Sunday, December 05, 2004

Loose ties that bind

Hermann van der Wusten has an interesting article about political centrality in Europe (Political Georgraphy August 2004). He describes the placement of centers of power within Europe as they relate to a state system that is necessarily decentralized. Quite consciously, he also creates a history of congress cities as they have developed since 1648.

The state system of Europe is incomparably strong. The Peace of Westphalia established a patter in which the elites of states would gather periodically to discuss matters of diplomatic importance. After 1648 the European elites, growing more interconnected, debated means by which the order between states could be made more permanent. Meetings (of various sizes and scopes) became more frequent and regular. In the process they institutionalized congress systems that confirmed (in the most basic sense) the sovereignty and boundaries of individual states. Quite gradually there emerged intergovernmentalism and transgovernmentalism that would serve as the basis for future cooperation. By 1900 there was already consideration for creating a permanent meeting place for the European states. Because of these features of the state system, European participation in international organizations has been much stronger than other areas of the world, and the number of international institutions that are headquartered in Europe is higher.

Van der Wusten’s essay provides an interesting history of the congress cities themselves. One of the features of the state system is the need for decentralization: the building blocks are the states themselves, so that political centers have had to play different roles than national capitals.
Places where congresses were held acted for a while as political centers. ... In the 17th and 18th century, congresses could easily take months and sometimes years, but even then their role was meant to be temporary. Under the ‘ancien regime’, the selection of a congress city was a long drawn out process in which several considerations were important: religious services for all creeds possible, well connected from a transportation point of view, diplomatic immunity assured, city and its surroundings should enable private meetings, not too attractive in order not to encourage a prolonged stay of diplomats. ... From the 19th century onwards, there was a pronounced preference for places with high symbolic value (to underline victory, defeat, the damnation of a protagonist, etc.).

For the cities themselves, congresses were important occasions ... city governments made considerable investments to beautify the town hall, the churches, and the theatre, to decorate the town, to improve personal security and public order. ...
Furthermore, the congress city took on a unique role in the geography of Europe, becoming an island within the state system.
... it was prescribed that the location of a congress should be “le Temple de la Paix de la sureté publique.” ... Slowly a series of conventions had developed concerning order within the congress city. As regards to the outside world, these were differently regulated depending on circumstances. When this seemed appropriate, congress cities were on several occasions officially neutralized. A perimeter was then agreed and demarcated by delegates. Armed forces were prohibtied to enter.
In the twenties century, capital cities have served more often as centers of power. However, as these capitals (like Brussels and the Hague) become more permanent, they compete amongst each other and with other capitals for specific types of authority rather: judicial, administrative, executive, etc. Fragmentation is, therefore, necessary so that the sovereignty of the states are not voided.

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