Foreign Affairs

Nationalism and Secessionism in Spain, Italy, and Beyond

By February 13, 2018 No Comments

By Marion Hastings


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Since its first steps in the 1950’s onwards, what we nowadays know as the European Union has appeared as one of the greatest economic, political, social and cultural achievements of the second half of the 20th century. Its establishment, extension and strengthening have followed intertwining trends of enlargement and deepening. But today, both of these trends seem to have hit a wall. As of today, two types of movements appear to be more important than ever before in the—all relative—long history of the European construction: nationalism and secessionism.


Brexit set a unique precedent in the European Union’s history, as never before had a country left the Union, though the choice between a hard or a soft Brexit is yet to be made. And the sooner the better, for postponing such a decision feeds and empowers those who advocated for Brexit in the first place, be they public figures, political parties or mere marginal movements. The size of their audience matters little compared to the actual content of their speech, as long as their arguments are embedded in populist, nationalist, and secessionist rhetoric. Such strong rhetoric is the common denominator of all separatist claims, be they turned against Europe, as it was in the case of Britain, or against a central government, as it is the case in Spain and Italy. Claims of independence and requests for more autonomy are some of the greatest challenges faced today by some European countries, and to an extended scale, by the European Union.


Why such a drive now for territorial reforms across Europe?

Situational factors: at the crossroad of economic instability and general uncertainty


A number of “push” factors, driving territorial claims and secessionism in Europe, can be defined as situational factors. The very first of these factors is economic. Indeed, since 2008 onwards, the economic crisis in Europe has hit countries like Spain or Italy very hard. This crisis, and its immediate consequences on the economic performances of these countries, only contributed to further disempower their national markets. But it has also fed the criticism arguing that national central governments have become too weak, losing all economic sovereignty to Europe, one more time used as a mere scapegoat for all the society’s ills. Add to this economic turmoil a migrant crisis, which came to assume sizeable proportions, and you get the perfect—or the worst, shall I say—recipe for both a security and an identity crisis, further fuelling the fears nationalist and separatists usually build upon.


Also, an institutional fatigue has somehow taken hold among and within European countries, due to the failures of policies aiming at change. Too many calls for deep change, and too little done or achieved so far. Besides the failures, which could—optimistically—be seen as unfortunate outcomes of attempts to make things change, lies another problem: a strong weariness for cosmetic measures, merely able to fool anyone any longer, starting with nationalist and separatist. In particular, the latest period of mobilisation has been motivated by the failures of previous reforms. In Italy, the tax reform failed because of fragmentation and divisions within the governmental coalition, Alleanza Nazionale. In Catalonia, the 2006 reform supposed to grant more autonomy to the comunidad autónoma was implemented, but in 2010 the substance of the reform was diluted by the Spanish Constitutional Court which eliminated some of the more important symbolic elements. The statute eventually approved by the central government consequently differed from the original statute asked by Catalonia. All of this reveals the multi-level political dynamics, torn between conflicting interests. This is especially true in Spain, which features many coalition forces, where a buildup of the nationalist coalition is happening. This nationalist coalition uses the regional elections as a platform to project its claims. They denounce the fact that it has all become about politics and not about the people’s needs anymore, pointing out one too many deceiving—and unfruitful—alliances, sometimes only aiming at maintaining one in power, or at helping another to keep a seat or a majority. The bottom line is that they have developed a longing for re-establishing a bottom-up system of decision-making, in opposition to the current elite-based one. And the best solution they have to offer, and that has subsequently come to impose itself—if not to a majority then at least to a receptive audience—is separatism.


Finally, a more political factor can explain separatist claims: partisanship. The drivers of the territorial cleavages across Europe are due to the strengthening of political partisanship, with more and more political entrepreneurs, be they political parties or just movements/individuals, adopting a discourse which intertwines ethnic and political rhetoric. Also, a shift has occurred: in the past, there was an internal enemy, that is the state; now, there is an external enemy, that are the migrants from abroad. And this shift feeds and empowers those political entrepreneurs clamoring for territorial reforms. This is especially true in Italy or in Spain, as they are in direct touch with the migrant crisis issue, both being Mediterranean countries. If we take the example of Italy, the territory is not a mere subnational territory anymore, it is the nation itself. And as a nation per se, it needs to be defended. This idea, defended by most nationalist parties, that the territory is the whole country, highly conditions immigration-related policies.


Structural factors: when generational replacement means a new set of standards and references

But, there are also some more structural factors that explain the wave of territorial claims across Europe. First, a phenomenon has occurred within European societies: a generational replacement. Often underestimated by political scientists or polls, this generational replacement has brought about new circumstances that are to be taken into account today. Brexit stands as a striking example. A generational replacement not only means a new generation of voters, but also a new way of thinking, shaped by the context in which this new generation has always lived. For instance, in Spain, the new generation has never lived under Franco’s dictatorship; they fear not the contingency of a military coup. This change, of fears and standards, highly influences the political behaviour of the new generation: for them, secessionism might not weaken the country and open the door for a new dictatorship—or at least not to the same extent the former generation thought it would. Also, behind the generational replacement stands the idea that the current ruling class is too old, made of technocrats little or not at all in touch with the needs and demands of the new generation.


