The Blue Banana

In the beginning, there was the blue banana. First glimpsed by cosmonauts, then photographed by satellites, it's a curve of light across the night-shadowed Old World that stretches from Manchester, England, down through the Rhineland to Milan and the industrial heartland of northern Italy.

This is the economic spine of Europe, limned from space like a blue-glowing X-ray, a megalopolis seven centuries in the making. Here is the greatest concentration of big cities on the globe, the greatest production capacity per square kilometer, the densest commercial traffic. French journalists dubbed it "la banane bleu" in 1989, the uber-region around which an emerging Europe has taken shape. Its first expression was the European Coal and Steel Community. Then there was the European Union. Now comes the Big Bang, the culmination of all that's germinated from the region. This week in Copenhagen, presidents, chancellors and prime ministers will expand their union eastward, adding 10 new members to the present 15 and creating a colossus of 370 million people and a $9.2 trillion economy, rivaling the United States.

It is a remarkable feat. But behind this story lies another, no less dynamic, even if less visible. That's the rise of Europe's regions. Even as the European Union redraws its map, parts of Europe are charting their own path toward union--not in large or in lock step with all others, but in bits and bites among themselves. The sheer expanse of today's borderless Europe is indeed breathtaking and, for some, intimidating. From Aran, Ireland, to Transylvania, from the isle of Aphrodite to the land of Lapps, trade and travel will open to an extent not seen since the age of empires. Yet within the firmament of union, rich local cultures (Basque and Magyar, Catalan and Tyrolean) will re-emerge and flourish. Old frontiers will give way to more historic ties--and new ones. Europe's map is a jigsaw puzzle, slowly put together by many players. While some construct its broad borders, as at Copenhagen, others will fit together smaller pieces from the inside. Thus will the New Europe be built.

We've heard such talk before, of course. The idea of a "Europe of regions" became fashionable a decade ago. Power was "devolving" upward to Brussels, it was said, and down to the regions--some openly flaunting links to countries other than their own. "The nation-state is dead," more than one minister misguidedly declared, speculating that Europe's regions would one day supersede its nation-states. Time has proved them wrong--but not entirely. Not only are Europe's regions still rising, they will, in fact, gain more clout with enlargement. The reason is simple and eminently human: the bigger Europe becomes, and the fewer the barriers among people, the more neighboring towns and regions will come together to solve common problems and promote mutual interests that escape Brussels's attention. They will not challenge the old capitals for political and administration clout, as once thought. But they will be bound by ever-closer economic and cultural ties.

A cursory scan of the Continent offers ample evidence. Look how the old Hanseatic League is reknitting the Baltic. Estonia and Latvia are fast going Scandinavian; Tallinn these days seems almost a commercial suburb of Helsinki. Look at the strip of Mediterranean coast from Barcelona through the Cote d'Azur and parts of northern Italy. Sometimes called the Latin Arc, sometimes Europe's sun belt, it has drawn brains and capital from the north to build a swath of high-tech industry. The Danube, still suffering the after- effects of the Balkan wars, has enormous potential. In the Alps and along the Adriatic shore (Alpen Adria, as it's called) provinces of the old Austrian Empire work together to promote environmental and transport cooperation. There are even regions within regions, as clusters of cities like Lyons, Grenoble and Turin exploit opportunities for trade and research. Along the Cote Basque, local promoters dream--quite realistically--of a united metropolis stretching from Bayonne in France to San Sebastian in Spain. These are just a small sample. The Assembly of European Regions counts 250 members, plus nine interregional organizations. Another, the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions, counts 150, many beyond the borders of the Big Bang.

One of the most ambitious regions taking shape is the Atlantic Arc, running from southern Ireland and England, along the coast of western France to northern Spain and Portugal. There are major ports here, and also rocky lands with tough, independent-minded populations traditionally made up of seafarers and hardscrabble farmers. It boasts a distinctly Celtic chic. Musicians from Galway to Galicia show up for an annual music festival in Lorient, Brittany, drawing hundreds of thousands of spectators.

Yet in political terms the region is a very recent construct. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, people on the Atlantic realized there would be a shift in European attention--and funding--to support the fledgling democracies of the old Soviet bloc. Local governments up and down the coast knew what their needs were: better infrastructure, better tourist facilities, better education and especially better environmental protection. But they didn't have the organization or the money to address them, and they had every reason to worry they'd be forgotten on the western rim of Europe while all the capitals looked east. So two French regional presidents initiated the Arc project in 1989 and Jean-Pierre Raffarin, now the prime minister of France, ran with it as Commission president from 1994 to 1998.

