But where a blending of peoples speaks of nationalism on the wane, sporadic acts of vandalism raise the spectre of a hidden antipathy. Defaced bilingual road signs are the best example. Attacking a culture may involve any number of discriminating acts, but insulting its language is one of the most direct. In the Carso region, where Italian-Slovenian road signs are commonplace, vandalism against the Slovenian title is almost as common. This has been the case for many years, and, as pessimistic as it may seem, there is little evidence of this sort of racism coming to an end in the foreseeable future. In fact, with the European Union’s current border policy, movement between Italy and Slovenia has seldom been easier – yet the discrimination continues.
Interestingly, a sign or two of nationalism has also crept into the Austrian lands close to the Tyrol, presumably amongst those citizens sympathetic to the still-divided Tyrolean lands.
Calls of ‘Ein Tirol’ (‘One Tyrol’) are less uncommon in the early-twenty first century than one might think. And it is this sense of national identity, reaching beyond state borders and political accords, which reveals the extent to which nationalism is still part of the European lifeblood, for good or ill.
The sort of nationalist feeling described above is very much a symptom of a local dispute, a sort of inter-cellular friction, if you will, which is part and parcel of the daily traffic of the wider body politic. Yet should that friction receive a boost, by way of some more traumatic event such as war, famine or plague, then, like a cancerous cell, a single act could boil over into a highly dangerous and systemic threat. Sadly, such threats are all too real. Twenty years ago, one of the ugliest episodes in European history unfolded as the disintegration of Yugoslavia dragged its people into a vicious civil war which killed and brutalised thousands of civilians, and battered much of the region into near economic ruin.
Nationalism was at the heart of that conflict, and despite its terrible results it still remains a potent force in the Balkans today.
From subtle acts of bigotry to gross prejudices, the post-modern societies of twenty-first century Europe remain just as prone to acts of discrimination, on the grounds of nationhood, as their pre-modern antecedents. However, to find such a state of affairs evident in a supranational project like the European Union is surely a cause for concern. Because if the continent of Da Vinci, Descartes and Newton is still besieged by such a narrow-minded sentiment, it must surely warn us that the sort of progress on display in much of present-day Europe does not necessarily entail the rise of a new, egalitarian age of openness and tolerance, but instead merely a different sort of arena, in which the full spectrum of human traits, nationalism included, maybe paraded.