The European Union has rarely looked so united. The disparate members have joined up to mount a strong defence of the region’s single currency. But the EU has also never looked so close to dissolution, divided by tensions between more and less fiscally responsible and economically successful countries. The fate of the union could follow either of two historical precedents with starkly different outcomes.
Exactly 150 years ago, on May 27, 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi started to besiege Palermo. The city was the capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which had lasted in roughly the same form for almost six centuries. Most of the establishment at the time, including the Pope and Emperor Napoleon III of France, dismissed the notion of an Italian nation.
The romantic nationalist Garibaldi proved them wrong. Italy was unified under the Turin-based king of Sardinia. Huge regional differences in history, economy and culture have been diminished by the flow of people from south to north and of government money and bureaucracy in the other direction. The unified Italy has survived and prospered.
The less optimistic precedent is Yugoslavia. An expansion of the Kingdom of Serbia, the country was created after the First World War. Strong Slavic ethnic identity made it only slightly less likely to succeed as a nation than Italy. And Yugoslavia’s disparate peoples seemed on the path to unity for most of the following six decades.
But everything fell apart quickly 30 years ago, after the May 1980 death of Marshall Tito. Without Yugoslavia’s longstanding autocratic leader, the Serbian nationalism that had supposedly been crushed proved a potent divisive and destructive force.