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More Musings on the EU: Does the Center Hold?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-08-20 10:59:35
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“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.

                                                                             -–William Butler Yeats (The Second Coming)

The following reflections and sundry observations can be construed as a commentary of sort, even a dialogue, on an intriguing essay by Mr. Bouke S. Nagel which appeared in Ovi magazine on Sunday the 18th of August, 2013. It is titled “Chances are that Europe will resemble Italy in the foreseeable future.” I would have appended them to the commentary section of the magazine had it still been operative, given that Mr. Nagel has previously written interesting and thoughtful articles on the EU in Ovi which were usually followed by a civil and profitable exchange of ideas between him and various other readers, including myself.  

I read this latest contribution with the reasonable expectation, given its title, of finding some insightful comparisons between present day EU and the 19th century Italy of the Risorgimento when Italian political unification was accomplished (1860). In this I was largely disappointed: although the word Italy is prominently displayed in the title of the 2,086 word article, only 1% (or 29 words) are dedicated to an analysis of Italy vis a vis Europe and they are found in a sentence at the end of the piece which reads thus: “It [Italy] was once a patchwork of states that drifted apart after a process of unification. The North of Italy became prosperous while its South impoverished in a transfer-union.” To which a final comment is added: “Something similar can happen to Europe.”

Historically speaking this sentence is rather inadequate and even confusing. If indeed there was a patchwork of states (the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papal States, the Republics of Piedmont, Milan, Venice, Florence, San Marino, Pisa, etc.), such a political state of affairs obtained before the unification of the country, not after. In 1871 Italy was no longer a patchwork of states but a unified country with Rome as its capital, one language, one common literature and culture. I am not ignoring Umberto Bossi’s fascist-like xenophobic dream of a separate independent Northern Italy united under the banner of a fictitious “popolo Padano,” but that is still considered an anomaly and a dream likely to become a nightmare before it is realized. Be that as it may, Nagel’s thesis, if I understand it correctly, seems to be this: it was unification with its centralizing power that produced the chasm between the prosperous north and the impoverished south, and the same may happen to the EU. So let’s devolve sovereignty to the regions. Small is beautiful.

This is a thesis that Mr. Nagel has proposed before and which is redolent of libertarianism and even Rand’s philosophy of social Darwinism: the less power there is in a centralized government the more economic freedom for economic competition there is for the regional and even municipal governments; that is to say, the less government the better. We saw this thesis proposed by the likes of Paul Ryan (who loves Ayn Rand) and Mitt Romney in the last presidential campaign in the US. Nagel sees the perfect example of this ideal political state not in the confederacy called the US but in Switzerland, ironically a non EU nation, which the EU is encouraged to imitate. But it ignores the fact that the conditions for two Italies were already there before the unification and if there was a failure it was exactly the inability to level out the disparity of wealth which was there to begin with and foster economic development in the South, treated at times as if it were a colony. It took 50 years after unification for the first king of Italy to put foot in Southern Italy. The song “Torna a Sorrento” reminds us of that. 

All this can be debated and in some way it has been previously and extensively debated in Ovi magazine. There has been even a whole theme dedicated to it, but I’d like to offer here a few pertinent observations which I have expressed before but perhaps are worth reiterating in the light of this latest article by Mr. Nagel. I suppose the central question which needs to be asked and answered is the famous question of William Butler Yeats: does the centre hold? To which Mr. Nagel is likely to respond that such is exactly what he is advocating: the disbandment of a centralized over-controlling, over-regulating centre which does not allow for competition and economic prosperity for every EU country; hence the EU will be like the two Italies, one prosperous (the northern countries of Europe), one impoverished (the Southern countries of Europe).

Interestingly enough Mr. Nagel does not recommend the disbandment of the EU itself, which in effect would mean a return to good old xenophobic nationalism which he disapproves of, but simply of its over-centralization. Does that mean that he is advocating a confederacy of 27+ nations modeled on a federated United States of America? Hard to tell. What he is surely advocating is a return of sovereignty to the regional governments, a la Swiss. But Switzerland is a very small multi-cultural country which is not the case for every EU country. Geographically speaking Germany, France, England or Italy are no Switzerland. Small remains beautiful but not always feasible. It’s a bit different and considerably more difficult for a whole continent to achieve unification.

In any case, when Yeats asks  if the centre holds he is definitely not talking about political power (to be able to compete with the superpowers of the future: China, India, the US), nor economic power with a central bank, nor a common flag and anthem, nor a common currency, nor a common Parliament, not even a common Constitution (the so called “Treaty of Lisbon”), rather, he is talking about a common culture which answers the question: what exactly does it mean to be a European? His poem where the question is asked implies that all the trappings of unification will be next to useless devoid of an integrating cultural cement, that is to say, a common culture. Hence the crucial question: will the centre hold?

And here is the conundrum which brings us back to the puzzle of the unification of Italy. I am afraid that we need to delve a bit more deeply in this conundrum than what Mr. Nagel’s article provides. What did Massimo D’Azeglio, an Italian patriot, mean when he said right after the unification of Italy that “now that we have made Italy, we need to make the Italians”? Was he implying that the cart had been put before the horse? In that sense Mr. Nagel would be correct in the comparison but I am not sure he is implying as much nor that he has the same question in mind, i.e., now that we have made the EU, do we need to make the Europeans?

It must be observed that at the time of its unification in 1860 Italy had a common language and literature (the inestimable gift of Dante, even if the secondary languages, the regional dialects, remained alive and well) and a common cultural heritage: Greco-Roman civilization, the Catholic Church or Christianity, the Renaissance, all universal cultural phenomena which if properly interpreted militate against a xenophobic kind of strait-jacket nationalism a la Mussolini which incorrectly pretended to return to Roman universal imperialism but was merely imitating the extreme narrow nationalism of other European countries. Here too the analogy with present day Europe, which has substituted soccer games to religious worship on Sunday and then resents its Moslem population converting churches into mosques, could indeed be a useful and insightful one, but I am not sure that Mr. Nagel is exploring such an analogy and analysis in his article.

So what is Mr. Nagel advocating besides more freedom for local economies, less political-economic centralization, more economic competition? Not easy to fathom. In fact, in rereading and reflecting on the article there is something else that is striking: what is emphasized is merely the economic component of the polity named European Union while the cultural component is all but ignored. So we are back to the bread and circus of the decadent Roman emperors. But not by bread alone does man live. One is left with the burning question of Italian unification: has the cart been placed before the horse once again? One wonders.


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