what’s going on. UK law is subordinate to EU law in many of its aspects. The terms under which we work and do business are increasingly dictated from Brussels.

So far, so Eurosceptic. But this binary approach leaves out important things. The obvious one is the fact that existing nations themselves contain national minorities who don’t necessarily have any affinity for the nation as a whole (Catalans, Scots, German Tyroleans, etc). Also, rather than rising out of organic nation forming processes, nations often have their borders defined by other powers (Germany after 1945) or through compromise over borders (pretty much every country which isn’t an island) or were just cobbled together by outsiders (Belgium).

As a pan-European economy gradually takes shape, regions are increasingly tending to look outside their historic borders for a hinterland. It probably makes more sense for Bavaria, for instance, to think economically in terms of Lombardy, Austria and Southeast France rather than Pomerania or Saxony.

Could the EU be a nation forming entity, as well as a nation dissolving one? There are signs that this is beginning to happen.

Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic on Monday unveiled plans here to create a regional cooperation zone in the heart of central Europe in 2005.

It is the first time that Austria and its former communist neighbours, who will all three join the European Union in May 2004, have embarked on this kind of cross-border cooperation.
Officials described it as a bid to "counter centralism" in the enlarged bloc.

The zone will have six million inhabitants and stretch from the Austrian provinces of Burgenland and Lower Austria, which incorporates Vienna, to Brno and Trnva in the northeast of the Czech Republic.

It incorporates the Slovak capital Bratislava and Hungary's eastern Gyoer et Sopron regions, and a total of 14 mayor cities in the four countries.

Officials from the four countries on Monday signed a declaration of intent in a baroque castle in Kittsee in Burgenland, stating that they want to attract joint investment and create common policies on culture, tourism and the environment.

The eastern half of the Austro-Hungarian empire also shows signs of reconstituting itself

Co-operation between the Visegrad group - the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary makes sense and must go on after the four countries join the EU as from May next year. That was a message sent by the four presidents from Monday’s summit in Budapest.

President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Klaus, who earlier, as the country’s Prime Minister, described this co-operation as an artificial, false and unnecessary grouping, has now echoed this sentiment.

"We will try to change slightly the formula and scope of Visegrad’s activities", Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told reporters hoping that the "useful vehicle" will go on in an especially "difficult time".

And of course, there’s the big one

Paris and Berlin are considering plans to create a core union, which would keep the two countries strong in an enlarged European Union.

This 'Union of France and Germany' would mean the two countries would merge their foreign and defence policies and co-operate on education and economy.

Although the idea has been mooted for many years, the initiative of a Franco-German union has been urged recently in private conversations by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the French Prime Minister, and Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, the French daily, Le Monde, reported yesterday.

Earlier this month, Mr de Villepin said that a Franco-German union was "the only historic gamble that we cannot possibly lose".

How would this work in the UK? Scots and Welsh devolution are obvious pointers. And then there’s the Campaign for an English Parliament, whose presiding spirit seems to be John Betjeman. Also, England itself isn’t exactly a natural polity. It’s a good bet that any English nation would favour the South East even more than the British government of today does, and then there’s the urban/rural divide. Does anyone else get profoundly irritated by the foxhunting lobby’s contention that a motley collection of nasty village moneybags and the yokels they boss about are somehow truer and more authentic Englishmen than town dwellers?

What of John Prescott's little empires?Most people don’t think of the proposed regional assemblies for England with much enthusiasm. Me neither. They just look like another redivision of the spoils between the same bunch of tired hacks. The proposed regions also don’t fit in with genuine interests. Manchester’s economic flows go over the Pennines and west to Liverpool, rather than being halfway along some nominal north-south axis between Stoke and Carlisle.

AJP Taylor once commented on the similarity between the big cities of Northern England, the Renaissance city states of Italy and the Hanseatic League. Under-represented in Parliament in terms of their population and the wealth they created, they each evolved distinctive civic identities while sharing a broadly similar political culture, itself distinct from that found elsewhere in England. They had a kind of de-facto independence, and the ideas of the people within them have proved widely influential. Free trade, a mancunian invention, is now the world’s official economic policy.

Of course, the notion of a league of free northern cities raises as many questions as it answers. First question: do we let the Scousers in? And what about the woollybacks in places like St Helens and Bolton?

But the point is that Europe makes these things possible. We can leave the South to form the Capitalist Monarchy of Rugby Union and march boldly forward to the Saorstadt Mancunia.

Naturally, it will take a long time for any of this to happen. In the meantime, why not get some practice in here or give your child a truly disappointing christmas experience.

This post was brought to you by the department of the politically impossible.