Jean-Patrick Connerade/ Why Europe needs a bit of ‘balkanisation’

Jean-Patrick CONNERADE is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the Imperial College London, Honorary Professor at the East China University in Shanghai and permanent guest researcher at the WIPM Laboratory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He is the President of the European Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters, which is connected with UNESCO. He is also a former president of EuroScience. As a poet, under the pen name Chaunes, he has published many books of both prose and verse in French. He was awarded the José-Maria de Heredia medal of the French Academy, the Paul Verlaine prize of the Maison de Poésie in Paris and the Grand Prix de Poésie (prix Victor Hugo) by the Society of French Poets. He is also Honorary Member of Academia Balkanica Europeana.

European Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters

Inequalities between people, between the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, glamorous  and the ugly,  the digitally numerate and those who abhor computers and smartphones, etc. are a permanent  subject of conversation all over the world. A question which haunts the debate but is more rarely addressed is: what about inequalities between nations rather than just people? Nations can also be rich or poor in natural resources. They can also be highly developed or rather backward. They can be full of beautiful places, with mountains, lakes and forests or else vast expanses of desert with not much else to be seen. They can be fully networked or have nearly no infrastructure and, in so many respects, they are just like individuals, fortunate or unfortunate. But above all, they can be large and powerful, with huge human populations, or else very small indeed, so tiny that the are hardly noticeable on the scale of our globe. They can be powerful to the extent of determining policies which extend over whole continents, or so minuscule that their way of life goes quite unnoticed on the world stage.

And this is where the two debates merge: is it better to be born in a small or in a large country? Should we accept that the world, one day, will turn into a single country with just one government for all or should we prefer it to remain as a disparate mosaic of nations, from very large to very small? Indeed, one may also ask: what is the use of having small nations? What can be the justification for their existence? Do they help us, or do they hinder the march towards ever greater, more populated and more powerful entities? What good are small countries in the modern world and why do we even bother about them?

There is a word which is often used in this context. It is a disparaging word, intended for us all to understand how useless it to fragment, to be small, to have little territory, a small population and a diminutive national profile. And that word is balkanisation. When a continent or even a country becomes balkanised, this is supposed to make it suffer a dreadful fate, to become almost worthless as a nation. To be ‘balkanised’ is recognised as some kind of obstacle to progress which should always make us stop and think about how such a terrible event can occur.  But is this really true ? We have examples of small countries that never complain about their own size. Switzerland is happy. The Luxemburg plays its important role as a founder member of the European Union… Austria is full of rich and happy citizens. To be small does not necessarily imply doom and gloom as an inevitable consequence. Nobody has ever come up with any general theorem about the optimum size for a nation. Indeed, it is in one of the smallest nations of the world, Butang, that the index of national happiness was invented, as an original and interesting response to those who have become slaves to the GDP and to global economic indices in the so-called ‘advanced’ nations.

On the other hand, living right next to a giant state does seem to generate tensions and uncertainties which spill over into the psyche and public policies of some smaller nations. The Giants strike fear into their neighbours because of their economic and military might. The whole world worries about  the effect on trade, on growth, perhaps even on the peace  of the planet when superstate like China begin to show their muscles. Does this mean that countries should not be allowed to grow to a huge size? Do they threaten world stability simply by becoming too large, too rich, too powerful for their own or anybody’s good?

So, the opposite of balkanisation, empire building, seems not to be a good thing either. Many around the world live in fear of being swallowed up by some rich and powerful neighbour. Is it better to discourage large nations? Would it be better if all were small?

Whatever the answer to such questions, the present author believes that a mosaic of small nations is beneficial to our planet and should be preserved. They are not simply to be seen as curiosities resulting from the complexity of world history. They have a purpose and must be allowed to exist. Indeed, when small nations are ‘swallowed up’ by larger ones, it is probably the first sign that conflicts on a larger scale will follow. So, the continued existence of small countries plays a very significant geopolitical role, especially when they happen to lie in a sensitive region, close to a large and powerful neighbour.

There are of course much stronger arguments than the one just presented for preserving small nations. The Foremost amongst these concern individual freedoms. Large nations, in order to preserve their own unity, are often obliged to stamp out diversity and to persecute minorities. It is only by fleeing to other lands that some minorities can preserve their culture and continue to exist. So, a mosaic of small nations managing to live in peace with each other represents a haven and, in some sense, can become an intellectual reservoir for the whole world. There would be no diversity without them.

