A younger member of our community has just returned from a month of immersion in the background to Iganatian spirituality, in Loyola, Manresa, Javier. He came back bursting with impressions of Catalan and Basque autonomy and how it contrasted with Africa's current emphasis on unified national states and an African Union.
Comparisons can be confusing. Twenty years or so ago I read an article in which a European observer suggested that Africa was in its Middle Ages, the stage of forming nation states. A Chinese observer might with equal truth have said Europe was just coming out of its Warring States period. There is no one historical track all must follow. There are certain factors which express themselves in every age, maybe in different ways.
My confrere had observed that modern western Europe has discovered «subsidiarity», which was written into the founding documents of the European Economic Community, which has become the European Union. There are few mono-ethnic States in this world. The earliest European examples, England and France were not quite what they claim, even before the waves of immigration in the last two generations. Ask the Cornish and the Bretons, the French Basques and Occitans. The European Union is beginning to see the value of a popular claim of Tito's Yugoslavia: Six republics,
Five nationalities, Four languages, Three religions, Two alphabets but one desire: freedom!
I pass over the romantic simplifications of that, which seem to ignore the Hungarians of Vojvodina and the Albanians of Kossovo. As an ideal it is admirable.
In an earlier stage of my awareness, I was surprised when a Catalan friend, a left-leaning economics lecturer from Valencia, praised the then new Maastricht Treaty. «How can you accept that?», I asked. He pointed out that Spain had just granted some degree of autonomy to its minorities. Maastricht took several important powers that had remained with the Madrid government and given them to Brussels and Brussels is so far away it doesn't bother Valencia. Maastricht, in effect, gave Valencia more independence from Madrid and even from Barcelona. - within a common European framework.
Subsidiarity doesn't deny the need for some political and social institutions at higher levels than the village pump, so Africa needs to find national structures that work for what are artificial nations. I doubt whether the world contains a single example of total coincidence between ethnic and national boundaries. In Africa, Somalia may be monoethnic, but there are still long established Somali communties in Kenya and Ethiopia. Botswana is not a monoethnic as it claims; ask the Kalanga, San, Herero and Khoikhoi, for a start, nor do most of the ethnic Tswana live within its borders, even if you can distinguish them from the Sotho.
Subsidiarity is a great aim; no power being exercised at any level higher than is absolutely necessary. An over-centralised Europe and a fragmented Africa approach it from different directions. Neither can say their starting point is better; it is where they are, that is all.
It looks as if both will have to find their own way to it, by the time-honoured method of trial and error.
Don't ask outsiders to dictate to either, that was one of the major errors of colonialism. China can't teach Africa much if they can't accommodate local sentimet in Tibet and Xinjiang. American solutions would only sharpen conflicts in Europe. We're all on our own in one sense, but we can learn our own lessons in our own ways from other people's mistakes – as well as our own.