Nationalism is no longer what it used to be. Modern separatists are showing that new political communities can be built upon other principles than ethnicity.
A curious fact about some of the most prominent secession movements in Western Europe today is how open they are towards the world around them. When Catalans by the millions demonstrate for independence, their goal is not isolation. When Scottish people voice their separatist claims through the legislative system, they are not working towards seclusion. These protesters oppose the nation-states they are part of, but embrace their European identity – and the European Union.
This is a profound testament to the strength of European integration: not simply the integration of markets, legislation, or political power, but the much more fundamental integration of mindsets.
The EU would do well to acknowledge and act upon these dynamics, instead of continuing to dismiss them in much the same way the Commission has been doing so far.
This article will not discuss the legal matters surrounding EU membership for any potentially new separatist states. These are already the topic of a lengthy discussion elsewhere. Neither will it discuss the likelihood of success of any of these movements' aspirations to independence. Instead, the core point of the article is the spirit of integrational separatism (or separational integrationism), and how this new political trend combining nationalist demands with a strong emphasis on EU membership can prove to be advantageous for Europe as a whole.
The leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Alex Salmond, recently stated that an independent Scotland could have a stronger voice in the EU. Promoting the EU has been considered a fundamental component of the Scottish campaign for independence. The SNP is seeking independence for Scotland partly to get closer to the EU, which other types of nationalists might perhaps consider ironic.
In Catalonia, polls show that the support for independence plummets in case the separation from Spain entails seceding from the EU.
In the end, Catalonia is not Spain; Scotland is not England; but everyone wants to be European.
The European Commission, however, has responded dismissively to the separatists’ embrace of Europe – especially Catalonia's case. Joaquín Almunia, the Commission’s Vice-President, stated that "If one part of a territory of a member state decides to separate, the separated part isn't a member of the European Union." He further added that his colleagues in the EU are not happy about the secession movement in Catalonia, and that they are “looking for ways to straighten this out”.
That a growing European identity, spreading even to separatists, is met with such an attitude is unfortunate. Here are the reasons why it should be reverted.
The virtues of a new nationalism
Just a few decades ago, integrational separatism would have been unlikely, at best. Traditionally, nationalist movements are simply about a certain group of people wanting to separate themselves from another group that they have been a part of. Or, as George Orwell put it, nationalism is "the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests".
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) is a classic, contemporary example. Front National in France is another. Currently, they are both gaining political leverage. Withdrawal from "the scary world out there" is an essential ingredient in their discourses, usually brought about as a reaction to uncertain times – for instance a financial crisis in the Eurozone. As a political community of "people like you", a nation-state is thus perceived as a safe haven. This kind of nationalism may often escalate and become both sectarian and dangerous.
The nationalism in Catalonia and Scotland, however, show only little resemblance to this tradition. These separatist movements are not only concerned with ethnic self-rule, but also with political reforms and European integration. And even though their independence would obviously lead to the creation of two new nation-states, this added spirit of integration should act as a safeguard against sectarianism. Instead of only "identifying oneself with a single nation", they may be acting as pioneers of a new, more open-minded nationalism.
Regardless of whether or not these independence movements succeed, their integrational spirit should, therefore, be supported.
Political, not ethnic, communities
With such separatist claims within the EU, there is a potential to slowly shift the structures of power, so that decision-making becomes increasingly separated from ethnicity: moving it up to a European level, and down to a local level.
‘European’ as a marker of identity for individuals and groups has, for all intents and purposes, grown unprecedentedly strong during the last decades. We are here, of course, met with the danger of falling into Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s trap, in wanting to abolish the European nation-states by creating an even larger, single European nation-state. But we also have the opportunity – regardless of the Eurozone’s future economic perspectives and success – to build political communities along certain lines other than the traditional ethnic reasoning behind the nation-state: political communities built upon political principles.
This opportunity should be embraced.
And it is here that the cases of Catalonia and Scotland become so interesting - providing a contrasting to movements such as the UKIP and Front National.
The final outcome of these separatist campaigns is still uncertain, but that they need to be "straightened out" is hardly the case. Hopefully, the European Commission will come to see what a sign of strength it is for Europe that its separatists are also integrationists.
ORWELL, George (1945) “Notes on Nationalism”, in Polemic. no.1, October
ROUSSEAU, Jean-Jacques (1756) “A Project for a Perpetual Peace”
Edited by: Margarida Hourmat
Photo credits: Núria via Wikimedia Commons & Thomas Widmann via Flickr