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Nationalism and Universalism in European History

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“To be a man of the West, is to belong to a culture of incomparable originality and power; it is also to be implicated in incomparable crimes.
                                                                                                                       –William Pfaft
Brief Preamble by the author: This essay first appeared in Ovi magazine in 2013 as a thematic contribution to the theme of nationalism. This is a slightly revised version. The theme of nationalism has consumed rivers of ink. It is a veritable challenge to even attempt to condense it in a few thousand words in the form of an essay, but, for whatever their worth, here are a few synthesizing thoughts.

bookspaprThose thoughts have appeared in greater detail in two books I have published lately. One of those books has appeared in the Ovi’s bookshop as an e-book titled Europe beyond the Euro, and the other is titled A New Europe in Search of its Soul (Author-House, 2005). The interested reader may wish to peruse them for a more thorough treatment of the issue.

Iwish to begin with a sharp distinction between nationalism interpreted as patriotism, as loyalty to one’s country and respectful of the patriotism of others for their country, and blind destructive nationalism, characterized by an overzealous almost fanatical regard for one’s country alleged superiority and a misguided dishonorable disregard for others’ countries often considered inferior and resulting in innumerable wars. Even a cursory look at European history will confirm such a confusion.

When nationalism is positive and constructive it calls the individual to self-sacrifice, puts loyalty  high on its scale of values, it is proud of the national language, the native soil, the history and culture of the nation and the right of self-governance and determination. This is patriotism in tandem with nationalism. When nationalism is negative however it becomes exaggerated and blind to the fault of one’s nation; it turns into a destructive force leading to attempts by one nation to dominate other nations. Perhaps the best example of this kind of xenophobic destructive nationalism bent only on mere military glory and prowess is Nazi Germany, a nationalism gone crazy. More than patriotism we ought to call this kind of negative nationalism chauvinism and xenophobia. It declares “my country right or wrong.” To use a metaphor, if my mother happens to be a drunk, the best way to help her is to first acknowledge the truth that she is a drunk and then try to help her, while continuing to love her even as a drunk. The chauvinist instead proclaims “my mother, drunk or sober.” This is an important distinction often overlooked by those historians and scholars who collapse the word patriotism into nationalism.

A common language is very important but does not necessarily result in instant nationalism. In Italy, the modern European nation I am most familiar with, there was a common literary language in place since the 12th century, as exemplified in Dante’s Divine Comedy, Petrarch’s Canzoniere and Boccaccio’s Decamerone. Politically, however, we need to wait six more centuries (1860) for Italian national unification to become a reality. The paradox present in Machiavelli’s Prince is this: while he lauds the universalism of the Romans and writes the Prince dressed in a Roman toga, he is also urging, via his political science, the imitation of the foreign nationalism in order to become another united nation. I shall return to this theme of nationalism and universalism, which constitutes the title of the essay, further down in the essay.

To better discern this announced distinction, we need to go back to ancient Greece where there was indeed a common language and culture and yet those were not able by themselves to overcome centrifugal political forces and unify the city states into one country. There was however patriotism and pride in one’s culture, best exhibited by Leonidas’ small force of 300 Spartans confronting the invading oriental Persian “barbarians” at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. Those Spartans were sacrificing themselves for a common Greek culture, a culture spread for a short while all the way to India by Alexander the Great. So, paradoxically, the universalism of an empire succeeded where nationalism as we know it failed. In the Roman Empire too we see an empire with Latin as a lingua franca, as a sort of unifying principle beyond military might. That empire lasted a bit longer than surmised, some two thousand years if we remember that  the Byzantine empire was the continuation of the Roman empire, and that Greco-Roman civilization continues to be at the basis of our own and to exercise considerable influence on it.

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 The Goddess Europe on a journey on top of Zeus disguised as a bull

When we come to the Middle Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire, another intriguing thing  happens. National languages (French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German) begin to sprout but it is the Catholic Church and Latin and more broadly speaking Christianity which continues to supply the unifying centripetal cultural factor to the whole continent of Europe. Without understanding that simple historical fact one searches in vain for the roots of European cultural identity. This is indeed something that seems to be either ignored or forgotten by the present day Europeans in search of unity beyond nationalism and sometimes finding it in inanities such as soccer games and common banks and currency, thus ending up with the cart before the horse. When Italian unification was achieved Dazeglio said “now that we have done Italy we need to make the Italians.” Similarly we now have some Europeans proclaiming that “now that we have a European Union we need to find the sources of European identity.” There would be no need to reinvent such a wheel if the Italian historical example had been better pondered.
For full-fledged nationalism to arrive on the stage in Europe we need to wait for the Protestant Reformation which shatters the unity provided by Latin and the Catholic Church. And so a more narrow nationalistic experiences follow the universal experiences of the Empire, the Renaissance, the Catholic Church. The word Catholic, after all, literally means universal. So we have well formed nation states, Spain, England, Portugal, France, fighting each other incessantly either in Europe or all over the globe as they build their imperialistic empires in America, Africa and Asia. Nationalism becomes the fashion and the politically correct way to go. This despite the fact that the elite aristocracy of Europe (in Russia for example) preferred to speak French rather than their native languages. That was a form of effete cultural showmanship and not allegiance to France.