To this, one should add a cultural specificity of small countries due mainly to their size. The government of a small country is accessible to its citizens in a way large countries find impossible to emulate. Indeed, the larger the nation, the more protective ‘rings’ are required around its leaders and, the more of these are put into place, the harder it becomes for the ordinary citizens to establish any real connection with those holding high office. In many countries today, there is a profound dissatisfaction with the ‘System’ and this dissatisfaction stems in a large part from the feeling that the centre of power is in some other place, remote from daily realities faced by the population at large. Worse still, there is a notion that a ruling ‘cast’ develops and that, to belong to this ‘elite’ it is necessary, first and foremost, to be born and bred in some inaccessible place, to which more ordinary people cannot easily migrate. For example, in France today, power is concentrated in Paris and is felt to be wielded exclusively by those who live there. The result is to create a zone  (‘la province’) populated by second class citizens  who feel disenfranchised and have recently taken to protesting in the streets about their condition.

In part, this feeling is the consequence of excessive centralisation. There is no doubt that countries with a federal structure and devolved government (Germany, for example) are less prone to the kind of rebellion which has appeared recently in the French state. But the devolution of power must also be a real one. If it is too ‘cosmetic’ with all the ‘real’ political power retained in the centre (as in the Parliaments of Westminster and Madrid, for example) then centrifugal forces are denied and become stronger as a result. Nation states can be in danger of fragmentation, which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on what point of view one takes.

When we examine what fragmentation implies and where it comes from, we find we are back with ethnic groups belonging to fairly large provinces (for example Scotland, or Catalonia) often with their own distinct language and culture and with a long history of their own which refers to a period of past independence they have not forgotten. We see that the process of ‘balkanisation’ in such cases consists in Nation States unwinding themselves and returning to historical roots which define their identity. Perhaps the fragmentation of the former USSR is an example of such a process. There is, in some sense, a natural ‘size’ involved and it is indeed, roughly speaking, the ‘size’ of what we might call a ‘small’ nation. Provinces become restless when empires weaken. To be specific, a ‘small’ European country (such as Luxembourg, for example) can even be smaller than a French region, so the optimum size also depends on the ethnic groups involved. . At this level, the structure of the European system, in which a small country (such as Luxembourg) can play a role comparable to much larger nations (such as Germany) becomes a real problem for the construction of a democratic feferation. This issue of ‘size’ has led to the concept that Europe might  alternatively be built up from regions rather than Nation States. The idea is clearly unacceptable to the large countries but, if regions like Scotland and Catalonia were to achieve an independent status, it might become rather complicated politically to keep them out of the Union, as their citizens are today bearers of European passports and also enjoy specific rights today they do not want to give up .  

We are entering a period of history in which huge nations such as India, China and the USA will dominate the world demographically, economically and (eventually) militarily. Is this the kind of world we want to see? It is worth noting that Nigeria, within the next fifty years will overtake the European Union demographically. Despite its present economic weaknesses, the Russian Federation remains a world power. The European continent is rediscovering a political mosaic with many features reminiscent of an earlier past, which we know to have been unstable. As a military power, Europe is of negligible importance without the assistance of the USA, as recent events in North Africa have clearly shown. Economically however, Europe remains extremely prosperous, and its main assets probably reside in democratic and social systems so attractive to populations elsewhere that they have triggered mass immigration from other parts of the world.

In this broad context, the ‘large’ nations of Europe remain too small to play an important role on the world stage. They therefore become less useful. It is only by linking together or federating all the small nations, so that the collective identity of Europe as a league of democratic countries becomes apparent. Only then can it achieve enough weight politically to restore its own prestige in the future. In this process, the ‘large’ nations of Europe have failed to provide the necessary leadership, largely because of disagreements between themselves, stemming from their historical rivalries and their own rather narrow pursuit of self-interest, the latest example being the Brexit saga.  

Their failure to work for the common good signals an opportunity for small nations to group together and form a European ‘club’. Basically, they have several advantages to explore. First, because they are small, they can naturally avoid mistaken attempts to dominate their neighbours. Second, by adopting a regional approach, they can exploit cultural similarities and common roots to consolidate their political links. Third, they would spontaneously reaffirm freedom and democracy as building  blocks of a balanced union: the recent history of the European Continent would drive them to form a group. They would become a force for stability in the modern world, by counterbalancing through their numbers attempts at hegemony by larger nations.

The peoples of our continent are looking for practical examples of a model for European construction capable of bringing peace and stability to our citizens without exacerbating economic rivalries. Running the economic system in such a way that one of a group of countries attempts to become richer and more powerful than all the others around it can only lead to problems in the future. If rivalry is to be healthy, it should be a competition to improve welfare for citizens, not a race towards economic hegemony . So far, this aim has not really been achieved and, in fact, the member states of the Union have not managed to harmonise much by way of social development. Perhaps smaller states would be more successful because they operate on comparable scales. They would understand the aims of a Union much better and there would be far less tension between them.