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An outside observer of Europe today would surely be struck by the failure of this ideology to gain popular acceptance. There is much talk of the ghosts of the past returning to haunt Europe, from German nationalism to Catalonian separatism. This irruption of a repressed historical memory is as striking as it is alarming. What gives it such elemental force, however, is the fact that three generations have been nurtured on a narrative of European historical inevitability so pervasive as to be unchallenged. Now, though, the ideology of Europe is not merely being challenged — it is swaying like a hollow tree in a storm.

The idea that the nation state is the root of all evil gained traction in the aftermath of the Second World War — which, despite the culpability of the global ideologies of National Socialism, Fascism and Communism, was blamed on nationalism. The Cold War, in which the nation state ceased to dominate the stage except as part of larger alliances, added to the prestige of the European idea. Yet as the ideal of a federal Europe began to take shape, citizens became aware of the fact that their control over their destiny was ebbing away. There was a price to pay for “pooling” — that is, undermining — national sovereignty. The nation state had provided the essential basis for parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, civil liberties and the market economy. Over time, the ever weaker nation states of Europe became incapable of inspiring loyalty and allegiance. Far from becoming one European superstate, the Continent began fragmenting into a “Europe of the regions”, encouraged by subsidies and structures designed to dismantle the nation state. Local loyalties resumed their ancient primacy over ties to an often remote capital and an unpopular political establishment. Despite the ruling elites’ attempt to deny a place for God in the European constitution, religion resumed its role as a supranational gravitational force, with the power to pull nations apart. Islam, indifferent to national allegiances, became a growing presence in Europe. Nation states that had emerged only in the 19th century — the case with the great majority of European countries — were assumed to be capable of withstanding the passions unleashed by economic crises, but in a borderless Europe where everyone was assumed to be interchangeable, peoples felt robbed of their birthright. Because its absence was felt so acutely, identity became the most important value in European minds. Identity depends on history. And politics based on identity has always had the greatest potential for conflict.

Take the conflict in Catalonia, which has astonished Europe by escalating so rapidly and seemingly out of the blue. In fact, the present crisis has a long history, beginning in 1714 when Felipe V, the founder of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty — the ancestor of the present King, Felipe VI — abolished the medieval Generalitat (local government, with considerable autonomy) and privileges of Catalonia. It amounted to an annexation by the Castilian monarchy, in imitation of the centralised absolutism of Felipe’s French cousins. In the 19th century, Catalonia was the first part of Spain to industrialise and has been the richest region ever since. The educated bourgeoisie of rapidly growing Barcelona resented the tutelage of Madrid, in their eyes a backwater, anarchism took root and by 1900 the Catalan capital became known as the “city of bombs”. In 1909, the civil governor wrote: “In Barcelona, a revolution does not have to be prepared, since it is always prepared.”

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