While Christianity barely survived in Spain, it remained the dominant faith in the rest of the European continent to such an extent that the adjectives “European” and “Christian” tended to be confused. What is intriguing in Goff’s thesis is that he designates as Christian Europe only the Western part of the Roman Empire, not Byzantium, the Christian Orthodox Eastern half; nor Greek and Russian Christian Orthodoxy, nor paganism and its vestiges which are somehow regarded as unessential to European unity.

Be that as it may, one begins to wonder if it is purely coincidental that the former Pope Benedict XVI, who had assumed the very name of the patron saint of Europe, the founder of Western monasticism, travelled to Bari, Italy, the land of Saint Nicholas, the linchpin between Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, on the very day when the French people voted down the EU Constitution put before them by their elitist politicians and pundits. Food for thought.

What is of interest to us here is the crucial question suggested by Goff’s thesis: in an ultra secularized modern Europe so unfriendly to religion in general, is it conceivable that the Catholic Christendom of the Middle Ages be at least acknowledged as the direct precursor of today’s Europe? The question may result absurd for many Europeans, but if it is, it would itself reveal an intriguing posture vis-à-vis religion on the European continent. It would at the very least raise the suspicion that the grudge against religion is so deep that one is ready to ignore and even deny one’s cultural roots.

Christopher Dawson and the Making of Europe

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Christopher Dawson

In 1932 Christopher Dawson published a book titled The Making of Europe which had enormous success and established his reputation as a scholar of incredible range and erudition who could communicate with great clarity and elegance. He had previously written two other books: The Age of the Gods (1928), and Progress and Religion (1929) but this was unique.
The book avoids the conventional burdensome footnotes, bibliographies and theoretical frameworks and reads like a romantic novel, hence its popularity. Indeed, 19th century Romanticism was a corrective to the previous century, the so called age of Enlightenment. It did this by questioning the rationalist conviction that the empirical physical sciences constituted the paradigm of all knowledge and thus reinstated Giambattista Vico’s revaluation of history against the Cartesian depreciation of it as mere gossip.

Vico had observed that the external world of nature is ultimately impenetrable, for the human mind can only attempt to manipulate it within the strict limits set by God who created it. The stream of history, on the other hand, is essentially the world that the human creative spirit has made, and therefore despite its recurring mysteries, it can come to be known by humans in an incomparably deeper sense. Dawson shared this revaluation of history as did Hegel when he declared history the highest form of knowledge: the self-realization of the absolute spirit in time.
And what was the single idea, the keynote of Dawson’s thought as found in The Making of Europe? I was this: religion is the soul of a culture and a society that has lost its spiritual roots is a dying society, however prosperous it may appear externally. The fate of our civilization was endangered not only by the fading of the vision of faith that originally formed it, namely Christianity, but the failure to integrate the world of reason and science with the world of the soul, which has lost the power to express itself through culture. In Dawson’s view this was the tragedy of modern man. Before writing his famous book Dawson had read and pondered deeply the works of Augustine (The City of God) and Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). He was also influenced by Lord Acton’s World History wherein Acton affirms that “religion is the key of history.” He slowly became aware of the continuity of history and of how the coming of Christianity had transformed the dying Roman Empire into a new world.

He spent fourteen years of intensive study before writing his twenty some books among which Enquiries into Religion and Culture (1934), Religion and Culture(1948), Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950), The Crisis of Western Education (1961), The Formation of Christendom (1961). All these books dealt with the life of civilizations. The underlying idea in them was the interaction of religion with culture and subsequently with civilization. Religion is discovered to be the dynamic element in every culture—its life and soul. He discovered that worship, prayer, the rite of sacrifice, and the moral law were common to all religions and so what the object of worship, and that moreover, the destiny of the human race was conditioned not only by material progress but by a divine purpose or providence working through history. Dawson also discovered that “the world religions have been the keystones of the world cultures, so that when they are removed the arch falls and the building is destroyed” (Progress and Religion, p. 140).
As he surveys the two millennia of Christianity Dawson noted four landmarks. The first one is the new element which defines the difference between the new faith and the old mystery religions of Europe: this is the principle of a dynamic and creative spirit that inspires the whole of life. The Christian religion has a power of renewal that has accompanied it through the ages.

The second landmark was the extraordinary development in the fourth century A.D. when Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. After centuries of living on the inherited capital of the Hellenistic culture, this fountainhead seemed to run dry. Yet the achievement of Greece and Rome were not rejected by this new faith. They were merely transformed. Classical learning and the Latin language became fused with the ideals of a Christian society that was founded not on wealth, tyranny and power but on freedom, progress, and social justice. Latin became “not only a perfect vehicle for the expression of thought but also an ark which carried the seed of Hellenic culture through the deluge of barbarism” (The Making of Europe, p. 49).

