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How do you govern a country with 500 cheeses? 

On Monday, the Inter­na­tional Club hosted an event to discuss how European nations can maintain their dis­tinct lan­guages and cul­tures, without dis­turbing the current balance of power. 

The speakers, Marie-Claire Morellec, chair and pro­fessor of French, and Assistant Pro­fessor of Spanish Todd Mack, dis­cussed current events in European pol­itics, and much of the history that led to them. 

Immi­gration in Europe

Morellec, a native of Brittany in west France, explained that the for­mation of the European Union after World War II was a good idea because it encouraged Europe to rebuild after three destructive wars — the Franco-Prussian war and the two world wars. However, she added that many com­pli­ca­tions came with the cre­ation of the union, most sig­nif­i­cantly the vastly dis­parate cul­tures, lan­guages, and his­tories the union would have to rep­resent. 

“How, when you belong to such a large entity, do you retain your inde­pen­dence?” Morellec asked. “How do you manage to have, on the one hand, laws that are French law and then on the other hand European laws? Well, you often com­plain.”

Though the European Union con­sisted of six coun­tries ini­tially, it’s grown to include 27. This expansion caused problems for Europe not just cul­turally but also lin­guis­ti­cally, she explained. 

“There are 23 official lan­guages in Europe,” Morellec said. “That means 23 dif­ferent his­tories. That means 23 dif­ferent cul­tures. That means 23 dif­ferent ways of looking at life, in some cases. We have things in common, but still, that is the com­plexity of the European Union. It’s a grand idea, but it’s very com­pli­cated.”

Morellec explained that even within France, there are many dif­ferent ways of doing things — such as making cheese.

“There are about 500 cheeses in France,” she said. “How do you govern a country where there are 500 cheeses? That’s not even talking about the wine that goes with the cheese. It’s dif­ficult. That incredible diversity and that incredible identity — when it’s chal­lenged by the European laws and rules, and it’s starting to totally dis­regard who you are or how you do things, like making cheese, that is a problem.”

But Morellec said there are bigger problems at hand than whether or not Europe can tell France to make Camembert with pas­teurized milk instead of raw.

“There is a big issue with Europe right now, and it’s not milk; it’s immi­gration,” Morellec said. “Obvi­ously, we can well under­stand that, because of the events in the Middle East that have been going on a long time. And we have a lot of refugees and immi­grants that come from that area, but also from Africa. It’s not easy, because you don’t want people to be dying in the sea on some raft; you want to make sure these things don’t happen. But how do you manage that? It’s an incredibly large problem.”

She explained that in the past, waves of immi­gration were easier to handle because they came to France from other parts of Europe. The Alge­rians who came over in the 1960s spoke French, too, so the cul­tural dif­fer­ences were not huge. 

“When you have people from Syria — poor people, I have to say, they don’t speak a word of French — they have to learn every­thing,” Morellec said. “That is a very dif­ferent kind of sit­u­ation.” 

Rev­o­lution in Cat­alonia

Mack, who did his Masters’ in Spanish lit­er­ature and lin­guistics and has spent time in Cat­alonia, walked stu­dents and pro­fessors through the long history of Spain’s civil wars.

He explained how the current con­flict on the Iberia Peninsula began before Fer­dinand and Isabella, and really developed when the two regions of Castile (present-day Madrid) and Aragon (present-day Cat­alonia) fought over who would succeed the Hapsburg family.

“The Catalans backed one guy and Castil­lians backed a guy from France, Felipe V of Anjou,” Mack said. “Felipe wins, and he is not happy with the Catalans. He estab­lishes really strict laws against them. So the Catalans will say ‘Since 1714, we have been dis­re­spected by the king of Spain.’ And it’s hard to say they’re not right.”

This con­flict esca­lated after the Cat­alo­nians tried for freedom again in 2006, and elected a pres­ident who promised to pass a law allowing the Cat­alo­nians to vote for their inde­pen­dence. Spain’s current con­sti­tution says the country is indi­s­olveable; when the law passed, it was repealed four years later. In 2017, however, Cat­alo­nians voted, and 90% of voters chose inde­pen­dence. 

“Now, leaders are in a pickle,” Mack said. “They have said they will do what the election says, and the election said ‘inde­pen­dence.’ The Spanish gov­ernment revoked the Catalans’ autonomy, called dif­ferent elec­tions, and arrested a bunch of the leaders of this rebellion against the Spanish state in 2017. In October of this year, the Supreme Court sen­tenced against these leaders of the rebellion, and the most important leaders got up to 13 years in prison.”

If Cat­alonia suc­cess­fully earns inde­pen­dence, it could upset the sta­bility of Europe as other small coun­tries see them as an example, Mack explained.

“You’re willing to turn the world upside down — that’s what people said about the American Rev­o­lution,” he said. “An inde­pendent Cat­alonia that somehow is able to break away from Spain would turn Europe; it would be a big deal.”

Pres­ident of the Inter­na­tional Club junior Nico DeEn­rique said the event went really well, and he was espe­cially touched by Mack’s pre­sen­tation, as a native of Spain.

“I have my own interests in Europe because the Cat­alonia-Spain con­tro­versy is in front of me, being from Spain,” DeEn­rique said. “So I know what it’s like. There’s this cul­tural identity problem. And having Dr. Morellec explain that from a broad per­spective and then Dr. Mack being more spe­cific and talking about history and how that influ­ences the economy and the political sit­u­ation of the country — it was very cool.”