Raffarin was especially effective in Brussels, where he won recognition for the arc from the European Commission's Interreg initiative, which helps determine funding for development in certain areas. At the time, Raffarin headed the internal French region of Poitou-Charentes, with one of the smallest budgets in the country. But he knew that in an alliance with other provinces on the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel and the Celtic Sea, he'd be able to coax more money for all of them out of Brussels. "He doubled the subsidies from Europe to this region," says his biographer, Thierry Mantoux.

This club of five nations is still scraping for money and attention, still forging an identity from among some of the most independent-minded people in Europe: Irish, Cornish, Breton, Gascon, Basque, Galician and more. But when a crisis looms, like the disastrous oil spill last month from the supertanker Prestige, the regional members are quick to mobilize. In a furious communique after the Prestige sinking, the Atlantic Arc Commission denounced the failures of Brussels and the national governments to deal with the threat of rusting hulks carrying millions of gallons of crude near the windswept shores of Europe. "All the European maritime regions are under threat and could at any time suffer an ecological disaster accompanied by economic consequences that could be fatal for them," declared the Commission's communique. Two years ago at a conference in Brest, the Commission outlined a program, ignored by Brussels, to protect the coast. Since the Atlantic Arc is "in the front line in having to deal with the consequences of such disasters," it said in its latest declaration, the region ought to have a strong say in national and European policies affecting the region. In fact, it will insist.

Increasingly, the story of Europe's regions is of rich ones, like the blue banana and the sun belt, versus poorer ones such as the Atlantic arc, scrabbling for attention. Provinces that make up the wealthy regions, whether German Lnder or a Generalitat, are often none too tactful in distancing themselves from the less fortunate--and the taxes paid to support them. Jordi Pujol of Catalonia, who styles himself the leader of the sun belt, talks about people from Madrid or Seville as tourists and "immigrants" coming to visit his Barcelona-based fiefdom. At the other end of that Mediterranean arc, where it crosses the banana in prosperous northern Italy, Lombard politicians such as Umberto Bossi find it hard to mention impoverished Sicily without talking about secession for their own region. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Lombardy would be the most successful country in Europe--if it were a country. Southern Italy, if separate, would have a lower GDP than Greece.

In Eastern Europe, about to experience the shock of the Big Bang, regionalism poses special risks. The borderless New Europe looks much like, well, the really old Europe, forged by religion and blood. The arbitrary dismemberment of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire after the first world war created a constellation of conflicts that percolate to this day. Example: the Magyar nation, divided by the Treaty of Trianon among the new rump Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania, which got the Magyar heartland of Transylvania. The Transylvanians' enthusiastic adoption of Hungarian "ethnic'' passports issued by Budapest and allowing easier travel to Hungary last year shows how fragile Romanian identity remains.

Yet regional groupings can take shape without threatening these national sensitivities. Along the Danube, for instance, there's a growing mood of common purpose. Stretching through 10 countries from Germany to Romania, the Danube was used to transport 92 million tons of goods in 1987. With the Balkan wars, that dropped to 20 million tons, partly because alliance bombing dropped three bridges at the Serb city of Novi Sad in 1999. A pontoon bridge at Novi Sad continues to block traffic, except for three nights a week when it is opened up. "The lower Danube countries lose more in trade every day than they receive in aid,'' says Roland Bless, spokesman for the EU-initiated Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe. One of the pact's achievements in recent months has been forging bilateral free-trade agreements between seven Danube countries, in anticipation that the river will soon be cleared again. "This is the fastest free-trade area that's ever been created,'' says Bless.

Further south, the Greeks hope to fashion a vibrant southeastern Mediterranean region, folding in the Balkan Peninsula--Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania--as well as Cyprus. Partly for that reason, Greece is supporting Turkey's bid for EU membership, as a decision approaches this week on giving Ankara a start date for accession talks. Yet along with Muslim Bosnia and Albania, not to mention the nonstate of Kosovo, Turkey may have to wait many years. In the meantime a Muslim region could take shape in Europe: a collection of outcasts.

This is the real map of United Europe. Rather than a clear geography of nations, neatly demarcated, it is a mass of acetate overlays, with regions on top of states on top of regions. Peel them back, and you also discover that their identity is often based as much on what they're not as on what they are. As with the Muslim outcasts, for example, the ultimate challenge is to bring "Europe" to the forgotten lands (within or without its formal perimeter) it has not yet reached. This week's debate over Turkey will be an important test: is Europe a geography--or an ideal that can transcend mere borders?

With Tracy McNicoll in Paris, Owen Matthews in Istanbul, Stefan Theil in Berlin; Katka Krosnar in Prague, Toula Vlahou in Athens, William Underhill in London and Barbie Nadeau in Rome