The third great change of thought, according to Dawson, came about in the 16th century with the Renaissance and the Reformation, which brought an end to medieval unity. The fourth came about after the industrial revolution in the 19th century and led to the 20th century. In one of his last books Dawson, the Crisis of Western Education Dawson calls our own era the age of Frankenstein, “the hero who creates a mechanical monster and then found it had got out of control and threatened his own existence” (p. 189).He had in mind atomic warfare and he argued that if Western society were to gain control over these forces there would have to be a reintegration of faith and culture, and that there is an absolute limit to the progress that can be achieved by perfecting scientific techniques detached from spiritual aims and moral values. This is similar to Einstein assessment of our era as one characterized by perfection of means and confusion of goals.

But let us go back to The Making of Europe which remains Dawson’s best-known book. In it he demonstrates that Christianity has been the spiritual force that created the unity of Western culture, indeed the commonwealth of Europe itself, from the chaotic world of myriad warring tribes. He shows in that book how the Dark Ages, the period between 400 and 1000 A.D., became a dawn witnessing to the conversion of the West, the foundation of Western civilization and the creation of Christian art and liturgy. And he then asked a crucial question: If such a transformation could happen in the age of the barbarians could it not be repeated now? Like the founding fathers of the EU Dawson, after the Second World War was already envisioning a new united Europe. But he soon realized that there was a problem which faced not only Europe but America too and all societies that consider themselves Western.

The problem was this: the disastrous separation of culture from its religious base brought about by the modern barbarians of the mind and assorted nihilists had not been stemmed by the modern educational system which considered the study of religion superfluous and in fact aimed at its liquidation. The unity of thought, which had prevailed in European civilization over a thousand years, was shattered by excessive specialization which allowed the educated elites to see the tree while missing the forest; moreover science, philosophy and theology had long since split apart. Education, rather than being a preparation for life, had become purely utilitarian and vocational. Humanistic studies needed to be resurrected in all schools and not preserved, almost as a relic of the past, in places like Harvard, Yale and Princeton universities as a sort of frosting on the cake of education. This was urgent since the neo-barbarians had already entered the citadel of learning and were hard at work to destroy it from the inside.

Humanism as integrated with Catholicism was at the forefront of Dawson’s speculation. It was that humanism which produced the medieval unity of the 13th century exemplifying Christian culture par excellence. For the flowering of art in every form reached its zenith in Europe between the 13the and 15th centuries with the poetry of Dante and Petrarch, the fresco painters of the Florentine school Giotto and Fra Angelico, and the sculptures of Michelangelo. It was also the age of saints and mystics, both men and women: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominick, St. Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, just to name a few.

It must be mentioned that Dawson was not advocating a return to the Middle Ages; neither was he commending the external apparatus of medievalism, nor Charlemagne’s so called Holy Roman Empire, but rather “a return to the forgotten world of spiritual reality” to which these centuries bear witness. He was not recommending a nostalgic evasion of the present day cultural dilemmas. He was indeed an intellectual for

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The Holy Roman Empire in 1250

whom ideas were important but many of his colleagues noticed a paradox in him: together with the remote facts of history, he knew of the latest current events in remote corners of the world, and understood and spoke several European languages. Indeed, he had the gift of seeing deeper and further than many of his contemporaries because he had the capacity to interpret the present in the light of the events of the past. As he put it: “The more we know of the past, the freer we are to choose the way we will go.”

To conclude, it is a mistake to think of Dawson as an anti-modern. Rather, what he was advocating was a retrieval of spiritual values in a godless and nihilistic world. The reason he was assigned the first Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University was that he had the reputation of being a very broad-minded scholar, able to contemplate opposite ideas and integrate them. He was in short a consummate humanist who understood the universal character of the Church, which belongs neither to East nor to West but stands as a mediator between the two. It was in fact his humanism which led him to conversion to Catholicism as it also happened for G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and David Jones. I hope that this brief sketch of a great and beautiful mind will motivate some readers to a deeper exploration of its ideas. You will not be disappointed.

 

Jacques Le Groff on the Middle Ages
The middle Ages, after all, encompass no less than one thousand years of European history subdivided in early (500-1000), high (1000-1300), and late (1300-1500). Jacques Le Groff, a well known French cultural anthropologist, is the first one to discard the early middle ages of Charlemagne as precursor of the idea of Europe. He sees them as too consciously Christian with a rather violent ideological program, although he stops short of branding them as “Christian imperialism,” for indeed the confusion between the spiritual and the temporal, properly speaking begins with Emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD who adopts Christianity at the official religion of the Roman Empire. Goff, however brands Charlemagne’s empire “the first example of a perverted Europe.” Other “perversions” that he takes notice of, are the empires of Charles V, Napoleon and Hitler.

 

hremap2The Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century

So, what’s left are the High Middle Ages, usually viewed by historians as the most creative segment of the medieval millennium. This period of history produced the Italian city states, seen as the precursors of modern democracy, as well as international banking and commerce, considered the foundations of any modern state. Culturally, the High Middle Ages produce Scholasticism which gives Europe the first modern universities (Bologna, Padua, Naples, Paris, Salamanca) with their uniquely European intellectual propensity for critical thinking rooted in skeptical doubt, intellectual freedom, lucidity and clarity. Descartes, who had a penchant for rationally “clear and distinct ideas” devoid of imagination and the poetical, is often seen as the intellectual grandchild of the Scholastics. Thereafter we have the late medieval and the Renaissance periods which, after the disaster of the Black Death, witness an unprecedented era of European global expansion spanning five centuries: from the late 15th century (1492) till the early 20th century.