Another structural factor is globalization. Globalization tends to lower the cost of secession: the increased interconnectedness of the world will help the newly independent state/entity to get integrated, as the flow of capital for instance will keep reaching out to new independent political entities. Catalan separatists share the belief that, if Catalonia is indeed to be independent, the new country will still attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). And this belief is particularly shared by the new generation, which has always lived in a globalized world. But this generation is also more aware of the limits of globalization. Therefore, knowing that globalization will make secession economically sustainable, they want to bring back some balance to make up for the deficiencies of globalisation, that is a deeper gap between the individuals and the ruling class.


Finally, to a smaller extent, the devolution process, implemented in some countries over the past decades, can be seen as a structural push factor for secessionist aspirations. Indeed, the devolution process has led to a more bureaucratised and layered political structure, establishing more distance between individuals and the state. This has created an elite-based society, stepping more and more away from the democratic values those states claim to live up to.


Similarities across these movements: a quest for sovereignty


In 2014, the Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon led the initiative asking for a referendum about a Scottish independence from the United Kingdom. Despite the victory of the “No” with 55.3% of the votes, this referendum somehow paved the way for further separatist claims. On October 1 this year, the Catalan government held a long-promised independence referendum. But the referendum has no legal status after being blocked by Mariano Rajoy’s government and the Constitutional Court for being at odds with the 1978 constitution. As of today, the Catalan president Carlos Puigdemont fled to Brussels and the Catalan parliament has been dissolved. On October 22, two Italian regions, Lombardy and Veneto, voted to “express an opinion” about their “autonomy” from the central government, a referendum strongly supported by the Lega Nord. The “yes” won with more than 90% of voters. Despite the words of the President Roberto Maroni, leader of Lombardy, aiming at distancing the Italian vote from the situation in Spain, we cannot help but see here some sort of a “contagion effect” — a contagion whose virus is named sovereignty.


First, all these secessionist movements share the idea that “we can do better”. They have witnessed one too many failures, and are way past the point of disappointment. Catalonia is one of the wealthiest comunidad autónoma of Spain; Lombardy, which is home to Italy’s financial capital Milan, and Veneto, which enjoys the revenue from tourism in Venice, are two of Italy’s richest northern regions. Both the Catalan government and the Lega Nord advocate the transformation, of Catalonia for Spain and of Lombardy and Veneto for Italy, into federal states, pushing for fiscal federalism and greater regional autonomy. In other words, they are claiming economic sovereignty.


After almost half a century of an ongoing globalization, we can now see its benefits and drawbacks more clearly. An undeniable drawback is that globalization produces winners and losers, at the risk of stating the obvious. And one common objective claimed by all secessionist movements is to re-empower those left behind, re-empower the nation-state, somehow forgotten as the world becomes more interconnected. They somehow want to make up for the unfairness of the ongoing globalization process. And what better than national pride as an empowering tool for dealing with the feeling of being left behind? National pride helps to create a sense of identity and value sharing, gathering the people with strong symbols to which anyone can relate: flags, national days to name only but a few. Catalonia perfectly illustrates this point. This has lead secessionist movements to share a common rhetoric, that of patriotism, national preference, nationalism… and it is public knowledge that discourse shapes emotions, which themselves shape political and voting behaviour. But this kind of rhetoric remains deeply embedded in populism. And populism is a double-edged line to defend, as it brings about the question of sustainability and stability once in power. Indeed, populist parties are still quite marginal on the political spectrum and will need to seek alliances to secure their power, which might lead to very dangerous political gridlocks.


Finally, there is also the question of accountability, as opposed to a more political kind of sovereignty. Separatists, be they in Catalonia or in Northern Italy, all came to reject political accountability on the ground that accountability hampers and jeopardizes their sovereignty. They do not want to be held accountable to their national centralized government anymore, often merely seen as a puppet of the European Union, to which national governments are accountable indeed. Separatists basically claim that this accountability means a loss of sovereignty. In line with denouncing this accountability, separatists are calling for more democracy. As already mentioned before, they want to reform the decision making process, to re-establish a bottom-up process, in the stead of the current elite-based one.


Conclusion: What role for the European Union?


Along with separatist aspirations, all those secessionist movements have clearly taken eurosceptic positions. So, we can legitimately ask about what future to foresee for the European Union, assuming it has one.


In the wake of Brexit, the European Union needs to try to avoid the domino effect, which could further weaken its credibility. But, secessionism and nationalism are real, and the European Union cannot afford to turn a blind eye to them. Are we heading towards Juncker’s Europe of regions, no more made only of nation-states? If this were to become a reality, it would mean more veto players in the European decision making processes. And the veto player theory states that the more veto players there are, the harder the consensus-reaching process is, though the more stable the outcome. But in an already institutionally multi-layered European Union, often facing overlaps of competencies and an overall institutional fatigue, would more veto players be manageable? Based on previous episodes of enlargement, adding a couple of states would not make much of a difference for the EU, as much as it would not quite affect the overall functioning of the central institutions, especially with Catalonia, Veneto or Lombardy being part of the EU for a long time already. There is also the issue of European “conditionality” for membership: would it apply to those new states or would they be de facto members? Many questions and no clear answers…


If secessionism appears as an affordable and sustainable alternative, its consequences are still quite unknown to date. Only faced with secessionism taking shape in the independence of a separatist region  shall we have a better understanding of it. Does it mean we should let it happen, and deal with it afterwards? Are the outcomes really worth the bet? I am not sure it is a desirable way to tackle such an important phenomenon, with such a high level of uncertainty spreading all over Europe. It would only further weaken the already destabilised “political dwarf”. The European Union should have learnt from the teaching of history by now—but yet, here we are.

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