The romantic new little nationalisms

November 11, 1995|By Daniel Berger

NATION-STATES, it is fashionable to say, are obsolete. They are insufficient to national purpose, their economies too small, their boundaries unreal.

Larger entities are taking over. The European Union is the trend setter. The North American Free Trade Agreement is a first step for this hemisphere. And so nationalisms that break nation-states into smaller units seem anachronistic, harmful, self-destructive. Yugoslavia is now fashionably judged never to have worked.

From this standpoint, those Quebecers who want independence seem to be fighting against the grain of history.

True, they have some of the requisites of honest nationalism -- a sense of historical grievance so deep it cannot be reasoned with, a clear knowledge of who they are, and an observable difference from ''foreign'' neighbors.

Quebecers are different from Ontarians by language, culture, history, tradition, and largely by religion. It is a greater difference than Serbs have from Croats or from Muslim Serbo-Croats. Quebecers' distinctiveness is greater than that between Protestants and Catholics in Ulster. It is more like the difference between Flemings and Walloons in Belgium.

From bigger to smaller

The belief that mere nations are inadequate has made their breakup more thinkable. Scottish nationalism is argued as feasible within the European Union. The joint submersion of Ireland and Britain in the EU makes Northern Ireland's adherence to one or the other matter less.

Quebec's separatism takes supernational organization for granted. Its ''sovereigntism'' counts on NAFTA and NORAD to preserve the links with Ontario and even Maryland. It pretends to do without Ottawa and federal Canada, and in the next breath proposes to rejoin them in a currency authority. The premise is that Quebec would enjoy the same relationship to the U.S. as a sovereign entity that it does as a Canadian province. It would link to Canada as Belgium does to the Netherlands.

When Ireland went independent from 1921 onward, all its people kept the right to move, work and vote in Britain. Ireland offers citizenship to all in Northern Ireland and to anyone with a parent born in either part of Ireland. Dual nationality, in other words, cannot be a solution to Northern Ireland's problems because, for all practical purposes, they already have it. This is a model for Quebec sovereigntists.

Calling Quebec distinct from Canada is semantically ludicrous. The original ''Canada'' meant Quebec. The English took over the land and word in 1763. Though Quebec was always Canada, Newfoundland was not until 1948.

Most former Yugoslav republics have no larger entity to join. Slovenia and Croatia entertain hopes of joining Western European institutions eventually, but ''federal Yugoslavia'' (Serbia and Montenegro), Bosnia and Macedonia are going it alone.

Some fifth of Yugoslav families are mixed in nationality. The maps being drawn provide no place for them. Lucien Bouchard, the most eloquent of the Quebec politicians who swear they cannot live with Canada, is married to a Californian.

The ideal of pure ethnicity anywhere is doomed because no ethnicity is pure or ever was. Each can be traced to migrations, invasions, conquests and accommodations. Nor is any language pure.

The breakup of Eastern European nation-states presents two models, the civil divorce of Slovakia from the Czech Republic or the genocide intimated by Croatia and perfected by Serbia.

These little nationalisms promise their people only isolation, poverty and restoration of a past that never was.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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