As Europe looks at our country with a new respect and hopeful anticipation that the new president will be inclusive and not disappoint, I’ve been reworking some of my old notes and thinking about ethnic diversity in Europe.
As Europe united, I feared its ethnic diversity would be threatened. But I find just the opposite is happening. In Europe there are three loyalties: region, nation and Europe. Ask a person from Munich where he’s from and he’ll say, “I’m Bavarian,” or “I’m German,” or “I’m European,” depending on his generation and his outlook. These days city halls all over Europe fly three flags: regional, national, and Europe.
Throughout our lifetimes the headlines have been filled by regions challenging nations. Most of the terrorism — whether Basque, Irish, Catalan, or Corsican — has been separatist movements threatening national capitals.
Modern political borders are rarely clean when it comes to dividing ethnic groups. Brittany, the west of France, is not ethnically French. People there are Celtic, related to the Welsh and the Irish. Just a generation ago, Paris was so threatened by these Celts that if you were a parent in Brittany and you named your child a Celtic name, that child would lose its French citizenship. That would be laughable today.
When I first visited Barcelona, locals were not allowed to speak Catalan, wave the Catalan flag, or dance their beloved Sardana dance. Now, in public schools, children speak Catalan first, and every Sunday in front of the cathedral, locals gather to dance the Sardana — celebrating their Catalan ethnicity.
The small languages across Europe are actually thriving. More people are speaking Irish now than a generation ago. Just recently, Scotland convened a parliament in Edinburgh for the first time since 1707.
What’s going on? Brittany no longer threatens Paris. Barcelona no longer threatens Madrid. Edinburgh not longer threatens London. The national capitals are no longer threatened by their regions because the national capitals realize their power is waning. It’s Brussels. It’s Europe. And Europe is excited not about the political boundaries that divide people often without regard to their ethnicity, but about regions.
I’ve got a friend who is the Indiana Jones of archeology in Austria’s Tirol region. When he wants money to renovate a castle, he goes to Brussels. If he says, “I’m doing something for Austria,” he’ll go home empty-handed. He says he’s doing something for the Tirol (which ignores the modern national boundary and is an ethnic region that includes part of Italy and Austria). He gets money from Brussels because Brussels is promoting ethnic regions over modern political entities.
Europe promotes the smaller ethnic groups and they support each other as well. In Barcelona, a local told me, “Catalan is Spain’s Quebec. We don’t like people calling our corner of Iberia a ‘region’ of Spain…because that’s what Franco called it. We are not a region. We are a nation without a state.” The people of Catalunya live in solidarity with other “stateless nations.” For instance, they find Basque or Galician bars a little more appealing than the run-of-the-mill Spanish ones. Even ATM machines are in solidarity, offering the correct choice of languages. In Barcelona as in Basque Country, you’ll see Catalan and Euskara (the Basque language) with Spanish and Galego (the language of Galicia, in northwest Spain) — and only then German, French, and English.
The fact that these little underdog ethnic groups are all victims to a certain degree of the “tyranny of the majority” contributes to their solidarity. It even factors into the way they travel. On a recent trip to Northern Ireland I was impressed by how many travelers I met from Basque Country and Catalunya. Because the Basques and Catalans feel a kinship with the Catholics of Ireland’s Protestant North, they choose to vacation in Ulster. On the same trip, I saw Israeli flags flying from flag posts in Protestant communities all over Northern Ireland. Understandably, the Protestants planted by a bigger power (England) in Ulster are having a tough time with their indigenous neighbors. Right or wrong, good or bad, it doesn’t matter. They are settlers and they can empathize with Israeli settlers planted in land Palestinians claim and who are having a tough time with their indigenous neighbors.
As we celebrate our first Black president and the long and difficult road America’s ethnic underdogs have traveled, we can pay attention to the modern struggles of Europe’s fascinating ethnic stew, have an empathy for its underdogs, and root for those societies (perhaps inspired by the USA) to come together as we have.