 

The New Western Imperialism
In an insightful article in The Scotsman titled How African Aid can be the New Imperialism, Fraser Nelson argues that there is a new Western imperialism on the horizon, echoing the now forgotten 19th century British rationalization for global empire, i.e., “the white man’s burden”: the moral obligation to change the world—allegedly for the better—and redeem it with civilization, the rule of law, and the spread of democracy and market values.

He characterizes this political phenomenon as “history [that] has swung full circle,” since this vision, allegedly for the benefit of its former colonies, does not proceed directly from Washington (where political power now resides) but from London in the person of the former UK’s Prime Minister Tony Blair. His ambition then and now is to become the conscience of the world while George Bush acts as its policeman.
If one were ignorant of the history of Western imperialism one would see absolutely nothing wrong with the above scenario. We would all feel good about ourselves as Westerners, and perhaps even safer. But to talk of “new imperialism” one must have in mind the old one as a reference point. Moreover, to examine such an old Western imperialism one needs to go all the way back to Alexander the Great, then proceed to the Roman Empire, the Carolingian, so called “Holy Roman Empire” of the Middle Ages, the expansionistic global colonialist era of 16th century Renaissance which extends all the way to the 19th century to encompass the Spanish empire, the French empire, the British empire, the Russian empire, the Portuguese empire, the Italian empire, Napoleon’s empire, Frederick the Great’s empire, Charles V’s empire, the Austria-Hungarian empire, Mussolini’s empire, Stalin’s empire, Hitler’s empire.

The list is endless but worth remembering, for as Marx quipped, those who have amnesia about their history risk repeating it; they may find themselves driving the brand new car called the EU, full speed ahead into a future disaster with no rear-view mirror. That is a dangerous operation as both Vico and McLuhan have well taught us. Hence it may prove useful to briefly revisit the phenomenon of imperialism which is unique to the West. In my opinion, two recent books are essential reading for any kind of valid analysis of the phenomenon: Jacques Le Goff’s The Birth of Europe, and William Pfaff’s The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia.

Le Goff alerts us to the fact that the present geography of the European Union is strangely similar to that of Medieval Catholic Christendom, i.e., the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne which used to encompass at its core France, Germany and Northern Italy. He then argues that although the ancient Greeks originally proposed the distinction between East (Asia) and West (Europe), nobody at the time, and even subsequently during Roman times, called oneself “European,” despite the famous myth of the goddess Europa. If anything, the proud boast was that of “civis Romanus sum.” The unity of the Mediterranean world was Roman through and through. It was broken not so much by the invading northern barbarians, who often were assimilated and proud to also declare themselves Roman citizens, but by the rise of Islam, its conquest of Jerusalem in 638, and its subsequent conquest of North Africa and Spain.

The above mentioned expansionary period gives the designation Europe its full meaning. How so? In this sense: while imperialism and colonization proper begin with Alexander the Great, once, and only once so far, has existed in man’s history the phenomenon of total global dominance, and that dominance has been exercised by Europeans, or those of European descent which of course includes North Americans. As Le Goff points out, although in the 15th century China was the most advanced country in the world, it never expanded beyond its borders and never dreamed that the sun would never set on its possessions. The Moslem world also has lost the impetus and cultural fervor of its medieval period. Such is not the case for Europe.

Europe is different. In the explanation of this difference lies the crux of the enigma. Some have explained it away with technological superiority, i.e., superior guns and ships. Others, depending on their pet ideology, go for social explanations: capitalism, or individualism, considered uniquely European. What is lost sight of, is the fact that 1492 while witnessing the beginning of a rapid European expansionism, also witnessed in Spain the dual destruction of Europe’s largest Jewish community, and of Granada, the last bastion of Moslem culture in Western Europe.
So, from the very beginning of the global expansion, one notices a tendency to exclude certain elements which were already present in the Medieval European cultural identity while retaining others; a club mind-set seems to have been set-up, with the included and the excluded. It all leads to another crucial question of cultural identity: does European mean Christian in any sense? The EU constitution, as presented to the European people obviously does not suggest so, since it does not as much as mention Europe’s Christian heritage aside from some vague references to “spiritual values.” And yet, it cannot be denied that several important features of the modern West, such as universities, corporate towns, representative assemblies, have their roots in the Christian Middle Ages. Why this penchant for historical amnesia?

Napoleon provides the illusion of a unification of Europe but what he provided was really French imperialism with a national foundation. In America a common English does not prevent the colonists from declaring independence from its European colonizing nation and proclaiming their own independent country. Later on, the French and American revolutions advance the idea, popularized by Rousseau’s “Social Contract” and flourishing in the 19th and 20th century, that all the classes within countries comprised the nation. The people have become the nation.
In the 19th century, to men like Mazzini, Garibaldi, Verdi (see his opera Nabucco), nationalism was an ideal worth striving for and even dying for. In mid 19th century both Italy and Germany become unified countries politically, but culturally they both possessed a viable and vibrant culture centuries before. The number of sovereign nations in Europe reached 24 in 1924.

