Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Football and the delights of national chauvinism

croatian-fan2After we watched the Croatian national team humiliate itself in the penalty shoot-out against Turkey last Friday, my friend Venichka pointed out to me that I now knew what it felt like to be English. The English, as everyone knows, specialise in losing at penalty shoot-outs, though I’m not sure even they could match the spectacular Croatian achievement of missing three penalties out of four. But then, I’m not qualified to offer any expert judgement on this, as I don’t follow football very closely. This is because I generally find it – and indeed all spectator sports – extremely boring. It only becomes interesting when it’s different countries playing each other, and one can indulge in a bit of socially acceptable national chauvinism. So every second summer, when it’s either the World Cup or European Cup, the underdeveloped and usually dormant part of my male brain activates itself and I watch a bit of football. Though the silver lining of Croatia being knocked out is that I haven’t felt obliged to watch any more matches.

Ven was right: despite being half-English, it was only for the first time last Friday that I felt the pain that watching one’s team lose at penalties involves; my national identity has never felt less conflicted. Here at Greater Surbiton we support the Croatian team. Failing that, we support either England, or any other former-Yugoslav team (except Slovenia). I’m not like Stephen Pollard or other defensive Jews, who resent being asked whether they support the English or the Israeli team, because it implies suspicion of a dual loyalty. In fact, I rather resent the assumption that, just because I’m English, I’ll be supporting England. I make no bones about having a dual loyalty, and I don’t care if that means I fail Norman Tebbit’s cricket test. Unlike many of my fellow British citizens, I support our boys where it actually matters.

Having become steadily less left-wing as I’ve grown older, I’ve now reached the point where I would support England in a match against just about anyone except Croatia. Part of the reason that this hasn’t been an easy point to reach is the usual right-on national nihilism, but part of it is the revulsion that I – a notorious snob – have always felt for English football culture. Our English football fans do so often seem to embody one of our quintissential national characteristics: possession of the mistaken belief that there is something funny or liberating is being loud, vulgar and obnoxious; in wallowing in our own boorishness. We are a genuinely sexy and charismatic nation – swaggering and staggering all over the Continent, vomiting and spreading venereal diseases. Going all the way over to Eastern Europe just so we can get drunk more cheaply, and engage in the same disgusting and offensive behaviour that we engage in at home, only with even less shame.

Why are we English like this ? I suspect that it’s our way of rebelling against our traditionally rigid system of manners, inbued as it is with class deference, and of finding an outlet for our sexual repression. But rudeness and vulgarity are not the alternative to rigid class-based manners, any more than promiscuity is the solution to sexual repression. It’s just a case of Jekyll and Hyde; of two halves of the same, schizophrenic national personality.

Be this as it may, the English have been better Europeans than the other large countries of Old Europe during the last ten years or so, therefore more worthy of support in an international football tournament. I was hoping that all these countries would be knocked out in the first round, but now, at the semi-final stage, there are still a couple of them left, and we may even have to rely on the Spanish or the Germans to stave off the nightmare scenario of a Russian victory. Of course, a German victory could be seen as a Russian victory-by-proxy, as the Federal Republic of Germany is nowadays not much more than a satellite of Russian imperialism (not entirely dissimilar to how the old German Democratic Republic was a satellite of Soviet imperialism).

In between plundering Croatia’s fishing stocks and posthumously decorating their Fascist police chiefs from World War II, the Italians find time to play the world’s most boring football, for which they are renowned the whole world over. So I was sorry they made it through to the second round – even more sorry than I was pleased at France being knocked out in the process. But the Italians received their comeuppance on Sunday when they were knocked out by Spain in a penalty-shoot out after a goalless draw. Never has such a typical Italian footballing result given such pleasure.

Here at Greater Surbiton we support the right of our Basque and Catalan sisters and brothers to national self-determination, and we are not best pleased by Spain’s mindless nationalistic obstruction of Kosova’s international recognition (my own feeling is that if countries like Spain, Slovakia, Romania and Cyprus insist on conflating Kosova’s secession from Serbia with the ‘separatist’ threats that they themselves face, then we should take them at their word, and seriously consider whether some of these ‘separatist’ territories might not in fact deserve to have their right to self-determination recognised. If the Slovaks and Romanians insist that their Hungarian minorities are equivalent to Kosova, who are we to question this ?). But with this caveat in mind, we would rather Spain wins the tournament than either Russia or Germany.

Readers of this blog may be surprised to learn that in the last European Cup, I was rather pleased that Greece won – they were the South East European underdog, and they played extremely well. But I can reassure my readers that I did not feel that way this time around. Greece’s three defeats in three games were one of the more satisfying results of the tournament. It’s almost as if the Orthodox God chose to smite Greece out of anger at its persecution of its neighbour and fellow Orthodox country, Macedonia. Or one could view it more prosaically as simply a matter of Greece returning to form after an uncharacteristic showing four years ago.

