Twenty five years ago, the historian Eric Hobsbawm announced the end of nations and nationalism. Like the Owl of Minerva, they appeared in view only as they flew into the twilight. In 2015, however, nationalism looks very much alive, with restive movements even in established states like the United Kingdom, Belgium and Spain. This might seem at odds with the movement to European unity but in practice the two are linked. With the European Union, the Council of Europe and NATO providing security, open markets and a range of policies from the environment to scientific research, large states are no longer so necessary. Small states may come into their own, providing more responsive government and social cohesion. Hence the attraction of the slogan ‘independence in Europe’.
Some European nationalist movements have taken the argument further, seeking to dissolve the nation-states altogether into a Europe of the Nations (or Peoples or Regions). This was recently the predominant view in Catalonia, where nationalism has not equated with the demand for independence but is about recognition and more powers, what we might call devolution-max. When asked how far Catalan devolution would go, they would respond that it depends on how far Europe goes. Welsh nationalists had a similar dream while moderate Irish nationalists saw in Europe an opportunity to overcome the border while allowing the two communities to express their own identities.
This vision has faded in recent years. The European Union has not created a space for nations pursuing a ‘third way’ between independence and union. There is a Committee of the Regions but it has few powers and is divided among stateless nations, strong regions and cities, all of which have different aspirations. Power remains in the hands of the member states acting in the Council of Ministers, along with the Commission and, now, the European Central Bank. The present crisis has only strengthened the power of these actors.
With the third way closed off, independence has come back as the only way for a nation to be represented in the European Union. It returned to the political agenda in Scotland, where Europe was an essential framework to the proposals in the referendum of last year. Neither side disputed the desirability of being in the European Union, only whether and how it could be achieved, Catalan nationalists turned to secession in recent years and are currently deadlocked with the government and constitutional court in Madrid, which insist that Spain is indissoluble. An independence referendum has been ruled out. Flemish nationalism is now dominated by the New Flemish Alliance whose aim is a separate Flemish state and has attracted many voters from the Christian Democrats, a devo-max party.
Yet Europe is not heading for Balkanization. The Basque Nationalist Party, historically more pro-independence than its Catalan counterpart, is being very prudent. A decade ago, they tried to strike out on their own, with a plan for a ‘freely-associated state’ which ended in a deadlock like the present one in Catalonia. So they are seeking a more consensual solution. The New Flemish Alliance is for independence only in the long term and in the meantime for ‘confederalism’. Public support for Flemish independence is much lower than support for nationalist parties. The SNP’s independence plans last year included close links to the United Kingdom, including a currency union. Opinion polls in Scotland and Catalonia show the population more or less equally divided when asked about independence. When given a wider range of options, however, the winner is some form of devo-max.
Nationalism in these cases has been linked to Europe but it is not a simple connection. Surveys show that people identifying exclusively with one nation (whether Scotland or Britain in our case) are not particularly pro-European. The pro-Europeans are the ones who already have dual identities and see a world beyond the old nation-state. This is the essence of the European project.
Europe is not in a good state now, with the travails of the Euro-zone, the refugee crisis, instability at the borders and the threat of terrorism leading to calls for the closing of borders. Anti-European and exclusive nationalism is thriving in France, Italy, Hungary, Poland and the Nordic states. Europe has until now served to provide a space for democratic nationalisms while containing the illiberal and intolerant ones. That task has become a lot harder.
Image: La Via Catalana a Barcelona. Portal de l'Àngel/Plaça Catalunya. Attrib: Judesba