A nineteenth-century drama in a post-modern European Union. From 2012 to 2018, a combination of atavistic claims to nationhood, recent economic disputes, and a perceived lack of control over local affairs has propelled the pro-independence movement in Catalonia. Separatism and regional nationalism has reignited the ancient debate over borders, authority, and shared sovereignty in the European Union.
In an era of "softened sovereignty", countries in the European Union no longer have the absolute monopoly of political authority and coercion inside their own borders. European member states currently face a triple challenge to their authority. The first challenge comes from regional and local authorities at the sub-state level. The second challenge is posed by the European Union itself as a supranational organization with legislative and judicial powers. Finally, large corporations, international capital markets, and other-non state actors currently have a crucial role in influencing EU regulation and national-level decision-making.
Historically, challenges to state sovereignty from a sub-state level are rooted in certain regions of Europe that have a distinctive national sentiment such as Catalonia, the Basque Country, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Corsica, Lombardy, Veneto, and many others. Separatism and regional nationalism directly affect at least four out of the five most populous countries in the European Union.
The most recent and serious challenge comes from the region of Catalonia. On October 1, the Catalan authorities conducted an independence referendum deemed illegal by the Spanish courts. After a last-minute judicial resolution, the government of Spain tried to stop the referendum by using the national police and the militarized "Guardia Civil". The images of violence that spread through social media sparked massive demonstrations in Catalonia. A few weeks after the referendum, the Catalan Parliament unilaterally declared independence and caused a major constitutional crisis in the country.
Catalonia is not the only region to have experienced active nationalist movements during the past years. "Pè a Corsica" ("For Corsica"), a group of autonomist and separatist political parties, is aiming to enter a bilateral negotiation with the French government to obtain a statute of autonomy for the region. In December 2017, they won the territorial elections with 56.5% of the votes. Two months before, the regionalist group Lega Nord, held a non-binding referendum in Lombardy and Veneto to demand more autonomy from the Italian authorities. In 2014, the Scottish government, led by the Scottish National Party, narrowly lost a referendum of independence previously agreed-upon with Westminster.
Opinion polls conducted regularly by Eurostat consistently show that local and regional institutions are more trusted than the European Union or member states' institutions. To appease regionalists and member states, the EU recognized the importance to push decision-making as close as possible to the citizens. The so-called "principle of subsidiarity" was enshrined in Articles 1 and 5 of the Treaty on European Union. The general purpose of this principle inside the European Union is to regulate the sharing of non-exclusive powers between different layers of authority. For member states, the principle of subsidiarity is enforced by the European Court of Justice. However, the European Union did not establish any enforcement mechanism at a sub-national level. Thus, in essence, subsidiarity in the European Union is a safeguard obtained by member states to protect non-exclusive competences vis-à-vis the European Parliament and the European Commission.
As Ronald Watts argued, in a multilingual and multiethnic confederation of states it is especially relevant "to reconcile diversity and unity within a single political system". The apparent rebirth of nationalist and separatist sentiment across the European Union poses a threat to the integrity of its member states. What are the different political alternatives that national and European authorities may want to consider?
There are three likely scenarios that need to be considered. The first scenario is that the status quo remains in place. Political claims for autonomy and self-determination are contested by EU member states through the use of coercive power. The European Council continues to "define the EU's overall political direction and priorities" and appoint the key positions of the EU Commission. Thus, the European Union would remain intergovernmental in nature with few mechanisms to oppose the political decisions taken by its member states. As seen in the case of the police charges in Catalonia, coercion without political dialogue can easily backfire. As political aspirations are silenced, violence in the form of terrorism could return to the periphery of countries like Spain, France, the United Kingdom or Italy. Moreover, the European Union, founded on the principle of representative democracy, could be seen as supporting authoritarian practices and lose internal legitimacy.
The second option is to grant European regions the right to self-determination. Under this scenario, the European Union recognizes the right of sub-units within EU member states to hold referenda of independence. Many questions would remain open. What is the threshold of support for a state sub-unit to become independent? How do you draw the borders of the sub-unit that wants to become independent? Are these borders determined by geographic accidents, language, ethnicity, religion, or administration in the European sub-state level? How often can referenda be held within a sub-territory? In addition, the creation of a myriad of new European states could further complicate governance inside the European Union and would not resolve the issue of minorities in the newly created states.
Coercion without political dialogue can trigger unilateral decisions as it was seen in the recent case of Catalonia. In addition, due to historical reasons, it is highly unlikely that European states would willingly redraw their national borders. This is why a third alternative scenario should be considered by European and national authorities. This third option involves rethinking space and authority within the European Union. The historic-administrative division of the European space has in some instances divided communities that share a common culture, language, and tradition. The development of transnational forms of local and regional cooperation and governance can help in overcoming the rigidities of the administrative division of space in the European Union. Furthermore, they can boost economic growth in integrated mega-regions such as the area that encompasses Brussels, Antwerpen, Lille, Gent, and Brugge. In addition, the redistribution of certain competences from the member states to the regions and cities can create an asymmetrical federal union in which EU citizens can democratically decide which degree of autonomy they want their local and regional governments to assume.
To reconcile unity with diversity and fairness with solidarity, European governments can no longer play by the nineteenth century rulebook. The European Union is an open-ended project which has proved in the past that space and territory can be deconstructed and reimagined. The integrity of the member states may depend on the EU's ability to repeat the feat.