Whose borders are they anyway? The nation state unravelling

Sunday 19 October, 16.00 until 17.15, Garden Room, Barbican Eye on the World

In September, Scotland will vote in a referendum on independence that may mean the end of the UK after 300 years. Even if Scots vote to remain within the UK, the make-up of the UK may change forever as more powers are devolved to Holyrood. In Ukraine, anti-EU, pro-Russian movements led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the declaration of a ‘people’s republic’ in Donetsk. Across Europe, regionalism seems to be on the rise. Regional movements in the UK, Spain, Belgium and Italy seem to be gaining support. And beyond Europe, the rise of Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq has blurred borders in that region while strengthening the autonomy of the Kurds in northern Iraq.

Yet alongside the trend to regionalism and the redrawing of borders is another trend: supranational integration. The EU is growing in size and power, especially since the Eurozone crisis, with calls for further political integration in a bid to avoid a repeat of the imbalances that caused the crisis. Already, there is free movement of labour across the EU, big companies that operate across many countries demand common rules and regulations, and many laws are now made outside of national parliaments, arising from legal decisions in courts such as the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights. On the other hand, there is considerable scepticism towards these trends, as reflected in the fact that anti-EU parties did well in many countries in this year’s European Parliament elections.

In short, the idea of a traditional sovereign nation making decisions internally with a well-defined demos seems to be weakening. In the modern world, the existing nation states often appear to be both too big and too small simultaneously. While regional movements seek to break up the countries that they are currently part of, many - like those in Scotland and Catalonia - are also keen to join the EU if they achieve independence.

Why are countries that have existed for hundreds of years struggling to sustain the loyalty of their constituent regions? Will we see a Balkanisation of Europe, with large countries disintegrating into smaller parts? If so, what will be the effect on the political and economic integration of the EU? How does this contrast with the continued diminishing of national sovereignty through supranational organisations such as the UN and the International Criminal Court? Should we fear the return of nationalism, or are these trends a welcome way of reinvigorating government on a more popular basis?

Watch the debate:

Dr Philip Cunliffe
senior lecturer in international conflict, University of Kent; co-editor, Politics Without Sovereignty: a critique of contemporary international relations.

Mary Dejevsky
columnist and former chief editorial writer, Independent; leading commentator on Russia, EU and US

Dr Tim Stanley
leader writer and columnist, Daily Telegraph

Stewart Sutherland
cross-bencher, House of Lords; fellow, British Academy and Royal Society of Edinburgh

Craig Fairnington
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer

Produced by
Craig Fairnington associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer
Recommended readings
The world is saying No to Scottish separation

The Yes campaign has elected to play a cynical, bewildering and finite game of identity politics

Philip Stephens, Financial Times, 11 September 2014

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