There is no doubt that nationalism played a major role in World War I. Those were the chickens coming home to roost given that the Congress of Vienna of 1815, after the demise of Napoleon, paid little attention to nationalistic aspirations in its division of European territories. Nationalism was certainly in the mind of Woodrow Wilson when he declared at the Treaty of Versailles the principle of self-determination. What you ultimately had there were for multi-national empires limited by the boundaries of their predominant nationality: Austria-Hungary, the German Empire, the Ottoman empire and the Russian empire. Certain historic states simply disappeared from the map while  Czechoslovakia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania appeared suddenly and out of nowhere on the map of Europe.

After World War II nationalism spreads to Arab countries, India, the Far East, Africa below the Sahara, on the dovetail of European imperialism. As the UN exemplifies the world is now made up of hundred of nations despite the predictions of nationalism’s disappearance after the second World War. Nationalism in fact goes viral and produces after World War I tyrants such as Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar, Mao, Castro, Amin; they all considered themselves super-patriots. The schizophrenia on the part of Mussolini is almost comical. On one hand he fancied himself a Roman Emperor out to restore the ancient glory of the Romans and establish Italian hegemony in the Mediterranean; on the other hand he was, monkey-like, imitating all the worst features of a narrow negative kind of European nationalism, colonialism and all, as evidenced in the most powerful European nations. Had he remembered the true glory of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance and the Catholic Church he would have known that the core of that glory was not narrow nationalism but universality. Those were all universal movements to which Italy had become accustomed, thus rendering rabid nationalism a straight jacket of sort.

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Signing of the EU Constitution in Rome (17 June 2004)

The question thus arises: has this gift of nationalism on the part of Europe to the rest of the world been a positive or negative one? Hard to answer such a question in the light of what we have just explored above. What remains paradoxical in all this is that Europe now claims to have abandoned nationalism forever for a sort of unifying federalism called the EU. Some no longer speak of the European Union but of the United States of Europe where nations govern themselves internally but contribute to a unified political goal and a common cultural identity and in the ideal spirit of solidarity and brotherhood, equality and liberty. But is this a reality as we speak? What about the rabid regionalism of an Umberto Bossi out to declare independence from Italy, not to speak of a rabid neo-nationalism consisting of right-wing political parties from all over Europe and presently within the European Parliament as a sort of Trojan Horse out to destroy the union. The question arises: is this universalism or rather a narrow resurgent nationalism of the worst kind?

Were not egalitè, fraternitè, libertè also the ideals of the French revolution? When things were going well economically, this seemed indeed to be the case in the EU. Now that hard financial times are upon us in the West as a whole, words like solidarity seem to have suddenly disappeared from the vocabulary. What one ears is the cold utilitarian language of the bureaucrat, the banker and the venture capitalist devoid of humanistic criteria, euphemistically characterizing his capitalistic activity, based on social Darwinism, as entrepreneurship, abysmally ignorant of the genuine heritage of European civilization. Which leads one to suspect that once again, just as with Italian unification, the cart has been put before the horse and the European cultural identity continues to be an elusive historical phenomenon.  Indeed we live in a Brave New World and as Kierkegaard warned us back in the 19th century: the sickness unto death is to be sick, to have dehumanized itself as a culture and civilization  and no longer be aware of it.  of his

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Europe

Belgrade and Pristina: Will a territorial exchange really happen?

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The European Union is dialing up pressure on Serbia and Kosovo in an effort to convince Belgrade and Pristina to sign an agreement on normalizing bilateral relations. This would allow Brussels to seize the initiative in the Balkans from the United States, which has previously managed to get the two sides clinch a similar deal on trade and other economic issues. Moreover, the EU is even ready to break from its previous policy and give a nod to a territorial exchange between Serbs and Albanians, which was categorically rejected, above all by Germany. However, while the Serbian leadership largely welcomes the idea, the Kosovo Albanians’ radically-minded leaders rule out any territorial concessions to Belgrade, thus deepening the Kosovo impasse.

Albin Kurti, the leader of the radical Vetëvendosje (“Self-Determination”) movement, who has regained the Kosovo premiership, categorically rejected the idea of any territorial exchange with Serbia, proposed by the EU’s High Representative for International Affairs Josep Borrell.

“I do not think that we should give anything away.” … “This is pressure from Serbia. They want us to give in,” Kurti said.

That being said, the former Kosovo president, Hashim Thaci, actively lobbied the idea of ​​a territorial exchange, even more than others. Back in August 2018, he and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic reached a preliminary agreement on this when meeting on the sidelines of the European Forum in Alpbach, Austria. Thaci and Vucic voiced their intention to double down on signing a comprehensive deal, and invited the EU to act as its mediator and guarantor.

“We have a small window of opportunity,” Hashim Thaci said at the time. The planned agreement was supposed to be inked in Brussels already in September 2018, with the participation of the EU leadership. However, the whole process immediately hit a snag due to disagreements over border delimitation and opposition protests in both Belgrade and Pristina.

