Over in what is still referred to as Spain, the shit has hit the fan.
2017 was billed as a white-knuckle ride for Europe and so it has proved to be. From France to Turkey, the continent has rung to the sound of excreta slapping against rotor blades. Germany is no exception.
The Federal Parliament now has a far-right faction for the first time since the Second World War. This was expected but the numbers are worrying: 12.6% of the electorate, perhaps 2% more than the polls expected. Small though the margin of error is, those extra couple of points give the Alternatives For Germany the psychological boost of coming in third. Expect much dung-slinging months to follow.
Wind the clock back to January and all of this was promised. For the most part, Europe’s establishment has stood face on to the storm of shit and is standing bloodied but unbowed. What they did not foresee was the brown gust blowing in from Catalonia.
As a veteran of two cruises to Mallorca, a European Championship qualifier in Alicante and a few day trips to San Sebastian I’m no expert on Spain, yet when it comes to Catalonia people always ask what I think. They reason that as a Scot I must be interested in how Spain conducts its relations with its various independence movements. They are dead right.
Should Catalonia become an independent country? I give the same answer I give when people ask me that question about Scotland. It’s entirely up to the people who live there.
It’s a thought-provoking proposition, whatever your politics. No continent’s borders have changed as often as Europe’s and it would be naive to think they are now set in stone. Be it Scotland or Catalonia or Flanders or Corsica, the potential for upheaval is always there.
If anything this potential is growing. The Basque Country could easily be added to the list. The Faroe Islands too, or Wales, or Brittany. Perhaps some sort of north-south split could occur in Italy. Any one of the western Mediterranean islands could choose to go its own way. German-speaking parts of Italy may one day return to Austria.
In many cases it is not the borders themselves which will change but how we perceive them. Frisian speakers in the Netherlands would like more autonomy. Another movement asserts the right to bilingualism in Alsace. How long can France remain officially monolingual?
At Europe’s northernmost extremes the Sami are now represented by their own parliaments. At present each country has its own assembly but perhaps in the future one cross-border institution will suffice. Our definition of what defines a nation may blur around the edges.
You’ll notice that my list doesn’t include anywhere in Germany. People often ask me whether the Fatherland has any prodigal sons, an equivalent to Scotland which might one day want to fly the nest. Is there nowhere here which could ever “do a Catalonia”?
It’s an interesting question — and in such a young country welded together from so many diverse elements it deserves a dignified answer.
I wouldn’t put money on any of the former microstates we’ve visited. Neither Neutral Moresnet nor the Principality Of Ysenburg-Büdingen nor the Bottleneck Free State are interested in engaging in anything more rebellious than releasing commemorative bumper stickers.
Other than an occasional “merci” in the local dialect the Saarland shows little desire to either move closer to France or go it alone again. Heligoland is so traumatised with the experience of being British that they’re likely to stick with Germany for the foreseeable future.
Look at the bigger fish and there is one candidate which ticks all the boxes. Bavaria had its own kings from 1805 until 1918 and even today is styled a Free State in the German constitution, a document that it has never signed. There’s a sense of unfinished business connected with everything about the place.
They speak a different language too, at least if you ask other Germans. Perhaps the most well-known Bavarian phrase, adopted as the motto of Bayern Munich, the region’s beloved football team, is mia san mia: We are what we are. If you don’t like us, get stuffed.
Bavarians don’t attract the sympathy of outsiders in the same way as the Scots do: They are seen as stubborn, arrogant and socially conservative by the rest of the country. Personally I don’t find them as bad as all that: If you walk into a pub in Munich wearing a kilt then somebody will almost certainly buy you a drink.
The question of breaking away is more likely to be raised by other Germans wanting to get rid of them than by Bavarians themselves but we would be stupid to let them go. Unlike in Scotland or in Catalonia there is little doubt that Bavaria is the richest region in Germany. If they wanted to, and if we let them do it, then they would probably live long and prosper.
They have an independence front and during the last state election they doubled their share of the vote — from one percent up to two. Bavaria is conservative in more ways than one and has done very well as a constituent part of Germany. They are not about to change a winning system so it looks like we’re stuck with them for a while yet.
I doubt they would ever separate from Germany purely because they want to have somebody they can be better than. At least it saves the arguments about what would happen to Franconia, the region in northern Bavaria that would inevitably try to separate from the separatists if ever independence were to be declared.
Settlers from other parts of Germany talk about “learning the language” when they move to Bavaria but from a purely linguistic point of view Bavarian is merely a particularly excruciating dialect of German. Even in the darkest corners of the Bavarian Forest, German is the only tongue acceptable for official purposes.
This is not the case everywhere. Though German is the one and only universal official language in Germany, there are four other recognised minority languages.
If you live in Lusatia, a region which spans the Polish border, you are entitled to dispute a court case or hand in a tax declaration in Sorbian. Around 60,000 people are proficient enough in the language to do so.
Germany’s last Slavic minority have their own flag and distinctive traditions but it’s very unlikely they’ll form a buffer state between Germany and Poland. They did ask to be organised into their own federal state after German reunification but Helmut Kohl was having none of it. Bilingual road signs are the closest thing to a border post that you’ll ever see should you ever go there.
