With the EU referendum barely a month away, my attention is being drawn more and more to Europe and all things European.
The question we are being asked is: Do you want to be a sovereign nation state (Leave), or would you prefer to be part of the larger political entity of the European Union (Remain)?
This morning I began wondering if sovereign nation states might just be fictions, created by arbitrarily drawing lines on maps. Erase the lines, and you erase the nations?
Even the UK consists of lines on maps. There’s a line across the north of England which demarcates Scotland from England, and another one down the west of England the demarcates Wales from England. And within England there are lots of lines demarcating one county from the next. Haven’t those lines already been more or less erased to create the larger political entity of Great Britain? Isn’t the European process of border erasure simply the extension of one that has been under way within Britain for many centuries?
But then there are arguably some real and ineradicable distinctions between England, Scotland, and Wales. Apart from its central spine of the Pennine hills, England is largely either flat or gently rolling farmland. But Scotland is a mountainous country, and gets more mountainous the further north you go. And so also is Wales (although much less than Scotland). The Scots are highlanders and islanders. And the Welsh are hill people. And of course Ireland is separated from Britain by an entire sea. Is it very surprising that the peoples of these different places should be culturally distinct too?
Do such natural divisions occur in Europe? The answer is: very much they do. I got hold of a Google terrain map of Europe, and highlighted its mountains (red) and 4 of its largest rivers (blue). In the absence of boats or bridges, large rivers pose considerable obstacles.
Apart from being separated from Ireland by sea, Britain is separated from the European continent by another sea. And within Europe, Spain is almost an island, separated by the Pyrenees mountains from the continent. Italy is almost an island as well, separated from the continent by the arc of the Alps. And Greece is also almost an island, and indeed consists of many islands as well. So also Denmark.
And France is separated from Spain by the Pyrenees, from Italy by the Alps, and from Germany by the river Rhine. The old northern border of the Roman empire ran roughly along the line of the Rhine and the Danube. Germany lies roughly between the Rhine in the west, the river Danube or Alps in the South, and the river Elbe in the east, and the North sea in the north. And Holland is the country of the Rhine delta. And Poland lies roughly between the Elbe in the west, the Vistula in the east, the Baltic sea in the north, and the Carpathians in the south.
Switzerland is surrounded by a girdle of Alpine mountains. The Czech republic is also surrounded by a girdle of Carpathian mountains. Austria is a mountain country squeezed between the Carpathians and the Alps. Slovakia is a mountain country. Hungary lies in the Danube plain between the Carpathians and Balkan extension of the Alps. As do Serbia and Bulgaria.
And what’s the difference between Norway and Sweden? Norway is almost entirely mountainous, while Sweden is relatively flat.
Some countries aren’t quite explicable in these terms. There’s no obvious reason why Portugal should be separate from Spain. Or why Belgium should exist at all. Or why the Carpathian mountains run right through the middle of Romania. Or why the Danube flows through the middle of Hungary. Nor is it at all clear why there should be a string of small countries running from Slovenia, through Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, and Macedonia, along the Balkan mountain range.
In the south and west of Europe, it would seem that nation states have been been the most stable historically. But in eastern Europe, they’ve been resized and reshaped, and sometimes moved bodily. Western Europe has been politically stable for a long time, Eastern Europe much less so. It has been from the east that Huns and Goths and Vandals and Mongols have swept across Europe.
And wherever a little protected pond of people have collected between rivers and mountains, it seems that a distinct culture has always arisen, and a distinct language. So Spanish in Spain, French in France, Dutch in Holland, German in Germany, Italian in Italy, Greek in Greece. So why isn’t there a Swiss language (They’ve got three: German, French, and Italian)? Or an Austrian language (it’s principally German)?
In fact the Spanish language is the nearest language to the Latin language (that I once studied). It’s an import from ancient Rome, and it truer to Latin than contemporary Italian (in my opinion).
The seats of European civilisation are probably found in Greece and Rome because they were relatively safe from invasion. High mountains would seem to be the best natural defence against invaders. And if not high mountains, then the very widest rivers. And so in Greece and Rome high cultures could develop. And later in France and England, because these also were naturally stable political entities.
If Europe is a politically very complex area, it may in large part be because its physical geography is very complex. And nowhere is more geographically complex – and politically complex – than the Balkan region.
So it seems possible to rediscover many of Europe’s nation states simply by looking for natural physical boundaries created by seas, rivers, and mountains. Their borders are not arbitrary lines on maps.
And it may also be possible to rediscover Britain’s counties simply by looking for similar natural physical boundaries. If England is now a single political entity, it may simply be because its natural internal borders, in the form of small rivers and and low hills, have all long been suppressed by roads and bridges and tunnels.
And if modern Europe is much more of a single political entity than it was a few hundred years ago, it’s because all the rivers have been bridged, and many of the mountains have tunnels through them (about 100 tunnels in the Alps, and one in the Pyrenees). There’s even a tunnel under the Channel between England and France. It’s much easier now to travel across Europe than ever before. And this tends to dissolve the historical, natural, physical borders between states, making for a much easier flow of goods and people and culture.
Nevertheless, there remain large cultural differences across Europe. Even in a country like Britain, there are considerable cultural differences between north and south, town and country.