There are two forces going on in human nature, the desire to unify and the desire to separate. The reason that we have nation states at all is because people have felt the need to unify with others who are similar to them. In antiquity each small village had its own ruler, its own customs and often its own variety of language. Historical progress across the world has involved the process of people uniting to form nation states. These are the building blocks of international relations and without them there would be chaos.
The process of separation has occurred when nation states have overreached themselves and tried to include people who are too dissimilar. There is an ebb and flow throughout history. The Austro-Hungarian Empire broke up into its constituent parts, but the United States was able to unify much of the North American continent into a single nation state, made up of many states.
In recent decades we have on the one hand seen the European Union attempt to gradually form a nation state out of its parts, while on the other there has been a marked increase in nation states breaking up since the fall of the Soviet Union. While Germany provides a recent example of unification there are many more examples of separation.
But where is the optimum? At what point do we say this nation state is stable? It neither needs to separate nor to unify. One problem is that modern European nationalist movements want to do something that is inherently contradictory. They wish both to unify and to separate.
Scottish nationalists think that it makes sense for Scotland to separate from the United Kingdom, but to remain a part of a European Union that has the aim of becoming a United States of Europe. But the problem is this. If Scots cannot make a success of being part of a nation state called the UK, how on earth are we to make a success of being part of an eventual nation state called the EU?
The same obviously goes for Catalonia. If Catalans cannot bear to live in a nation state (Spain) with people who are similar to them, how will they be able to bear to live in a nation state (the EU) with people who are dissimilar? If Spain, which has been a nation state for centuries cannot hold itself together we can have no long term expectation that the EU itself will remain intact.
I think this is why the EU has responded to the crisis in Spain in the way that it has. Secession has become all too frequent in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union, but if this spreads westwards then the EU is bound to find itself going in the opposite direction to the one in which it intends.
Moreover, if the aim is to have a federal EU what does it matter if a border happens to be here or there? If the aim is to be borderless why be so bothered about so called independence at all. A state in the eventual United States of Europe would be no more independent than Kansas or California. It won’t matter under these circumstances what is or is not called a state or where a supposed boundary is drawn.
In this sense the struggle that is taking place in Catalonia looks like it is about nothing at all. Both Spain and Catalonia want to be part of the EU. But then they are struggling over the boundaries of a nation state while at the same time both intending to give up this nation state.
The problem is that many people have contradictory ideas about the EU. They think somehow that it will be possible to remain a nation state while taking part in the process of EU unification. But this is a form of self-deception. The nation state called East Germany ceased to exist when it joined with West Germany. At an earlier point in history independent nation states like Saxony and Prussia eventually ceased to exist and simply became regions of Germany. For a hypothetical Bavaria to struggle to be independent from Prussia while both seek to join together to form Germany involves muddled thinking. It is a fight about nothing at all, a completely senseless struggle.
The problem is that for the moment it is just about possible to maintain the illusion that a nation state can remain independent and sovereign while being a part of the EU. It is this above all that fuels sub-nation nationalism. The Holy Grail of European nationalist movements is to argue that life will go on more or less the same, but we will be independent. We might even get a bit more because we won’t have to share our wealth with those English, or those Spaniards.
If there were indeed a United States of Europe, they would in one sense be right. It barely matters at all today that West Virginia split from Virginia in 1861, because each is now part of a larger nation state and neither is independent. Borders are not noticed. But being part of a nation state also means that we share and share alike, so this whole concept of what is mine and what is yours ceases. It’s not oor oil, because it belongs equally to all citizens of our nation state. But then as soon as the EU treats all its citizens as having an equal claim to the wealth of the whole, then the concept of independence (this is ours rather than yours) ceases. Not noticing borders in the end involves not having independence.
There are two ways to end the dreams of sub-nation nationalism. One is to leave the EU. People in England (e.g. Philip Hammond) with very little real experience of nationalism and only a distant understanding of what went on in Scotland should cease trying to be clever about the EU. It’s not clever. It’s thick. Get us out and get us out quickly. It is this and this alone that will hold the UK together. As I argued long before the EU referendum, the UK’s leaving the EU means that the SNP can no longer argue that life would go on much the same after independence. It turns independence into a radical step, that only a minority of Scots wish to make. It is for this reason that we will not face scenes in Edinburgh like we saw in Barcelona.
Spain could leave the EU. That would stop Catalan nationalism very quickly. But this won’t happen and perhaps can’t happen because of Spain’s membership of the Euro. The second option then is to make it clear that if Catalonia somehow obtains independence it will be outside the EU and outside the Eurozone. It will cease to be part of Spain’s internal market and it will cease to be part of the European Union’s Single Market. It is hard to imagine that this will benefit Catalonia economically. The issue of how much it does or does not share with Spain will hardly then arise.
The danger however is that this would involve a Greek style ejection from the Euro and a shock to the European economy that none of us would like to go through. These things tend to be contagious. This might encourage the Catalans into thinking that the EU wouldn’t dare expel them. Perhaps they are right, but it is a very dangerous game to play. Careful what you wish for dear Nats. A Catalan let alone a Spanish default might affect your savings too.
Scottish nationalists may hope that an independent Catalonia or indeed an independent Kurdistan might help them towards their dream. On the other hand scenes of violence or even war may remind everyone once again that nationalism is always a very dangerous political card to play and therefore is best put back in the deck. I suspect though that most Scots who are not already obsessed are not paying much attention. This will continue unless things get much worse. Nationalism begets nationalism and no doubt it is in part because of Typhoid Nicola that Scottish flu has spread to Spain. Get well soon Spain. But remember the best way to do this is to relax and be patient. Let the fever subside. With tender care it will. Don’t go bashing people’s heads in. It isn’t the most likely way to persuade them to remain a part of your country. Enforce the law by all means, but far better to simply take law breakers to court and fine them a few Euros, than to do anything more horrible than that.
Above all the EU should now explain to nationalists that if they want to be part of the EU then they will not have any independence. The EU has tried to achieve European unity in such a way that no-one will notice and with the illusion that everything will somehow remain as it was. But this fiction of maintaining independent nation states within a united European nation state is now fuelling nationalism. It is time to be honest, open and direct about where the EU is heading. It is abolishing Spain as an independent nation state and unifying it with all the other European nation states. This means that to fight for Catalan independence only to later abolish it is senseless. It is not worth one truncheon, hitting one head. It is time therefore for both the Spanish and the Catalans to realise that, given they both wish to be part of the EU, they have in fact no dispute at all and that they are in fact fighting over nothing.
This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: http://effiedeans.blogspot.com/2017/10/a-senseless-struggle-about-nothing.html