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The Revival of European Identity Politics

In the Székelyföld, a Hungarian enclave deep in the mountains of Romania, three flags fly outside of houses, pubs, and restaurants. The first is the light blue flag of the Szekler people, a Hungarian minority whose banner can also be seen near the Hungarian parliament in Budapest. The second is the Hungarian national flag, a reminder of the Szeklers’ ethnic and linguistic links to Romania’s western neighbor (and a sign of how popular the region is with Hungarian tourists). The third is the flag of the European Union. It is less common than the first two, and almost certainly inspires less patriotic fervor, but it is noticeable nonetheless. It can also be found on various EU-funded infrastructure and development projects. 

The pageantry of Hungarian nationhood is ubiquitous in the Székelyföld. The country’s coat of arms is proudly displayed on bumper stickers and carved into the log cabins popular with Hungarian visitors. Several Romanian cities display replicas of the famous Capitoline Wolf, a nod to Romania’s quasi-mythic connection to Ancient Rome. In the Székelyföld, the legendary animal favored by the locals is the white stag, which supposedly guided the Hungarian tribes to the Carpathian basin over a millennium ago. More controversially, many Szeklers and Hungarians still display maps of Nagy Magyarország, or Greater Hungary, a depiction of Hungary’s expansive pre-World War I borders that includes large chunks of present-day Romania. 

The Székelyföld is not in any immediate danger of erupting into ethnic conflict, but tensions occasionally bubble to the surface. Just last year, the Romanian foreign minister said that Szeklers who hang their flag should be hung next to it, provoking sharp responses from local politicians and a minor diplomatic spat with Hungary. Despite this outburst, the Romanian government and its ethnically Hungarian citizens seem to have found a workable model of coexistence. 

One of the pillars of this arrangement is the EU, which papers over disagreements with generous funding and the implicit promise that with good behavior, all Romanian citizens can aspire to a Western European standard of living. In Hungary proper, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is an anti-EU firebrand. In the Székelyföld, Orbán is quite popular for extending the franchise to ethnic Hungarians living outside Hungary, but few Szeklers are eager to abandon the EU. As with many ethnic minorities throughout Europe, Brussels is seen as a valuable source of funding and a guarantor of minority rights. 

The EU occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between the great multi-ethnic European empires of yesteryear and the modern nation-state. Except as a foil to various nationalist and conservative political movements, it excites little genuine enthusiasm among Europeans. Rather than inspiring the creation of a pan-European identity, the EU has been most successful at encouraging the revival of sub-national languages and cultures. To minorities like the Szeklers, Brussels is a distant, benevolent master that bestows cash and political respectability while asking little in return. The dirty work of governance is still done in Bucharest. Given these circumstances, it is unsurprising that many European minorities prefer local institutions over their national governments. 

The Székelyföld is not the first subnational entity to benefit from the EU’s largesse. In Postwar, an admirably comprehensive history of Europe since World War II, Tony Judt notes that Italy’s Alto Adige/South Tyrol region received nearly €100 million from Brussels over a six year period in the 1990s. The province qualified for this generous disbursement because it is mountainous, rural, and home to an ethnic minority, the Triple Crown of EU bureaucratic box-checking. Despite being one of the wealthiest regions in Italy, South Tyrol qualified for a further €57 million in the early 2000s. 

But money alone isn’t enough to bind a continent together. Despite its open-handedness, the EU lacks the sinew of its imperial predecessors. Before World War I, Szekler territory was governed by the Habsburgs, and their imperial trappings—the Catholic churches, the distinctive public architecture that adorns the region’s cities and towns—are still very much in evidence. The Habsburg legacy also endures below the surface. According to a 2011 study, regions that were governed by the empire are appreciably less corrupt to this day than non-imperial regions with similar demographic characteristics. The EU’s footprint is considerably lighter on the ground. 

The revival of nationalism is a much-discussed feature of 21st-century European politics. Less remarked upon is the reemergence of the continent’s ethnic and linguistic minorities. Large numbers of Germans are unlikely to reappear in Western Poland, but many sub-national groups were suppressed, though not completely eradicated, by the upheavals of the 20th century. The dominant trends of the post-World War II era—political centralization, urbanization, the rise of mass media—encouraged the development of cohesive national blocs. The technologies of the 21st century, most notably the internet and social media, promise cultural fragmentation and the emergence (or reemergence) of local and regional allegiances. 

Some of this political fragmentation has already happened. In the 1990s, Yugoslavia could not survive the sudden reappearance of ethnic, religious, and cultural fault lines. Czechoslovakia split into two countries almost overnight. In Italy, the Lega Nord has transformed from an idiosyncratic secessionist movement to a major political player. Scotland is on the verge of leaving the United Kingdom. Just as 20th-century European borders were rearranged by ideological and national clashes, the 21st century is likely to be shaped by the surprising revival of subnational identity. Some of these groups, like the Szeklers, the Catalans, the Scots, and the Welsh, are reasserting themselves after periods of relative dormancy. Others, such as immigrant communities from the Middle East and North Africa and large Russian minorities in the Baltic republics, are new players on an old map. 

The Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, the Romanovs, and the Ottomans could not withstand the rise of nationalism and the trauma of the First World War. The EU has mercifully avoided any comparable disasters, but its track record of crisis management is not hopeful. The Great Recession of 2009 exposed the limitations of the single currency and the underlying economic weakness of several member states. The ongoing Brexit negotiations suggest that the only meaningful barrier to leaving the EU is the threat of economic pain, as opposed to any deeper attachment to the idea of European unity. Before World War I, the Habsburgs could rely on tradition, pageantry, extensive bureaucracy, and, in extremis, a network of secret police and military garrisons. The EU has structural cohesion funds and a constitution nobody has read. 

In the Székelyföld, the Romanian flag hangs forlornly outside a few government buildings. As you drive West towards Hungary, however, it becomes a much more common sight. Proximity to the border seems to have inspired public displays of Romanian patriotism. The revival of national feeling, and its attendant stresses on the EU’s rickety structure, has become a defining feature of 21st-century European politics. The overlapping flags of the Székelyföld are a sign that the reemergence of sub-national identity is also shaping the continent’s future.

Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.

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