After everything has been taken into consideration, I am supporting the Turks in tonight’s game, and will be supporting them in the final if they defeat Germany. Poor Turkey is in a bad way politically right now; its progressive, reforming government is on the verge of being ousted by the nationalistic dinosaurs of the Kemalist establishment. Meanwhile, some of our fellow ‘Europeans’ – if one can grace them with that term – seem determined to prevent Turkey from joining the EU. A victory in Euro 2008 would provide Turkey with a much needed shot in the arm, in every respect.

And they also play good football.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008 Posted by | Balkans, Basque Country, Catalonia, Croatia, Former Soviet Union, Former Yugoslavia, France, Germany, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Russia, Serbia, Spain, The Left, Turkey | Leave a comment

The ghost of Franco

I wrote recently of how Greece and Cyprus have systematically allowed their own petty nationalistic concerns to distort EU policy. But it would be a mistake to view this sort of misbehaviour as being an exclusively Balkan or South East European failing. It is being reported that Spain has requested a delay in Kosovo’s declaration of independence until after Spanish elections on 9 March, for fear that recognition of Kosovo’s independence might encourage separatist sentiment among Spain’s Basque population and complicate the results of the poll. Abusing his position as EU foreign policy chief, the Spanish Socialist Javier Solana has been trying to hold back discussion of Kosovo’s independence until after 9 March to avoid creating problems for the Spanish Socialist (PSOE) government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

This Spanish tendency, to put selfish nationalistic concerns above Balkan stability, is nothing new: in 2002, Solana negotiated the unworkable ‘State Union of Serbia and Montenegro’ in a futile attempt to avert Montenegro’s independence. When Montenegro nevertheless went ahead and held a referendum on independence in 2006, Solana insisted that at least 55% had to vote in favour, for the EU to consider the vote for independence as valid. This was, it seems, not only in order to make Montenegrin independence more difficult, but also to ensure that the threshold for votes for independence in other parts of Europe be kept high. When the people of Montenegro nevertheless voted in favour of independence by over 55%, Solana was quick to insist: ‘This is not a precedent for anyone, it is just for the situation in the Balkans. Anyone who compares Catalonia and the Basque Country with Montenegro is suffering from delirium tremens.’ In other words, Solana and other Spanish nationalists are indeed afraid that the secession of countries like Montenegro and Kosovo might become a precedent for the secession of Catalonia or the Basque Country, and will therefore try to obstruct such acts of secession. If the latter are successful, however, the Spanish nationalists will then argue that there is not really a parallel anyway. They want it both ways.

The United Kingdom, of course, is a multinational state with ‘separatist’ movements of its own, represented by the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein. Nevertheless, the UK supports Kosovo’s independence. This raises the interesting question of why Spain is afraid of Kosovo’s independence inspiring its own ‘separatists’, but the UK is not. One answer might be that the British government is more rational than its Spanish counterpart, and realises that Kosovo’s independence will not, actually, have any bearing on the domestic politics of the UK, Spain or any other West European state. Ultimately, if the people of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, or indeed the people of Catalonia or the Basque Country, want independence, then they will not be deterred from seeking it by a failure of Kosovo’s bid. After all, there are plenty of successful precedents that ardent pro-independence patriots can look to, from the secession of the Netherlands and Portugal from the Spanish crown in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the more recent secessions of Croatia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Montenegro, etc. Conversely, while Basque and Catalan nationalists welcomed Montenegrin independence, there is no evidence that it actually boosted their fortunes.

The knee-jerk Spanish hostility to Balkan ‘separatism’ is simply a reflection of paranoia, and a reminder that the legacy of Franco’s dictatorship, which came to an end only in 1975, has not really been overcome. The fascist assault on Republican Spain in 1936 was inspired in part by the desire to crush Catalan autonomy and safeguard a unitary Spanish nation-state. While Republican Spain granted extensive autonomy to the Catalans and Basques, Franco’s Nationalists abolished this autonomy and pursued a policy of forced assimilation of both nations. The autonomy was re-established following Franco’s death in 1975 and the restoration of democracy. But the Spanish political elite’s continued hostility to ‘separatism’ indicates that the ghost of Franco still lingers. Nor is this the only such indication. Spain continues to lay claim to the British territory of Gibraltar, on the Spanish coast, while refusing to recognise Morocco’s similar claim to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, on the Moroccan coast. The Spanish claim to Gibraltar was revived under Franco, who ultimately closed Spain’s border with the territory. Spain continues to make life difficult for the people of Gibraltar.

A West European state whose foreign policy toward South East Europe is motivated by domestic political concerns of this kind is clearly not a healthy entity; nor is it one that can play a constructive role in the EU. The obvious cure is for Spain to complete the transition to democracy begun in 1975, and recognise the right of Catalonia and the Basque Country (i.e. the Catalan and Basque Autonomous Communities) to secede from Spain, should they wish to do so. The question of whether other autonomous communities of Spain, such as Galicia, should possess this right should also be addressed. This may or may not lead one day to one or more territories breaking away from Spain, but Spain – properly democratic and freed from the fear of separatism – would be a winner either way. And a Spain that achieves such political maturity at home will cease to play such a destabilising role abroad. 

Monday, 21 January 2008 Posted by | Balkans, Basque Country, Catalonia, Former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Spain | 1 Comment

   

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