Look at Scotland. The Scots are moving, perhaps inexorably, toward national independence from Britain. A referendum on breaking away could take place as early as 2010 and would likely pass. And why not? Scotland didn't formally become part of Britain until 1707, when it caved in to English threats to its trade and the free movement of people across the border. Now, thanks to the EU, such threats are illegal. And it's hardly likely that England would declare war on secessionist Scotland.
A similar process is under way in Kosovo, which wants to break from Serbia (the U.S. backs that idea) and get EU candidacy like Croatia and Macedonia. The Basques in Spain aren't far behind. In the past, ethnic enclaves probably couldn't make it on their own. But now the EU provides a safety net.
The catch-22 is delightful. By scaling back the job description of a nation-state to a few ceremonial duties, ethnic minorities see fewer risks and a lot more rewards in breaking away. Countries such as Slovakia get to trade on their votes in the EU and the U.N. They get their own anthems and sports teams and get to teach their own language and culture. It's like a McDonald's franchise. You man the register and keep the bathrooms clean, but the folks at corporate HQ do the heavy lifting. That's why the Basques, Scots and Flemings are looking to open their own franchises. The question is whether the nationalist hunger of such McNations can be satisfied by just the symbolism of autonomy.
This points to why I take so much pleasure in the troubles in Brussels. The EU always made the most sense to Belgians, who have a weak national identity. The myth was that everyone felt the same way.
Indeed, the EU project has always been predicated on self-serving myths. Another is the idea that with greater "understanding" comes greater peace and comity. The Walloons and the Flemings understand each other; they just don't like each other very much.
But what I really like about the Belgian crisis is that it puts a dent in the myth that Europe represents some enlightened new model exportable to the rest of the globe. After World War II and the Holocaust, a generation of diplomats and intellectuals predicted that nationality, religion and culture would matter less in the New Europe. But wishing didn't make it so. Obviously, nobody wants the bloody nationalism of early 20th century Europe. But it's nonetheless gratifying that even on the EU's Brussels campus, life resists the blueprints of the bureaucrats.