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Separatism, nationalism and self-determination of peoples

Despite its particularities, the Catalan conflict affects other countries (not just the Old Continent) in many ways. The issue is related to the way in which modern States are formed; more in line with Hobbes’ authoritarian model than Rousseau’s civilised pact.


Juan Diego García


Because, despite the success of (and need for) centralism and the formation of States in terms of strength (especially in military terms), the fact is that national identities are fiercely preserved by way of language, institutions, traditions, art and asserted territory. This leaves a lot of room for conflict.

For example, many people in Catalonia believe that their territory includes part of the south of France, and those with more extreme views believe that the so-called Catalan Countries (mainly for their linguistic similarities) include those areas south of the peninsula, extending way beyond what is now recognised as Catalonia. It’s the same with the Basque Country; the Basque independence supporters believe that their nation also includes the Navarre region and also areas in the south of France (called the French Basque Country).

In reality, it doesn’t make sense (and there is no need) to deny these nationalities because, in addition to the objective elements (particularly the language), there is in fact an idea in the collective imagination of significant social groups. There is also not a real basis to ignore modern international relations which create a real and necessary increasingly close link (but not always equal or just) between nations.

The European Union is a strategic necessity in the complex global framework if one wants to play a strong enough role in the defence of national interests. Modern unions of countries on the planet, each with different levels of success, create a situation that forces a reasonable combination of the individual and the collective.

It’s not only the European Union that does this; the same happens in alliances in the Far East, in the Arab world, in Latin America and in the forces that make up the United States. They build their own network of allies and followers in an intensely diverse world in terms of interests and strong competition for raw materials, markets and areas of influence.

It’s not easy to reconcile local interests with the demands of an increasingly “globalised” world.  But one thing’s for sure, only continental countries such as Russia, China, India or the United States have, due to their territorial scope and population (and, of course, their economic power and resources), sufficient room for manoeuvre in terms of autonomy. Other countries have to look for national alliances that will enable them to reach a sufficient size. The European Union is definitely the most successful in these terms. Less successful examples include Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

“Universalism”, put simply, as proposed by some, is surrendering one’s own identity in a world in which nationality would be meaningless. It would also make current issues irrelevant such as extreme nationalism, xenophobia and references to “glorious”, imperial pasts or to Jauja worlds which only exist as ideological constructions of clear (and weak) justification.

Much of this is discussed in the debate on Spain and Catalonia; constructive discussions between the two nations are difficult, which, in turn, takes away space for and opportunities from those reasonable voices that aren’t influenced by the extreme views of either side.

Pedro Sánchez’s government has, undoubtedly, an enormous task ahead of it with Catalonia and, potentially, the Basque Country. A task which consists of (considering that its social foundation is Spanish and not “Spanish nationalist”) finding some form of federalist formula that would make it possible for Catalonia to stay within the Spanish state. Sánchez apparently doesn’t have much support internally.

The right-wing of the Partido Popular and Ciudadanos party (with language and arguments similar to those iterated by the VOX neo-Nazis, the third party in Spanish parliament) refer to the idea of a glorious and imperial Spain, a remote past that lasted a little more than necessary to circumnavigate the globe and to act as soldier conquistadors (along with Portugal) that subjected the world to nascent capitalism (in Holland and England).

A little more than “glorious Spain”, the right argues. Not too far from this, in Sánchez’s own party (PSOE), is a group that vehemently defend the “unity of Spain” and reject the right to self-determinism, a right described as something which undermines democracy. This does not, however, consider the fact that this principle is accepted, with the relevant supporting regulation, in countries as democratic as the UK and Canada.

Neither the kingdom of Spain nor any of the States on the European continent were formed through a civilized agreement process. In fact, quite the opposite; almost all of them were the result of the bloody victory of a country or region over the other, obliged after defeat to form part of the new modern State, under the control of a central power that in some cases were extreme (France) and in other cases were offset with a moderate federal state (Germany and the UK).

The dissolution of the old USSR, with its history in the Czarist empire, was an example of a traumatic way to achieve harmony between nations that became part of another major nation and sought independence that, no matter how legitimate, no longer has negative effects or significant problems.

Pedro Sánchez has opened up a dialogue with the Catalan pro-independence group with the overall objective of finding improvements to the current Spanish federal system that satisfies the hard nationalists who are now making it increasingly difficult to live together peacefully in the country.

This won’t be an easy task. The national biases appear to be getting more powerful than the reasons for coexistence, the advantages of unity between different nations within the same State and with all this, the reality that Spain belongs, at the same time, to a greater union, the European Union. The attitude of the right opposition and those in the ranks of the PSOE insist on making this dialogue difficult and only continue to further complicate an exit on reasonable terms and, in principle, the use of the military in self-determinism and the separation of Catalonia as an independent nation cannot be ruled out at this stage.

In Sánchez’s favour, outside of the dialogue he puts forward, there is not a serious proposal to manage the conflict. The fact that his European partners (nearly all of them) have their own similar problems helps his case; they are not likely to support the Catalan pro-independence group and are more likely to support dialogue as put forward by Sánchez.

It’s not an easy situation for the Spanish President but it isn’t for the opposition either.

(Translated by Corrine Harries – Email: Pixabay

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