According to the plan, devised by Hashim Thaci, the delimitation issues should be discussed as a “package” and provide for a complex exchange of territories, including both the Serbian-populated North Kosovo communities of Leposavic, Zvecan and Zubin Potok (roughly one-fifth of the territory of Kosovo), and the southern Serbian communities of Buyanovac, Presevo and, preferably, Medvedja, adjacent to Kosovo, populated mainly by ethnic Albanians. The Kosovar leader argued that a territorial exchange whereby regions with a majority Albanian population would end up in Kosovo, and those with a predominantly Serbian population – in Serbia, would help ease tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.

According to the latest census in Serbia, about 90,000 people live on the territory of the three southern Serbian communities: in Presevo, 89 percent are Albanians and 9 percent are Serbs; in Bujanovac, 55 percent are Albanians and 34 percent are Serbs; in Medvedja, 26 percent are Albanians and 67 percent are Serbs. Thus, Albanians already make up the majority of the population of Presevo and Bujanovac. In Medvedja, their share has also been steadily rising.

While President Aleksandar Vucic generally agrees to the partition of Kosovo with the return of control over the province’s northern regions to Belgrade, he is still against the idea of extending the “package” exchange to include the southern Serbian communities of the Presevo Valley.

There is no unity on this issue outside the Balkans too, with Germany and France initially rejecting the idea of territorial exchanges as such, arguing that this could fire up tensions in North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The territorial integrity of the Western Balkan states is already a hard fact and cannot be changed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

Austria has been foursquare behind the partition of Kosovo as a means of normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina.

“If Serbia and Kosovo agree on a border correction, the agreement will have our support,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.

The EU’s Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn equally favored the upcoming agreement. He urged his EU colleagues not to obstruct the deal between Pristina and Belgrade, even if it involves changing borders. Such an agreement, if it is reached, will be a one-off affair though and “should not be used as an example for solving other problems,” Hahn said at the end of August 2018.

The US administration backed the upcoming deal, with President Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton going on record saying that “Our policy, the US policy, is that if the two parties can work it out between themselves and reach agreement, we don’t exclude territorial adjustments.”

The agreement on the exchange of territories, drawn up in 2018 never came to fruition though. Responsibility for this failure lies with radical nationalist forces in both Belgrade and Pristina, not interested in any compromise solutions that won’t sit well with their own political intentions. While Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is still in power and has not changed his position, Vjos Osmani, who replaced Hashim Thaci as President of Kosovo, is less inclined to accept any compromises with Belgrade.

This situation adds to EU and US headaches with Barack Obama’s de facto foreign policy team, now back in power in Washington, being eager to strengthen the position of the United States in the Balkans through more active military and political activity and pressure (not trade and economic scenarios and proposals, as was the case under Donald Trump). The EU and the US now have two options to choose from – either to ramp up pressure on Serbia in order to force it to recognize Kosovo without any territorial exchanges (which is more to the Joe Biden administration’s liking), or to convince the Kosovar leaders to accept territorial compromises (more preferred by the EU).

And here we should not forget about the Bosnian factor, since any changes to the status and borders of Kosovo will inevitably reflect on the domestic  political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, in particular, on the position of the Bosnian Serbs. When briefing reporters a few days ago, the chairman of the Presidium of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, said that in any case he would insist on the implementation of the concept of “peaceful divergence,” that is, the disintegration of the country, which, according to him, is already happening. He stated that the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be maintained, and this is something that has increasingly been discussed by the international community.

“We are waiting for the moment when a peaceful gap becomes real,” Milorad Dodik noted, adding that he was not a warmonger and was only offering a way out of the current situation, which he described as unstable.

The EU too appears ready to “reformat” Bosnia and Herzegovina. When, during a visit to Sarajevo in early March of this year, Slovenian President Borut Pahor informally asked members of that country’s collective leadership whether a “peaceful divergence” was a possibility. Bosnian Muslim Shefik Jaferovic and Croat Zeljko Komšić responded that this was impossible, while Milorad Dodik, for his part, said that it was a likely scenario.

The current situation of “unstable equilibrium” around Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina is serious enough to prod all the disputing parties to more actively seek Russia’s mediation. Serbia and Republika Srpska maintain partner relations with Moscow. Meanwhile, the disagreements between the EU and the United States could make the other participants in the discussions more accommodating, including the Kosovar Albanians, who are interested in normalizing relations with Belgrade and implementing large-scale regional projects.

From our partner International Affairs

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A leaderless ship: The Bulgaria’s political crisis and the storm to come

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Internal and international tensions

Politics tends to develop in a complex conundrum in all Balkan countries. Thus, never can observers take their eyes off the ball, investors feel completely safe or international partners express enduring satisfaction. In effect, this is the case also for bits of the region that have joined the European Union in the last decade. Recently, Bulgaria has been the most interesting hearth of, popular outrage, institutional instability and international tensions amongst the latter countries.

