Why you should care

Even if Scotland is not divorcing Britain, globalization has kicked open the door to local secession movements.

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When Scotland voted not to split off from Great Britain, a wave of disappointment reached well beyond the Highlands. A thousand miles away, in Barcelona, Spain, Arnau Percerisa’s heart sank as he stared at his phone.

“It would have been great if they’d won. It would have been a big moral boost, a ray of joy,” he says. As a passionate Catalan independence supporter, this 29-year-old hoped Scotland’s example would help pave the way. But he still has hopes. “The social consensus here is much larger, and even if Scotland’s decision discourages some, we still have a big enough majority in favor of independence.”

…the old-fashioned nation-state emasculated in the middle.

Catalonia is among dozens of nationalist movements in Europe encouraged by the Scottish process, spurring fears of a referendum domino effect. While the dominoes are unlikely to fall anytime soon, Scotland’s vote is symptomatic of a deeper transformation: the degradation of the nation-state. Worldwide, from Belgium to Iraq, countries are increasingly torn between internal demands of substate nationalism and the external push of globalization, with the old-fashioned nation-state emasculated in the middle. Regions are asking for more powers, transnational organizations are scrambling for more authority and the nation-state is losing out.

Historically, the idea of a single, all-powerful political authority for each national community emerged only through repeated wars in 19th-century Europe. “The ‘nation-state’ has never been ‘real.’ It’s a construct that we’ve chosen to believe in and that countries have tried to approximate,” says Dani Cetra, expert in Catalan nationalism at the University of Edinburgh and assistant editor of Regional and Federal Studies. “But as the world gets more complex and the number of political actors grows, things are bound to get messier.”

Nowhere is that clearer than in the European Union, where centralization of some powers in Brussels has robbed authority from national governments. Even as they integrate, most European states struggle with substate nationalist movements. Lately, spurred by the economic crisis and encouraged by the Scots, these movements are gathering momentum.

If things can be solved with a democratic vote, that’s always the best option. By opposing it, they will only make people want it more.

Europe’s next national divorce could be Catalonia, which has its own language and cultural identity. It’s felt emotionally connected to Scotland and will have its own referendum for self-determination on Nov. 9. Unlike Britain, Spain’s central government doesn’t consider the vote legal, despite widespread public support for the initiative.

“If the Scots can vote, why not us?” says 83-year-old Catalan Teresa Portola. “I lived through the Civil War and, trust me, if things can be solved with a democratic vote, that’s always the best option. By opposing it, they will only make people want it more.”

Madrid would certainly not want to set that precedent. Many expect the wealthy Basque country to want out next. Galicia has its increasingly popular nationalist party.

A young Italian man demonstrates at night as he shouts with a Venetian flag wrapped on his back

Venetians demonstrate outside the Piazza dei Signori.

Independence movements in Italy, which was unified only in the late 1800s, are small but quickly gaining ground. Last year, in South Tyrol, a pro-secession group held an unofficial online referendum on secession from Italy and annexation to Austria. “Yes” won, with 92 percent of the votes. Next came another wealthy region, Veneto, where 2.1 million Venetians expressed their wish to leave Italy and restore their medieval-style city-state. Meanwhile in Sardinia, three nationalist parties in the government coalition are trying to rewrite a constitutional law to give the region more powers.

Meanwhile, Greenland and the Faroe Islands recently won more autonomy from Denmark, along with the recognition of their right to independence, if they want it. And even France — arguably Europe’s most centralized state — has Corsica, where a terrorist group has been “fighting” for independence since the ’70s and recently declared a permanent cease-fire.

The nation-state … has led — after a few centuries of on-and-off warfare — to Europe’s longest period of peace.

 

Still, these movements do not portend “the end of Europe as we know it.” It’s worth recalling all the warnings about “slippery slopes” and a “wave of self-determination,” when Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and again when South Sudan did it in 2011. But not much happened. “Even if all these movements are going against one nation-state, most of them still want a state of their own. It’s very hard to think beyond it,” points out Coree Brown, researcher at The Future of the UK and Scotland.

In fact, the nation-state has been a useful arrangement and has led — after a few centuries of on-and-off warfare — to Europe’s longest period of peace. Thank stable borders. Throughout history, redrawing borders has often meant armed conflict. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fighting in Ukraine, the situation Syria and Iraq, and China’s repression of Tibet and Xinjiang show that challenging the nation-state can be a bloody business.

But just granting everyone independence also won’t fly.

“There are 7,000 languages in the world and 200 countries. I don’t think it’s possible for the latter to match the first, especially not as societies keep getting more diverse,” says David Fornies, coordinator of Nationalia, an online magazine on stateless nations. “That’s partly why the state-nation is undergoing a transformation.”

No one’s thought up a workable alternative to the nation-state, and it’s safe to say we’re unlikely to see a comeback of global empires or tribal systems. While the Islamic State seems to be striving for a kind of horror-chamber alternative, a revival of the ancient caliphate, other movements are trying to fit into the nation-state framework. For instance, Syrian Kurdistan is no longer asking for its own borders. Instead, it wants a confederation of nations under a wider federation of states.

In East Africa, some have hinted at turning Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda — all multinational countries — into a single federated state, the East African Federation. And in Europe, the New Flemish Alliance of Belgium has shifted focus from “independence” to “co-federalism.”

Perhaps what Scotland’s demonstrated is the possibility of redrawing borders or changing arrangements — it’s been promised expanded self-rule as a reward for “no” — without bloodshed.

That’s worth exploring.

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