Europe: forward to the past: Hamish McRae sees ancient patterns restored as the European Union expands

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONCE the little local difficulties of the European Union's voting structure are resolved, the way will be clear to admit Sweden, Austria, Finland and Norway as members. The likelihood is that the first three at least (Norwegian voters may again balk, as they did in 1972) will duly join on 1 January next year. And within the next few weeks central European countries such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic will start the process to become members by the turn of the century. In the succeeding 20 years they will be joined by the Baltic states, Ukraine, Armenia, Slovakia, Slovenia and so on, including eventually the great bear of Russia itself . . . .

Or will they? What will the European Union really look like a generation from now? When will its boundaries cease to expand, and what degree of unity will be possible with a Europe not of 12 or 16 nations but of 30 or more?

History gives an answer of sorts. A path-breaking book published last year compared the political map of 13th-century Italy with that of the present day (Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Robert Putnam et al, Princeton University Press). It concludes that the regions in which civic government work best are exactly the same as those where it worked best seven centuries earlier: the parts of northern Italy where there is a tradition of 'civic community' - co-operation, tolerance and trust - as opposed to those of the south where there is a tradition of princely autocracy.

And not only Italy. Apply the medieval model to the Europe of today and it appears remarkably familiar, certainly more than it would have seemed in the 1900s, 1930s or 1960s.

In some ways Europe was more integrated in medieval times than it is now. Then there was a common parallel currency - gold - whereas the European Currency Unit is still only a mathematical average of 'real' European currencies. There was a common religion in the form of the Roman Catholic Church, though for a while there were two popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. There was, for the elite, a common language in Latin. Today, English does fulfil that function in western Europe, but not yet in much of central and eastern Europe. In the Crusades the various European powers were able to contribute to a single military task force in a way they have failed to do in Bosnia.

Trade and finance, to be sure, had less freedom to operate across borders than today, but that was more a function of poor physical communications than lack of will. North-south trade was hampered by the difficulty of shipping goods across the Alps, but within northern Europe the Hanseatic league had a network of cross-border trading cities, while the northern Italian merchant cities, in particular Venice, dominated Mediterranean trade.

Deals between these two trading zones were settled at the great trade fairs in places such as Geneva and Lyons, supplemented by cross-border banking services operated through bourses in, for example, Bruges, Antwerp and Augsburg. While there was no single capital market akin to London's Eurocurrency markets, bankers from northern Italy provided a continent-wide banking service. Hard-up monarchs knew where to go for their loans. And two of the richest parts of Europe, the area around Hamburg and the north Italian towns, remain among the richest regions of Europe today.

If medieval Europe was a common market, it was a political patchwork. There were some identifiable nation states, such as England and much of France. There was a host of principalities, some of which, like Luxemburg, commanded far larger territories than today. And there were the powerful trading cities, whose commercial empires gave them far more authority than the struggling political entities around them. Merchants were more powerful than politicians.

All this feels familiar. We are seeing national governments losing power in the face of multinational corporations and world financial markets. Regional movements are gaining power at the expense of nation states. Rich cities (Barcelona, Frankfurt, Milan) are becoming more powerful and independent. You could even draw a (tentative) parallel between the position of the EU Commission and the medieval Papacy: in each case there is a weak, extravagant and corrupt central power struggling to influence or control its unruly empire. But power is shifting fast. Relationships between European countries now are quite different from, say, the Fifties. It would have been unthinkable then that a takeover of a British company would have to be approved by Brussels, or that a French government might find itself blocked when it wanted to give public money to its national airline. Project the general model forward by another generation and what sort of Europe might exist?

Most of western Europe's large nations will, of course, remain with their present boundaries: Germany is not going to return to the loose association of states of the Middle Ages, nor France cede Bordeaux to Britain. But one could see Italy becoming a federation between north and south. One could see the remaining English influence in Ireland fade, and Scotland emerging as an independent nation. Belgium does probably disappear, for it is not an historical entity but an artificial buffer state. By contrast, the Swiss confederation, roughly the same size as Belgium, will continue in its present form, within the boundaries largely established by the end of the 14th century. Size does not matter; historical integrity does.

Looking to the east it is clear that a host of new states will again be recognised as part of the 'real' Europe. The physical area of some countries may be different: Hungary is and will remain much smaller than it was in the Middle Ages. But the pull of history is strong. It is chilling to realise that Serbia and Bosnia could well end up back with their 14th-century boundaries - they have moved most of the way there in the past few months. Countries such as Ukraine, whose capital, Kiev, has been a main regional centre since the 14th century, has a clear national identity, even though its history as an independent entity has been limited.

So the boundaries of the European Union will be much wider than today. They will cease to expand when they reach the limits of what has, through history, been Europe. They may well encompass Russia east of the Urals, although it will always be a semi-detached member of the European tribe. But the boundary will not extend into Turkey. There is no historical precedent for that.

And what of the degree of unity between this hotchpotch of states and peoples? It will keep shifting, as it always has done. There will be periods when the European peoples can agree on a common unifying entity; and periods, such as the Great Schism between 1378 and 1417, when they cannot. Then they will have (so to speak) two popes. Maybe the medieval model of close economic ties, but not such close political links (which in any case change from time to time) is not at all a bad one. At least it is a model with which many European people will feel instinctively comfortable. It is back to our old make-and-do relationships, after the adventures of empire and the excesses of aggressive nationalism of the intervening 600 years.

Hamish McRae's 'The World in 2020' is published on 19 May by HarperCollins, pounds 20.

(Photograph omitted)