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On Point

Europe's Specter: A Ghost of Its Former Self?


by Austin Bay
May 31, 2006


A specter haunts Europe, an old and once-murderous scourge: the specter of ethnic and neo-nationalist separatism.

Modernity, in the form of two of the world's most appealing "country clubs," however, may have tempered the specter's threat. The allure of belonging to the clubs of wealth and security -- the wealth of the European Union and the security of NATO -- has reshaped the new separatists' demands for autonomy and independence. Many would-be "new separatist" leaders have seen wealth created and the common security well served through transnational economic and defense cooperation.

Perhaps the "specter" is now a ghost of its former self. Let's hope so. In the 21st century, EU money and NATO safety should convince all but the most fanatic of 12th century European tribalists that autonomy cannot mean closed borders, isolation and warfare. The country clubs' rules: Violence is verboten; cooperation is encouraged.

Montenegro is Europe's latest public display of "new separatism." Last week, the Montenegrin people voted, by a narrow margin, to split from neighboring Serbia. The plebiscite in the tiny Balkan nation did not quite conclude Yugoslavia's long war of devolution. The former Serb province of Kosovo might have that distinction, depending on the outcome of the United Nations' decision on Kosovo independence

As it was, the Serb-Montenegrin state was a squabbling leftover. Still, consider the progress since 1991, when Croatia and Serbia went to war. This Yugoslav divorce was resolved by an angry referendum, not another bout of ethnic cleansing. (Remember the rule: Violence is forbidden.)

Montenegro's bye-bye to Serbia was about local control, not virulent ultra-nationalism. Like its neighbors (including Serbia), Montenegro wants to eventually join the European Union.

NATO is another goal. Western Europeans and Americans puzzle over NATO's 21st century purpose, though NATO now has troops in Afghanistan and may collaborate with the United Nations when and if the United Nations sponsors a Darfur (Sudan) peacekeeping mission. Eastern Europeans, including most citizens of the former Yugoslav republics, see admission to NATO as the ultimate stamp of political approval. It is also a bulwark against Russian recidivism.

Montenegro's vote has focused attention on other demands for ethnic and cultural autonomy in Europe. Europe has a quilted history -- the cultural and tribal fabrics are many. There are numerous examples of unresolved and historical rivalries in virtually all of the current European states.

Though the Balkans are no longer quite the powder keg they once were, the potential for ethnic explosion increases when Muslims and Christians are involved. This is why Macedonia and particularly Bosnia remain volatile. Bosnian Serbs, now living in a curious statelet that comprises roughly a third of federal Bosnia, want to withdraw from the federation. If Montenegro can do it, Bosnia's Serbs argue, they can, too. Odds are the Bosnian Serb separatists would secede, then attempt to rejoin Serbia, violating the Clinton administration's Dayton Accords.

Some demands for autonomy will surprise Americans used to looking at the maps of France and Spain and thinking, "Oh, yes, homes of the French and Spanish." France struggles with a weak but occasionally violent independence movement in Corsica. Spain continues to struggle with Basque nationalists, but an even bigger challenge may be the Catalans, with their would-be national capital in Barcelona. Unlike the Basques, the Catalans have controlled their terrorists and struck a working economic and cultural bargain with Spain. But no astute Spanish politician should take Catalonian stability for granted.

Last year, the people of Holland and France rejected the proposed EU constitution. The Dutch and French "no's" suggested even the most solid of Western European citizens have issues with a pan-European government. Few object, however, to the original notion of a "Common Market" (the European Economic Community).

A common market (if not a common currency), open communication and common security -- these are the "greater identities" shaping Europe, through the EU and NATO.

Yes, ethnic and historical differences in Europe still create wars of words, which a handful of violent fanatics would turn into wars of bombs and bullets.

But violence and isolation produce poverty -- and the people of Europe's "could-be" statelets know it.

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