On the 23rd of June 2016 Britain held a referendum on its permanence in the European Union. The result showed that 51.9 per cent of the voters chose to leave the EU, after 43 years of membership. More recently, on November 9th 2017, the regional government of Catalonia held a similar secessionist referendum from the Spanish state. In both cases, there were many factors which determined the referendum, like the economy and politics, but among all, nationalism was probably the major one.
In each of these cases, it was the desire of some people to belong to a specific and distinctive nationhood — not Spanish or European but Catalan and British — which prompted the call for change. Twenty or thirty years ago this was inconceivable. However, deep global changes have brought nationalism to Europe once again since the end of the Second World War. We can divide European nationalism in two different types. One concerns the EU, whereas the other is within the nation-state itself.
In the first case, it is important to understand the evolution undertaken in the last twenty years by the European Union, from a simple free trade area to an international political project. This transformation has in fact eroded the power and the primacy of the traditional nation-state in Europe. Almost half of the laws are now made in Brussels, instead of Berlin or Paris. As a result, many Europeans (e.g., the Front National in France) would like to reintegrate those powers.
‘Take back control’ was in fact one of the major slogan of the Brexiters.
The second type of nationalism is instead driven by some regions which no longer feel part of the nation-state they belong to. They claim instead to be nations in their own right, and as such, believe to be entitled to their own state. In many countries there is in fact more than one nation. Catalonia in Spain is the best example. But there are many others, like Scotland, Veneto, and Flanders, to cite the most important. All these nations, for different reasons, in the past have merged with others. But now, the basis of those unions is fading. Old national identities are being replaced by new ones. As a result, the borders that we take for granted, can actually change.
Some people though may argue that places like Catalonia are not nations, and thus they should not claim that status. But, what and who defines a country? The answer should be its people, since the creation of a national identity is a subjective process, and not an objective one. Just as the historian Benedict Anderson wrote: nations are ‘imagined communities’.
However, some of these nationalisms are still relatively weak, with most of the people opposing any change to the status quo. On the other hand, in Catalonia and Britain nationalist parties reached a point of no return. If they succeeded in their goals, other regions may wish to follow their example. The European order would then gradually change. The EU may disappear or be downgraded to a solely free trade area, with no political powers. At the same time, some countries might see their borders changed, and their size reduced, with significant geopolitical and social consequences. This is especially so in cases like Catalonia, where separatist parties and central government do not seem to find a common agreement.
It is clear that we are on the edge of big changes. Some of them (Brexit) will probably materialize, while others, like the secessionist movements, are more complex and longer processes. What is important for politicians though, is to understand this and to adapt to them. For example, the EU could change its political structure with different tiers of integration, allowing some countries to integrate further while letting others keep their autonomy. On the other hand, nation-states need to develop a new agreement with their regions, either by giving them more power, or by creating a different political structure that is more flexible and decentralized.
Nonetheless, more secessionist referendums may be proposed in the future. If that happens, central governments must allow them or another Catalonia might occur. Moreover, giving people the right to choose is the central tenet of democracy; denying this will only make people more sympathetic towards separation. The Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 should be taken as a model for how these things ought to be handled. It was well organized, democratic, had London’s consensus, and more importantly, it kept Scotland united with England.