For centuries, Europe has fought wars over borders. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Europe’s borders shifted wildly. As empires fragmented, new nations arose and wars were waged.
After 1945 and the beginning of the Cold War, a new principle emerged on the Continent. The borders that existed at the end of World War II were deemed sacrosanct—not to be changed.
Europeans knew that border disputes had been one of the reasons of the two world wars and that even raising the legitimacy of post-war borders risked igniting passions that led to violence.
Similarly, untouchable were the existing spheres of influence on the Continent. There was the East and the West, and neither would mess with the other.
Thus, when the Soviets crushed independence movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the United States refrained from any military action (not that there were many options). When Yugoslavia chose a pro-Western neutrality over membership in the Warsaw Pact, the Soviets didn’t intervene.
But in the early 1990s, everything changed.
Border Issues Arise, Again
In 1991–1992, two things happened.
First came the fall of the Soviet Union; then came the signing of the Maastricht Treaty and the creation of the European Union. Border issues began to drive events again.
The border of the Soviet Union collapsed, and a multitude of countries popped up to reclaim their past. There were many questions about borders that were mumbled about.
But for Eastern European countries, other problems took precedence: establishing national sovereignty, finding their place in a Europe that they longed to join, and building a new life for their people. They let the border issue drop—for the most part.
Yugoslavia and the Caucasus were exceptions that drove home the lesson of European borders. There, outside the framework of the EU and of little consequence to others, more than 100,000 people died.
Compare this to the Velvet Divorce of the Czechs and Slovaks, which took place within the context of future European states and left no one dead.
After this, and with Yugoslavia and the Caucasus in mind, the European Union tried to reinstate the principle that borders were sacrosanct. It provided what it had promised—peace and prosperity—and treated borders as anachronistic. No one was supposed to care where the lines were drawn. But there was a problem.
The Europeans Union’s Oversight
The European Union had affirmed the principle of national self-determination while avoiding the question of what a nation actually was. A nation was, under the bloc’s definition, any political entity that was in place when the EU was formed. There was little consideration after that.
This is why Catalonia is so important, along with Scotland. The Scots rejected a divorce by a startlingly narrow vote. One would have expected 90% of Scots to want to remain in the United Kingdom. Slightly more than 55% wanted to.
This means secessionists are within striking distance of secession—which would not only divide Scotland from England, but would also maintain the divide among the Scots.
Add to this another critical element. Catalonia has been part of Spain for a long time, but it has considered itself a unique nation apart for an even longer time. Spain will not legalize an independence vote.
The underlying questions are the ones the Europeans tried to bury, particularly after Yugoslavia: What is a nation, and what rights does it have? Both Scotland and Catalonia are nations. Do they therefore have a right to national determination or have they lost that right?
And what are the consequences if the Catalans disagree?
This is not the only such issue festering in Europe.
Hungary was partitioned between Romania and Slovakia. Does it have a right to reclaim these lands? Belgium was a British invention binding the Dutch and French in an unhappy marriage. Can they divorce? Lviv used to be a very Polish city, and now it is part of Ukraine. Can western Ukraine secede and its people rejoin the countries they were citizens of before 1945?
The European Union promised universal prosperity if everyone suspended the question of borders and ignored their identities. It was a good bargain. But times have changed, and economic problems make borders much more important.
Europe, of course, has no solution to the problem.
That we would be talking about an independent Scotland and Catalonia in 2017 would seem preposterous. No economist would see it as a rational discussion.
Nations matter because Europe is merely a continent, and the EU is merely a treaty. It is a useful entity, and being useful is the only thing that justifies it. If it loses its utility, it loses its legitimacy. And that would also mean that the boundaries it has set would wither and die.
Almost all current nations in Europe have border issues and some parts that want to be independent. Most are quiet at the moment. But they are watching Scotland and Catalonia. And they know where border issues in Europe lead.
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