A Problem of European Identity? Separatist Movements in the EU

Scotland and Catalonia represent two important separatist challenges to their respective nation-states, yet they are also both generally pro-European. How does this apparent contradiction work? By Teona Srmava

A view of Barcelona: Catalonia can claim a distinct national identity from that of Spain

A view of Barcelona: Catalonia can claim a distinct national identity from that of Spain

Throughout Europe there are various regions asking for secession from the larger country to which they are tied. 2014 is an important year for the people of Catalonia and Scotland. A referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country will take place on 18th September. In November 2012, parliamentary elections were held in Catalonia, where political parties in favour of separation held 60 per cent of votes. An unprecedented number of voters on the election was seen as a step towards the independence of Catalonia. In October 2012, almost 1.5 million people took part in a peace march in Catalonia with the motto “Catalonia – the next independent state in Europe”. Politicians in Catalonia demand the right to hold a referendum on independence from Spain. On 11th September last year, hundreds of thousands of Catalans held hands in a 400km human chain across their region to press the Spanish government to let them vote on breaking away and form their own country. Separatist parties in Catalonia set 9th November this year as the date for a proposed independence referendum.

Why are these regional movements demanding secession and gaining strength? Among Spanish regions, Catalonia is leader in global competitiveness and yet is damaged because of its inclusion in the Spanish state. The fiscal plunder that the Spanish government imposes on Catalonia has risen to 10% of its GDP, amounting to €20 billion extracted in various taxes every year and never returned as investments or social services. The main concern regarding the economy is that economic crisis has exacerbated local resentment over the fact that Catalonia transfers an estimated 8% to 9% of the region’s GDP to poorer regions of Spain.  People of Catalonia tried to solve this problem through a new Statute of Autonomy, but this has failed to solve any real problems.

Regarding social and political forces, one should mention the increasing antagonism between Catalonia and Spain, suggested by a 2009 poll taken by the newspaper El Mundo asking readers if they felt hatred against the Catalans. The result was that 56% said yes. One of the key factors driving Catalans to ask for secession is a claim of cultural uniqueness. Support for Catalan independence is based on the thesis, going back to the 19th Century, that Catalonia is a nation having its distinctive language, culture, traditions and history.

In case of Scotland, many Scots argue that they would be better off as an independent state because of the region’s access to North Sea oil. Currently, about 90% of all British fossil-fuel extraction takes place in or around Scotland. Alex Salmond, the Scottish First Minister and a leading separatist, once told Scottish voters that North Sea fossil fuels could provide £300,000 of wealth for every citizen of Scotland. Besides economics, Scotland also has a distinctive cultural tradition within the United Kingdom. As Rabbi Siegel points out, “Language is not an issue” in Scottish nationalism, adding that Scottish nationalism is not an attempt at anti-English nationalism but a positive nationalism. This is exemplified in the fact that Scottish nationalists claim they want to keep the British pound sterling, but want greater fiscal autonomy.

In Spain, the national government’s refusal to acknowledge Catalonia’s right to hold a referendum has exacerbated tensions between Madrid and Barcelona and strengthened the popularity of the separatists. In Scotland, the British government of David Cameron has granted the Scottish Parliament the right to hold a legal referendum on independence. But according to the latest events, seven months before Scots vote on whether to break up the three-century-old union, Mr Cameron has delivered an impassioned call to keep the United Kingdom together. He argued on political, economic and military grounds that Scotland is better off as a part of Great Britain, choosing the 2012 Summer Olympic sentiment for his major intervention in the Scottish referendum campaign in order to appeal to the national pride that surrounded the successful Games in London. He focused on the importance of the “powerful” United Kingdom brand and its importance for whole world. As Mr Cameron stated “Scottish independence would rip the rug from under our own reputation as [we] matter more in the world together”. Polls suggest that most Scots agree that they should remain a part of Great Britain. However, opinions remain fluid and, as surveys demonstrate, those favouring independence are gaining ground as the debate heats up.

The desire of stateless nations and sub-state regions to fully control their own affairs is an observable phenomenon in Europe. Moreover, the attempts by the EU to increase the degree of identification with Europe among the population have generated controversy among academics. Some scholars have argued that to create the type of identification in Europe that characterizes the nation-state are ideologically questionable. Some stress the idea that regional and national identities set obstacles to the development of a European identity and of support for some kind of ‘federal’ Europe.

As it is logically possible to identify strongly with Europe but not see a need to support European Union as an institution and vice versa, one can easily support European political integration without having strong ties with Europe. The cases of Scotland and Catalonia illustrate this phenomenon of multiple identities. What is interesting in this regard is how this process of shaping supra-national identity can accommodate sub-state identities. Can the exclusive forms of self-identification exist in a positive relationship with a common European identity? Any answer can only be speculative without proper study of individual cases.

I would claim, however, that the supra-nationalism provided by the European Union can also reinforce sub-state identities. The process of bottom-up Europeanization and top-down decentralization created a type of European cosmopolitan-localism which aims to develop a sense of belonging to local communities as well to the European context. European cosmopolitan-localism is well-equipped for stateless nations (Catalonia, Scotland) to pursue their own innovations and be more integrated into European family.

In general, one can argue that multiple identities are contextually more negotiable. Many important factors should be taken into consideration while speaking about multiple identities, such as further analysis of possible disengagement from one territorial unity. But at this level of analysis one can easily distinguish Scottish identity from British. In the mid-1980s, a survey was carried out concerning dual identity and self-identification by the Scots, the so-called ‘Moreno question’. The main purpose of the survey was to find empirical evidence for the claims to legitimize the setting-up of democratic political institutions in Scotland. In Spain, the sub-state communities with high degree of autonomy and priority to cultural, educational, linguistic and media policies were established during the 1980s. In case of the UK, similar units were created in the late-1990s.

As it has been widely argued that English/British identities can be conceptualized in opposition to the European Union, in Scotland the positive attitude to the process of Europeanization can be marked in contrast to the “south of the border”. Scotland and Catalonia share a somewhat similar configuration as presenting peripheral nationalism with similar aspirations for home rule. However, Scotland and Catalonia have not followed analogous processes regarding achieving the forms of self-government. In case of Spain, public discourse in the second half of the 20th Century has shaped positive image of Europe and European integration. Spain’s membership of the EU was perceived as positive development and not impinging on Spanish national and different regional identities.

In a nutshell, the process of decentralization of powers preserves multiple identities. The rule of meso-governments in Britain and Spain actively support and promote their production and culture but at the same time they have done so with the view of promoting their local interests with an active participation in the international context. Regardless the silence of the EU treaties on the possibility for subnational member-states becoming individual members, treaties foresee a procedure to join or even withdraw from the Union. If a region’s independence has been acquired on the basis of a constitutional and democratic process in line with the values of the EU in Article 2 of the Treaty of European Union, the new country may become an EU member.

It is true that it would not be in the interest of the existing member-states to keep a new independent state outside of the EU. However, as Merijn Chamon and Guillaume Van der Loo, PhD researchers from the University of Ghent, argue from a pragmatic perspective, there is a clear desire to prevent a potential balkanization of the EU. As a result, while some pragmatic reasons exist to grant immediate EU member-state status to such regions, the overall picture is not very positive for the European Union, meaning that while the Union would contract if a region left the it, it would also not necessarily enlarge at the same point if that region became a member-state. Instead the EU could simply fragment.

Image: “Barcleona” courtesy to G D via flickr, released under Creative Commons.

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