This morning we welcome a new country to Europe. The creation of Kosovo as another state in the unstable Balkans is a reminder of how strong are the passions of people over their identity. The differences between people in Europe have been sources of tension and conflict for centuries. The shifting pattern of settlement, the divisions over religion and creed, the impact of great migrations and the long shadow cast by history lie behind so many of the persistent disputes.
Although Europe now has 45 countries, there are those who would like to see more. Passion is on the side of more smaller units. It is only the politicians and bureaucrats who are the Empire builders, wanting to create neat and larger units, drawing artificial lines across territories that are themselves crossed by the deeper marks of history and culture.
Belgium is witnessing a classic struggle between the Flemish speakers and the French speakers, as the Flemish seek to establish their own independence from the larger country. The Basques have never been happy with rule from Madrid. Scottish Nationalists would dearly love to drop their link to London, whilst English nationalism is now growing. South and North Italy are not entirely happy companions in a single country.There are still disagreements about the ideal shape of the country map in central Europe. In each case there has to be a democratic way to settle these issues that meets with the approval of a large majority to create stability. As a supporter of the Union of the UK I know the government needs to do more to engage people in seeing why it has worked in the past and making them feel it is fair today.In some of these European cases the large majority will want to keep the bigger country where it has established deep enough roots and loyalties of its own. In other cases people will want a redesign of the borders.Past attempts to unite the Scandinavian lands fell apart. Austria is once again an independent country. The two components of Czechoslovakia prefer their divorce to marriage.The three small Baltic states love their ability to go it alone.
I remember discovering just how deep these feelings can run, and how small the units are that command allegiance, when I inherited the task of remodelling Welsh local government. The 1970s reorganisation created large and unpopular units in many parts of England and Wales. The proposed 1990s scheme I inherited had been based on a bureaucratic view of how large a unit you needed to have a â€œviableâ€ Council. The bureaucratic idea of viability bore no relationship to how people felt about themselves and their area. I decided instead to recreate the old counties of Wales, and to free the larger boroughs, giving to each their own unitary Council. Wherever I did this it was popular. I remember the representatives of Merthyr, overjoyed that I would give them their own Council after all, saying to me that they would have made me a Freeman of the Borough if only I hadnâ€™t been a â€œToryâ€! That was praise indeed.
The official machine disliked all these concessions to history and to feelings. They complained at every new extra Council I wanted to create. We ended up with the battle of Powys, which naturally split into the three old Counties of Brecknock, Radnor and Montgomery. Radnor was tiny, and I buckled over how feasible it would be for it to have its own all purpose local authority. I tried to free Montgomery from Powys, but Radnor and Brecon hated that solution even more. I set up a scheme for devolved decision taking in each County by the Councillors elected for that County in Area committees, so they could have some of the advantages of independence alongside the economies of the larger unit. It was not what they really wanted. They wanted independence. I regret not insisting that we split the three Counties, as I had done for the others, for identity does matter.
I wish Kosovo well, and hope that its independence will bring it more happiness. All those in government should remember just how local loyalties are, and how strong a sense of place and history people have. As a negotiating Minister in the EU I could still feel the fault lines from Reformation Europe. As a Minister involved in local government reorganisation in the 1990s it was obvious that the new and larger constructions of the 1970s had not settled down and had not won popular consent. There are still parts of Europe that feel they are governed from the wrong place by the wrong people. If we want a happier Europe we need more countries, not less, and more freedom for their governments,not more central control from Brussels.