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Catalonia’s Nationalist Tragedy – and lessons for Brexit?

Article by Jacqueline Hale

November 24, 2017

Catalonia’s Nationalist Tragedy – and lessons for Brexit?

Catalonia’s recent independence referendum and outcome is a reminder of nationalism’s flawed promise: The myth of a swift divorce that is also apparent in Britain’s Brexit debâcle. Both cases give us several reasons to remain wary of the siren call of nationalism. First there’s its ugly side: the fact that the act of self-defining against the ‘other’ can start in the just-about-respectable area of national identity, only to slip down the scale into wholly unacceptable xenophobia and ethnocentrism. Two destructive wars started by the quest for ethnic nationhood in Europe hold lessons for how downright dangerous the slippery slope can be. In peacetime, it can be a sliding scale between supporting your country’s football team and engaging in the inter-group violence of hooliganism against your opponent. In Catalonia today, the nationalism of the Catalan leadership is pitted against the nationalism of the Madrid authorities, and there can be no clear winner.


One reason for the impasse is inherent to the very concept of ‘nation’ which takes a one-dimensional approach to identity, so that one cannot be Catalan and Spanish at the same time. This nationalism über alles dangerously subsumes the manifold other identities that make up an individual – your gender, your profession, your political leanings – into one defining and simplifying trait. Yet when individuals are asked to define ourselves, it’s our relationships to family members, being a parent or a sister that will come to the fore. Or we turn inward, to describe our ideals and values, the aspirational motivations we wish to live by, or be seen as living by. It’s rare that our nationality is the dearest thing to us about ourselves.


But, the problem of nationalism goes even deeper. There is also a structural issue which we have seen time and again in secessionist struggles, and which bodes ill for citizens in Catalonia. Look at a map and it doesn’t take long to understand how the patchwork of 193 nation-states which cover the globe and make up the United Nations are part of a system which is structurally stacked in favour of the status quo. The UN Charter, with its clauses providing for the competitive claims of ‘right to self-determination’ and ‘territorial integrity’ is in reality a parti pris for the latter. A Charter signed by and for nation-states, hardly a carte blanche for declarations of independence by would-be leaders of breakaway entities.


This reality is all too clear to Western Saharans who for 42 years have been struggling for a state against Moroccan occupation and international vested interests, or to the Abkhaz in Eastern Europe, who celebrate this year 25 years of nationhood in limbo, despite successive referenda and de facto control over the territory by its authorities (with Russian backing) as they seek to break away from Georgia. Even where the land is not desirable to states – as in the case of the Liberland, a patch of border land unclaimed by Serbia and Croatia the declaration of independence succeeds only in exile. Its self-declared ‘’government’’ of transnational Libertarians has no access to the small patch of 7 km2 of marshy forest that they have claimed because neither the Serbs nor Croats will allow access to the territory. Catalan leaders, some of whom fled to Brussels, are not the first, nor the last to take this exile route.


Why has it come to this? When I lived in Catalonia 15 years ago I saw the seeds of nationalism rooted in the legitimate grievances of the historical past, and flourishing in the then prosperous present. With greater autonomy and policies to support language and culture, the trajectory seemed clear. And it is hard not to be sympathetic, there and elsewhere, to a culture and a ‘people’ who have risen from the ashes of repression, in this case that meted out to Catalans as a minority within Franco’s Spain. It is also easy to sympathise with the underdog when the strong arm of the metropolitan state reaches to slap-down the rising as we saw in the heavy-handed response from the Madrid government in response to the referendum. Yet for all its lofty talk of liberation, the rhetoric of nationalism – whether it’s in Madrid or Barcelona or in London, as we have seen in the debate about the exit from Europe, is necessarily reductive. Whilst citing ‘the people’ in support of its arguments, whether it be the 52% of voters in the June 2016 UK referendum on membership of the EU or the 90% of the voters who voted for independence in Catalunya’s referendum, it ignores questions as to who and where ‘the people are. It also overlooks a low turnout (42% in Catalonia), and the uncomfortable reality that minorities exist, and the homogeneity the nationalists are striving for does not bear likeness to the messy reality and mixed-ness of the modern ’nation’. What to do about Catalans of Castillian or South American origin, or those of Indian origin (the sin papeles who have their own grievances and quests for recognition)? What is the offer for those who want to be Catalans within Spain? These thorny issues will come to a head now. Crucial to either side winning Catalonia’s hearts and minds struggle, and as a matter of both principle and pragmatism, power holders in Catalonia must tend to this.


But here lies the crux of the issue, and the problem for secessionist entities in a system of nation-states: Who are the powerholders, who can confer rights and obligations on citizens? So long as there is no recognition, the problem cannot be solved. No state so far has recognised Catalonia. The EU will not do so for fear of opening a pandora’s box of splittism within existing members. The question of how to accommodate Catalonia within the EU is of an existential nature not only to Spain, but to other states, not least the United Kingdom, with a strong constituency for remain in Scotland, pitted against a majority leave vote in England. Even Kosovo, whose independence struggle was a rare case with much Western political support and interest, does not have recognition across the European Union – Spain notable among those who have withheld recognition. After 25 years in the waiting room to become a state intensive diplomatic campaigning by Abkhazia, with support from Moscow, has yielded recognitions by 4 states.


The ultimate tragedy of these states, and one which we can only hope will not befall Catalonia, is the diminishing rights of their citizens. As the heady euphoria of the declaration of independence subsides and the citizenry heads back into day-to-day realities, upholding other existing rights to work, to travel, to associate, to access to decent education, health care and public services, and to enjoy transparent and accountable governance will become crucial. This is the question that nationalists vying for power – whether in Madrid or Barcelona or elsewhere – never ask enough: What’s the offer in the status quo or in the changed status for the ordinary person from the street? Beyond the symbolic power of self-determination what are the benefits and what are the losses to people’s rights and freedoms, ranging from freedom of movement to freedom of expression? It is ironic that a city like Barcelona, much lauded in recent times for innovative decentralised local governance within the existing system, must now submit to order from Madrid, and yet it remains unclear what kind of space the Catalan nationalist project itself would leave to local government.


As Catalonia risks becoming the latest in a list of territories with unsettled status, the question of how its self-declared authorities will deal with inevitable disappointments and dissent, when fighting a bigger enemy, is crucial. Here Catalonia and Spain need to learn lessons from the latter’s failure to accommodate dissenting voices. For the people of Catalonia, those who voted yes, no, or who simply didn’t go to the polls, the system and authority which guarantees their rights – beyond the right to self-determination – becomes critical now. In Catalonia as in Brexitland the quest to live well – self-actualisation – may be bound up with the right of national self-determination and recognition, but at an individual and community level it requires much more: a social contract, and a working system of rules and guarantees, institutions providing for democratic accountability, and ongoing connectedness to the outside world. As they go about their daily lives and to live out their multiple identities amongst their families and communities people in Catalonia risk losing these rights as the region submits to Madrid, whilst the rest of the EU stays lukewarm. Those who purport to represent them – whether in the Catalan Generalitat or in Madrid’s governing parties must not retreat to elite squabbles and desert people in Catalonia now.

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