Resisting the fervour of a la carte nationalism

Resisting the fervour of a la carte nationalism

Europe may soon acquire a new independent country, for the first shots in the battle over the independence of Scotland have been fired: With little more than a year before a referendum on this subject, the autonomous Scottish government has just published its blueprint for breaking up a centuries-old union with England.

At 667 pages, the Scottish plan unveiled last week was praised by its authors as "the most comprehensive" ever written, "not just for Scotland but for any prospective independent country".

Yet it was also decidedly odd. For, while asserting Scotland's right to "break free", it also told the Scots that they will keep the British monarch as their head of state, the pound sterling as a currency, and even the British passport as their travel document.

And the moment Scotland becomes independent, it will join the European Union, an organisation whose explicit purpose is to abolish the nation state.

A destabilising trend

NO EXPLANATION was provided for this curious approach and none was expected, since Scotland's independence blueprint is part of a growing trend among separatist movements worldwide: the pretence that the break-up of existing states is a painless, almost fun exercise which costs nothing.

This is a dangerous illusion which, if not confronted head-on, can turn into one of the world's most destabilising geopolitical trends.

Any discussion about the merits of creating a new independent state usually ends up with arguments about its optimum size and "viability". But that is largely irrelevant, for it is good governance, ingenuity, proper education and sheer determination which decide whether a country flourishes or flounders, as Singapore amply illustrates.

The same applies to Europe. Luxembourg, a landlocked country with no raw materials and only 530,000 inhabitants, is among Europe's richest nations.

Small countries can also be trailblazers: San Marino, a tiny European republic with a population of only 32,000 but an uninterrupted independent existence of over 1,700 years, led the world in providing equal voting rights to women. So, size is most emphatically not a critical consideration.

Nor should one regard existing states as immutable, as though preserved in aspic. Countries change their composition and borders more frequently than assumed and, if existing arrangements do not work, it is usually better to abandon them as quickly as possible in order to avoid bloodshed.

That is what happened with most of the hare-brained ideas for "federations" invented by colonial officials in London as the British empire began unravelling during the 1950s, and what should have been done with Yugoslavia, a multinational state which should have been encouraged to break up well before it erupted into a vicious civil war during the 1990s.

The same also applies to East Timor, whose forceful incorporation into Indonesia proved to be a disaster not only for the East Timorese, but also for most Indonesians. Just as with irretrievably broken marriages, separation is sometimes the best option.

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