Friday, July 20, 2007

Spain + Portigal = Iberia

This is one of the more intriguing and pertinent posts I’ve read in a while (it is unfort in Spanish only). The nobel prize winning fiction writer Jose Saramago, 85, is predicting the unification of Spain and Portugal into a federal entity that might be called Iberia. It seems ludicrous, of course, for something like that to happen now. But the old man is not going crazy. After 20 or 40 years of debate, in the context of the EU’s own evolution and cohesion, perhaps it’s not impossible? So long as it was clear that the union was federally based and still contained two countries, or, better said, two nations: the Spanish and the Portuguese.

This gets really interesting politically because I could see the Catalans, Basques, and maybe Gallegos, interested in this fusion, insofar as they’d probably have a case for even more relative autonomy within a larger Iberian entity. Spain is already a federation, but a ‘merger’ with Portugal would allow the rest of the world to think of the area as one big peninsula with multiple peoples--not just Spanish and Portuguese, but Castillian, Portguese, Catalan, Basque, Gallego, Andalucian, Balearic. 

While politically far fetched, Iberia is a theoretically rich proposition because Spain is itself a bit of an artificial creation. I don’t mean to challenge the validity of a monolithic Spanish culture--which does exist—but to qualify it as a plurality. Moreso than any other European country, Spain is also a conglomeration of distinct regions, microcultures. This is not entirely unusual: France also has profound regional variation, but le Francais have had a much stronger collective identity and fewer would-be breakaway states (though there’s Bretagne and the French Pays Bas, each with their own languages), and never needed 40 years of dictatorship to help foment a sense of “Frenchness” based around the central capital (though they did have De Gaulle). 

Partly as a reaction to Franco’s centrism, Spain now takes regionalism to a new level. Geography and history help. Cadiz and Andalucia are virtual deserts and entirely unrecognizable from the northern regions; both areas are distinct from Castilla La Mancha and the arid meseta in the middle of the country. Then you’ve got the sordid intertwining histories of all Iberia’s peoples over the millennia, which is best illustrated by the 5 different languages still spoken (Spanish, Catalan & Valenciano, Basque, Gallego; and maybe Bable in Asturias, which is virtually dead; and recall that Andaluz often seems like a dialect).

Spain isn’t in danger of dying: its meta-culture is too strong. But, looking to the future, I do believe that there is more room for regional recognition and autonomy. (Tourism-wise, Spain would do well to promote its unique diversity, but doesn’t really present itself as a patchwork of microcultures— too politically sensitive? The Spanish tourism ads have always been terrible.) Ditto for Europe: because the continent is small and cultures often cross borders, regionalism has always played a significant role. The EU has obviously made it easier to think in terms of regions, as we see the onset of a new transnational cultural topography. Just as we think today of a Mediterranean region and culture (and food), Europe used to think of Iberia as that distinct region below the Pyrenees connecting the rest of Europe to Africa. Heck, there was even an Iberian Union that governed the entire peninsula from 1580-1640 (until Philip III got too greedy with Portugal and pushed them to revolt against Spanish authority, at a time when the poor King was already hamstrung by the 30 Years War and a separate incursion by pesky Catalunya). It was natural to consider the Spanish and Portuguese together within the larger European rubric, even though any person could tell you that the Castillians were different from the Portuguese (and from the Aragonese and Catalans, for that matter, who had their own kingdom for a while. This is a big deal to Catalans, who'll tell you how a quirk of history denied their independence as a nation).

We’ve already got the Benelux countries and their common culture (which consists of obscenely high levels of wealth, technology, education and population density). Western Germany (Cologne’s region) wants to join Benelux because, economically, they’re basically part of it already. There’s Scandinavia in the north, and the entire block of Slavic peoples in the east, and in particular the region that resulted in the artificial creation of Yugoslavia (we all know how that turned out). Then you’ve got the Muslim pocket of the Balkans, also crossing national borders. Romania’s Transylvania used to be Hungarian (not to mention all the other areas bordering Hungary). South American visionaries have long wanted to start their own Community of Nations, based on the EU. However, regionalism is not a top-down political phenomenon like the EU. Rather it is an organic historical reality that, as communication and transportation improve and national borders lose importance, will gain importance, and may well affect political geography.

I’ll put down my crystal ball long enough to say that some other bigwigs seem to think that Saramago esta loco. Antonio Martins da Cruz, for example, former Minister of Exterior and ex-Embassador to Madrid, considers Saramago’s vision one from the 19th rather than the 21st century. But then again: who the hell is Cruz? Sure, it’s easy to dismiss this idea and call the old man a national traitor. But the big picture is that advanced capitalism is forcing a new order of alignments, and, as Saramago argues, such a political union would make economic sense for the Portuguese, who only have 10 million people (to Spain’s 60). Granted economic sense doesn’t translate into cultural sense; nation-states are still the foremost source of personal identity, and patriotism exists. However, I do believe that people are slowly beginning to realize that, in a globalized world marked by a federally-minded EU and other trans-national alliances (be they political, commercial, or cultural), long-established identities do not actually need the political entities of nation-states to prop them up. (Catalans know this already; so do Californians.)

My guess is that our traditional concept of identity is going through an historic change wherein the myth of a single, stable national identity will finally be disposed by the reality of overlapping multiple identities. This change is largely facilitated by the global village we’re becoming, which I wrote about the other day. I remain curious as to how much an evolving EUrope can affect this change (the EU may well fall flat on its ass), but I do think it’s where the world is headed over the next couple of generations.

What do you guys think? Is this possible, or am I too eager to predict the dawn of a new world order? 

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