Actually, the atmosphere began simmering back in Summer 2020, when thousands of people took to the streets for several weeks. Arguably, the combination of the umpteenth high-echelon corruption scandal involving andthe pandemic-induced recession was only the most immediate cause. Swiftly, dissatisfaction led to vigorous calls for the Prime Minister’s and the Attorney General’s resignation and early election. Even the President of the Republic, Rumen Radev, broke with his supposed non-partisanship and joined the protestors gathering vast support. However, the winter suppressed street protests and Boyko Borisov, the Prime Minister, exploited the pandemic to justify his indifference.

In the meantime, the cabinet embroiled Bulgaria in a dispute which the country had refrained from ever since 1991. The so-called ‘Macedonian question’predates the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s independence, but only then turned into a crisis. Indeed, the hardest-fought issue was that surrounding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’, which Greece opposed until the Prespa Agreement. But the newly named Republic of North Macedonia has failed to acknowledge the deep historical and cultural connection with Bulgaria. Eventually, the former’s lack of real cooperation led Sofia to veto the opening of negotiations on EU membership. Thence, scholars have criticised the country’s government while foreign politicians tried to persuade Borisov to lift his veto.

Against the background of such a delicate, multifaceted domestic and international circumstances Bulgaria celebrated regular election on April 4. The country needed everything but being left leaderless, but this is exactly what happened.

Election results: Who to form a cabinet?

The most recent elections speak volume about the difficulty in understanding Bulgarian politics and understanding what the popular sentiment is. For a start, GERB, Borisov’s party, lost about 300,000 votes falling from 33.65%in 2017, to 26.18% this year. Moreover, the nationalist collation United Patriots, GERB’s reliable allies, split up and failed to clear the 4% threshold. Thus, with his 75 MPs in the 240-seat Parliament Borisov had no more a majority and desperately needed a partner.

At the same time, the elections produced an unusually hostile environment for GERB. In fact, a number of new leaders and formations emerged — all of which declared GERB a “most toxic party”. Still, opposing Borisov’s “model”, as they use to say, was not enough to form a government. Neither the protest party There is such a people (ITN) nor the establishment Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) even tried. Therefore, the two smaller protest parties – Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Stand Up! Bastards Out (ISMV) – and the Muslim Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) had to accept new elections in July.

In effect, once the elections results became clear, no one nurtured many hopes for a stable government. The BSP had offered it external, conditional support to an ITN cabinet as the DPS and even GERB did. Perhaps, members of DB and ISMV could have joined the project to ensure wider representation. But all attempts failed in front of ITN’s leader, the showman-turned-politician SlaviTrifonov, display of “political fearfulness”. The ultimate result of these developments was the shortest parliamentin Bulgaria’s two-century history.

What the parliament produced

Without a fully-functioning political government and with a lame-duck Parliament, Bulgaria is traversing a difficult period. The legislature has yet to approve the Recovery and sustainability plan towards which the EU has granted €6bln ($7.3bln). Without these funds, it will be harder for the country’s economy to rebound after the last recession. At the same time, no one is in charge of managing the ongoing feud with the Republic of North Macedonia. Hence, Sofia can neither substantiate its claims and pretences vis-à-vis Skopje nor backtrack and let membership negotiations start. Finally, in the last weeks tensions between Bulgaria and Russia have risen with mutual expulsion of several high-ranking diplomats. In fact, Czech authorities have found out about a “Bulgarian connection” in the incidents allegedly blamed on Russian security services.

On the offense: ITN, DB and ISMV against GERB

Yet, the parliament has found not time to address any of these really pressing issues. As it often happens after the elections, foreign policy has disappearedfrom the order of the day. There was no discussion of either the bilateral relations with Russia nor the North Macedonian issue.

Representative from ITN, DB and ISMV wrapped up the Recovery plan into their wider attempt to publicly discredit GERB. Thus, they refused to let the competent executive official introducing the bill and pretended Borisov himself did it.

Meanwhile, the three parties and the BSP also forced a vote on the cabinet’s resignation. Hence, the government is officially in charge only of managing current affairs: it cannot update the budget or adopt new economic measures. The opposition also blocked the automatic renewal of key concession for Sofia’s airport and some highways to Borisov’s closest allies.

So-called ‘Protest parties’ also formed a parliamentary commission to investigate Borisov governments’ misdeed. However, the legislature will soon dissolve, so nothing will come out of it besides some gossipy kompromat. The only real change is a new electoral law,remedying to some of the previous legal framework’s most evident fallacies. The hope is that it will curb the purchase of votes and other instances of fraud.

Wait-and-see: Borisov’s unkind defence

Borisov’s loyalists in the government, in the Parliament and, more importantly, in the media are repelling this frontal assault vehemently.

Figure 1 Acting Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called the Parliament “a show” in a video on his Facebook page.

Acting foreign minister Ekaterina Zakharieva has spoken out against the supposed attempt to make 850,000 GERB voters ‘disappear’. The chair of GERB’s parliamentary group, Desislava Atanasova, accused other parties of having “failed to fulfil society’s interests”. Borisov himself went out for the biggest prey: President Radev.On Facebook he declared

I hope that Radev is not proud [of the result of last year’s protests …]: This parliamentary show costs 19 million [leva, €9.5mln] a day. It is better that they closed it because we would have gone bankrupt.