In the unlikely event that the Sorbs made a break or it they would face one particularly tricky obstacle: They are spread out over a wide area punctuated with much larger concentrations of German speakers.
Even in the “capital”, Cottbus or Chóśebuz as it’s called in Sorbian, Sorbs are in a minority. Mention the name “Cottbus” to Germans back west and they’ll associate it not with Slavic separatism but with the worst kind of German nationalism. The association is relevant but before we move on to that we should probably examine Germany’s other minorities.
Up in the north of the country in Schleswig-Holstein, two of them have joined forces. Germany’s 20,000 or so Danish speakers have teamed up with the slightly smaller number of Frisian speakers to form a political party which is not only represented in the state parliament but also forms part of the coalition government.
Independence is not a stated aim and, given that they have only three seats, it is very unlikely that this will ever change. Although they are no single-issue party, the South Schleswig Voters’ Association prefer to focus on cultural and linguistic conservation rather than separation.
Sinti, the final recognised minority language, is the language of the central European Romani people. It has around 60,000 speakers, not many in a country of 80 million but enough to cause a furore when Alternatives For Germany leader Alice Weidel apparently claimed that the country is “flooded” with them.
And that’s it. On the face of it, no fault lines will emerge within Germany’s borders. Angela Merkel can put her feet up on the sofa with a bottle of beer and a Braveheart DVD safe in the knowledge that Mel Gibson’s antics could never happen here.
And yet mention the Alternatives For Germany and you hit on the biggest fault line of them all.
There may be no new cracks appearing in the political map of Germany but the AFD’s success is a less than subtle reminder that there is one old one which has only ever been papered over. In the former West Germany the party polled around 11% of the votes. In the former East, that number doubles.
It is not as if the east has more to fear from immigration than does the west; if anything then the reverse is true. The three states with the lowest number of people born outside Germany are all in the east. The total of these three is less than a tenth of what it is in North Rhine-Westphalia, the westernmost of the states.
As I live there, my impressions of the election post-mortems may not reflect the impressions of those living in other parts of the country. That said, I have the feeling that round here the results have triggered off a wave of ill feeling not against immigrants but against the inhabitants of the former GDR.
We’ve been here before with them, that’s the trouble. PEGIDA, the AFG’s spiritual ancestor, also draws its strength from the east’s major cities.
PEGIDA, or to give them their full gun tootin’, moonshine sippin’ name of Patriotic Europeans Against The Islamisation Of The Occident, are about the closest thing to an Alabama lynch mob that this country is able to muster.
For the most part the mob leave their pitchforks and scythes at home but firebrands have come in useful on the numerous occasions where asylum centres have been attacked and burned. The illuminated crucifix in the colours of the German flag makes UKIP’s purple and yellow look positively tasteful by comparison. The Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan has reportedly told them that it’s “a bit over the top”.
Farm utensils aside, their supporters are not exactly the sharpest tools in the box. As a foreigner, watching them on TV espousing their views in a thick-as-pigshit Saxon dialect against a background of crosses of fire, it’s difficult to know whether to laugh or smash the TV set. Most Germans have no such crises of conscience.
The area between Leipzig and Dresden was known as the “Valley Of The Clueless” during the Cold War because it was the only part of the GDR which could not pick up West German media broadcasts. For many in the west, little has changed. However unfairly, the ignorant redneck has become the East German stereotype — and the rise of the right only reinforces this.
We still pay for the east, you’ll be told — an assertion based on the existence of the “solidarity tax” which has its way onto every German payslip since reunification. The east, you will be reminded, attracts more state funding for infrastructural investment than anywhere round here. In this region, calls are being heard for a fairer distribution of resources.
When I first came to Germany, the reunification process was little more than a decade old. When you headed east then you noticed the differences in the infrastructure pretty quickly. Nostalgia for the old days was present on both sides of the line and people expressed their mistrust in the frankest possible terms.
If you went to football matches then the animosity was palpable. The first German football song I ever learned was to the tune of the Welsh classic Cym Rhonnda. You might know it by its English name “Bread Of Heaven” but in any case the chorus, the bit that urges God to feed you now and evermore, is rendered thus:
“Bau die Mauer wieder auf! Bau die Mauer wieder auf!”
“Put the Wall back up!”
It was the westerners who sang it, but many of the easterners would have agreed with them.
Move on a decade and a half and the visual differences between east and west are fading fast. The big eastern cities are booming. The east has much to recommend it and it is sad that the idiots dominate its public persona.
On the football field, pitched battles between east and west have become less commonplace. Many western fans will tell you that fundamentally the east still prefers figure skating. Though they are joking, they will not be laughing. The election is a reminder that Germany still has remedial work to do.
Dortmund play Leipzig on Saturday. The two don’t like each other very much and it won’t be pretty. As west meets east, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the chorus of an old Welsh hymn.
England’s rugby players hate that song. In London they might believe that Britannia rules the waves but they daren’t say that when they come to Cardiff. Sixty thousand Welshmen singing Cym Rhonnda is a subtle reminder to the conqueror to leave his shoes at the front door.
The German version is shorter, it is cruder and it has all the subtlety of a white supremacist’s bumper sticker collection. But it is no less seditious.