When worlds divide.

European Breakups Shouldn't Be So Hard to Do

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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A Scottish vote for independence will energize separatist movements in other European countries, including Spain, Belgium and Italy. Precedent is alluring; Alex Salmond, the architect of the Scottish secession drive, often cites the relatively painless example of Czechoslovakia's split 20 years ago.

Suddenly, the possibility arises of small nations springing up throughout Europe: Catalonia and the Basque country fragmenting Spain; Flanders and Wallonia -- and don't forget a separate German-speaking mini-state -- in place of Belgium; Veneto and South Tyrol breaking off from Italy; Bavaria and East Frisia leaving Germany; Corsica and Savoy saying goodbye to France; Lapland carving off parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. It could be a great backdrop for a dystopian novel. The interesting question isn't whether it's likely, but whether the European Union would be able to cope with such fracturing.

The Scottish debate revolves around economic issues: keeping the pound (or not), sharing North Sea oil, dividing debts and assets. In a world bounded by monetary unions and trade pacts, however, nation states are not about money; national identity, a sense of belonging to a particular culture expressed primarily through language and common values and references, is more important.

The World Values Survey, a massive, long-running sociological study of people's most basic beliefs, provides a striking illustration:

After years of talk about a common European identity, frictionless borders and shared institutions, Europeans still identify with their countries much more than they do with Europe.

The sense of belonging to a nation is, in most places, even stronger than local affiliations, though local self-government is muscular across Europe and such communities are often quite distinct. Spain is a notable exception, with local patriotism dominating the state-wide variety. That helps explain the vigor of the Catalan secession movement: Vibrant communities such as the town of Berga, where everybody speaks Catalan and there's not a Spanish flag in sight, have an internal identity that beats anything Spain as a country can provide.

To ordinary people, statehood is not about taxes and governance. It's about feelings and connections, television shows and schooling, football teams and accents, symbols on banknotes and flags on national holidays. People in Crimea, many of whom genuinely voted for secession from Ukraine and inclusion in Russia in a rigged March referendum, considered Ukrainian culture and symbols as alien. "What next? Who cares if stones drop from the sky, we're with our Motherland," was how entrepreneur Alexei Chaly, one of the architects of Crimea's disputed secession, described locals' euphoria.

The force of such feelings, and unforgotten old enmities, was what split off the Baltic states from the Soviet Union and blew up Yugoslavia. Economic considerations didn't dominate. In that sense, the Czech-Slovak divorce was an exception, since in both parts of Czechoslovakia, polls showed that people were against the split; politicians went ahead anyway.

In that sense, Salmond's historical precedent doesn't work: In Scotland's case, the outcome will turn on how strongly Scottish people feel that they are a separate nation. The "No" campaign is based on similar emotions. "I don't want my children to grow up in a world where if they choose Edinburgh University they're going to be in a capital of foreign country," U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said in Edinburgh yesterday.

Unlike feelings of national identity, economic matters lie in the realm of the rational, resolvable by reasonable politicians. That's where supranational bodies like the EU come in. After taking different paths to the bloc, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have "ended up in much the same place," University of Birmingham's Tim Houghton noted last year: "The post-communist challenges of democratization, 'marketization', state-building and integration into the EU and NATO, have largely been met. Moreover, relations between the two states and their citizens have perhaps never been better."

Russia and Ukraine, on the other hand, face years of mutual hatred and no economic settlement -- in part because there is no strong supranational organization to help resolve their differences, and because neither government is rational. Russian President Vladimir Putin describes the Soviet Union's breakup as a "tragedy". Politicians always see lost territory in that way. Countries' divorces, however, don't have to be tragic, just as the breakup of a family can be peaceful, dignified and better for both parties in the long run.

Instead of treating border changes as a calamity, the EU should work out a mechanism to ease unnecessary economic friction when countries within it split up -- or merge, as the case may be. Germany has experience of stitching a country together, while the Czechs and the Slovaks know about equitable divorces. Those experiences could prove useful, especially since European secessionists have no plans to set up barriers to trade or travel. In the end, it doesn't matter which set of politicians governs a patch of land provided there's consensus about basic things including democracy and free markets. Let's hope whichever EU regions do decide to divorce can echo Czechoslovakia's dignified settlement.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net