The opposition motto offers no way forward behind the idea that “What GERB did must be cancelled”. Yet, GERB is not less destructive in its agenda. Currently, Borisov’s clique is challenging both the moratorium of concessionsand the electoral reformin front of the constitutional court. According to many experts, the justices could strike down or rescale at least one of these two measures. Hence, all hopes for a real democratic change will likely evaporate as long as GERB holds the levers of power.

Forecast: A leaderless ship in a stormy sea

Some have been talking about the rebirth of parliamentarism. But partisanship, anger and personal hatred currently dominate Bulgaria’s politics. Thus, a disenchanted observer could only see the dismaying polarisationand personalisation of the mainstream political discourse. At this time, Bulgaria is like a ship whose crew has mutinied, but whose captain refuses to jump off. Fortunately, the peaks of the economic and sanitary crisis seem over — for now. But the international setting conspires against the vessel. A storm is mounting from the East and the West. Winds of reprisal spire from Russia, whereas the EU is increasingly discontent with Bulgaria’s management of the North Macedonian issue. Assuming that the next elections will produce a working government, either the mutineers or the old captain will be just in time to manage the gale. But should this not happen, the country may soon regret the current lull.

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Geopolitics of Europe and the Third Wave

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With hospitals filling up across the continent, new variants of the virus proliferating and vaccine shortages biting back, Europe can be seen to be under the third wave of the COVID crisis. This wave has been a confused sea across Europe in which some national epidemics are worsening, some are reaching their peak and some are declining. Although lockdowns have eased as vaccine drives make headway, the end of state emergency does not undermine the inevitable long-term consequences of the crisis. COVID has brought to the forefront new geopolitical dynamics and created risks for the foreign policy of the European Union on several fronts. Beyond the epidemiological challenge of the impending health calamity, economic, political and geopolitical challenges are also plenty.

The crisis has held up a mirror to the Western countries as their effectiveness in managing the pandemic has been distorted and has brought about de-Westernisation of the world. As globalisation is under strain, the crisis is bound to redraw the borders between the state and the markets in democracies such as the Member States of the EU. Such an environment is likely to emphasise on national initiatives to the detriment of international cooperation. In a post-COVID world, the EU may have to deal with its geopolitical problems with less external credibility as well as internal solidarity among its member states.  

The potential geopolitical consequences of the virus can be identified by extrapolating those trends that were taking place before the onset of the virus.  Amidst evolving global scenarios, there has been a constant push from the EU to establish itself as a relevant geopolitical actor to realise its global power aspirations. In this context, it becomes important to note the two areas of concern raised by the crisis consist of questions on the internal cohesion of the EU and Europe’s ability to adapt to the increasing rivalry and competition among other global powers. 

The EU as a player derives its identity from its supranationalism. However, with COVID wreaking havoc on the already unequal economy of the Northern and Southern Europe, the downslides of globalisation are being highlighted. This is likely to further embolden nationalist narratives, rather than European solutions. This will lead to the fragmentation of the region into its component member-states part, threatening the very identity if the Union. This has been a challenge to the EU as the Union recognizes solidarity as a fundamental principle as per Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. With the EU is facing the increasingly centrifugal ‘member states first’ approach put forward by the European capitals, the European integration project is under threat.

Further, with the pre-existing tensions between US and China, the European Union has been facing heat from both the sides of the Pacific. While the EU has put forward its own Indo-Pacific Strategy in order to constructively engage with the region, it continues to be challenged by America’s confrontational foreign policies and also being apprehensive of China’s refusal to open up their markets at a time of dwindling global economies, China’s assault on Hong Kong’s independence as well as China’s growing support towards the populist parties of Europe. The EU has come to perceive China as a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance with this perception largely being shaped by China’s revisionist challenge and its alarming nationalist narrative. 

It is important to understand that coronavirus is not here to kill geopolitics. However, the European Union will have to strengthen their efforts towards ensuring that the pandemic does not kill the EU as a geopolitical force. The European Commission must step up its efforts to broker the Multilateral Financial Framework (MFF) among member states which was long pending even before the pandemic struck the continent. It would enable the Union to act collectively in funding recovery efforts in a post-COVID reconstruction of the economies. Further, the EU should focus on shortening their supply chains pursuing a policy of strategic autonomy such that EU’s external dependencies are diversified. The need of the hour is to rebuild an economically sound healthcare Europe while at the same time working towards a more geopolitical Europe. This will require EU to continue investment as a full-spectrum power in military as well as other security capabilities along with assistance and aid to the neighboring countries to rebuild their resilience in a geopolitically volatile environment. 

The EU needs to defend and promote the European model which is struggling to stand amidst the global battle of narratives along with maintaining its strategic autonomy in health, economic and other sectors. At the same time, the Union needs to bolster existing and forge new alliances in order to fill the gap on multilateralism. It needs to locate a strategic edge to resist the external pressures and protect its presence in the global scene and continue being relevant in the changing global order with its extraordinary transcontinental presence of soft power. 

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