Europe On The Brink

Rain Rain Go Away,

Come again another day

“Referenda, referenda go to Spain,

Never show your face again.”

On the 9th of November, a referendum not sanctioned by the central government took place in Cataluña on Catalan independence. In Scotland, recently, a referendum, returned a vote against independence for the Scottish polity, but has resulted in paralysis in the United Kingdom electorate and further apathy. Nationalist forces are unleashed in Ukraine; a further war in the Middle East looms. If these first question the values of contemporary ‘European-ness,’ an overcoming of these forces would drive the continent apart. A final breakdown of the old colonial ordering will certainly cause more soul-searching by the banks of the Seine, Spree, Thames, Tiber and Danube.

On other fronts, the economies of Germany, France, and Britain are stagnating. In both France and Britain, parties with nationalistic agendas and to the right of the existing parties have gained unexpected electoral showings. The UK Independence Party and the Front National respectively, both of which have ambivalent relations towards the current configuration of the European Union. The EU itself is struggling to correct its economic imbalances with respect to the South and the Euro. What is ostensibly a neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, has arisen in Greece as a response to the EU’s polices of austerity.

Where has all this come from? Where is it going? As Europe remembers the centenary of the First World War, the situation: great powers disagreeing, foreign interventionism, nationalist resurgence, Russia looming, could not be further from what it could be imagined by the generation who called it the “Great War.” Of the ideological logs that are commonly ascribed to have fed the fire of that War, nationalism is the one to pick out as the unifying thread with Europe’s current situation, and one that has had, and will have, the most impact on the modern world. I want to, as a Scot, start with Scotland.

Understanding that last statement may give leeway to understanding the position taken. Scotland’s complex history and experience of being at the periphery of Europe usually saw it at odds with England, and in tryst with the Continent; the Act of Union saw Scotland bind itself to the fate, for better or worse, of the British Empire. Since decolonisation, especially of Ireland, some nationalists called Scotland the last colony, but as was seen in the Independence vote, the experience is apparently a little more complex than that.

 Admittedly, the vote was fought, on both sides, with tactical economic and political claims. These claims mostly contemplated the potentially independent state’s membership of various international bodies, and the cost of separation (both actual and estimated) from the economic downturn that it could have engendered. But the question of identity was always bubbling just under the surface, coupled with one of self-determination, which is what made the voter turnout one of the largest in recent history.

 The question of self-determination came from the double fact of a Conservative government, a party to which Scotland returns, famously, fewer MPs than there are panda’s in Edinburgh Zoo, and the rise of Euro-skepticism both in the Conservative party and England as a whole; a question that dominated political discourse on both sides of the independence debate was over Europe: is Scotland more British or European? Self-determinative politics became wedded indelibly to the tactical rational questions of policy, driving up passions, and voter turnout. Identity, that knotty and difficult term, was often parsed as what it meant to be Scottish, rather than what British identity might be torn apart; equally everything British became a legitimate target of ridicule, of historical malaise and of nationalist name-calling in the ‘fear’ that everything, that some in Scotland held very dear, would change.

 The wounds of the referendum will take some time to heal. Or they will fester and corrupt if MPs in Westminster, traditionally one of the greatest centring bodies on earth, do not heed demands for greater and greater regional autonomy. Self-determination is a difficult problem for states’ increasingly globalised exposure to the vicissitudes of global market and political forces; the apparently natural centrifugal force of the state as a political unit is marked, and its speed only increases with global uncertainty. What this belies, however, is regional bodies’ abilities to counter problems, and effectively and nimbly legislate, at a lower level of sovereignty: this was one of the original promises of the European Union, and remains so for any large federal structure. The United Kingdom has to acknowledge that it is just kingdoms united—a name of federal sounding grandeur, if, at the moment, nothing else. If it remains just a name, it may face being disunited in the near future.

 But Scotland is not the whole story, Britain being only an island outcrop to the peninsular figurehead that is Europe. The Spanish existing (like all of the so-called nation-states of Western Europe) as a medieval military amalgam of various still extant identities have (unlike the rest of Western Europe) an experience of entrenched authoritarianism in their history, and the collective trauma of the Catalan people at being subject to both has given consistent impetus to an independence both politically and culturally from their Iberian colleagues. The referendum their parliament has called for has not been sanctioned by the central government, and the Catalan parliament has proceeded in contempt of the Constitutional Court of Spain. Although it isn’t binding legally, politically, it has the potential to be explosive.

The Catalans voted overwhelmingly yes-yes to the two-question ballot: Do you want Catalonia to become a State? And do you want this State to be independent? However, in a display of apathy counter to the Scottish experience turnout has been estimated at its highest 41.6%; these indicators are probably to do with the ‘illegality’ of the referendum and the fact that only ‘yes’ voters really participated. However, it could speak of something deeper.eu-flags

The key difference between the modern Scottish and Catalan experiences is economic: Cataluña is one of the wealthiest parts of Spain, a country struggling in Europe, with youth unemployment of up to 25% (never a good thing when nationalist sentiment is aroused), unlike Scotland which is a poorer part of the UK, one of the wealthiest European countries. The Spanish polity is breaking apart, and its relation to the rest of Europe, along with its economy will further suffer for it; however to suggest that the motives of agitators and activists is purely economic is missing a vital part of nationalism: identity. While economics will always have a role to play, the constituent part of more and more politics (if it ever went away) is the psychic-belonging feeling commonly called identity, a factor the European Union has summarily failed to realise as common, commonplace and commensurate in and with Europe.

Europe was set out in a grand way, or the formula was, as ever in politics, stumbled across and made to seem a grand plan, to provide a unity of countries with a common historical experience. But not even that is true. Europe is as fragile an entity as it has ever been; ready to break apart at a moments notice. Policy wise, there are few things one can do in the face of the globalising forces of identity and economics that seem to driving this current bout of fragility, but I believe federalism at the highest possible levels, that is in Europe or internationally, can, and should, be the goal of peoples in Europe. Realising that sovereignty is, and never has been, a preserve solely of that peculiar European invention the nation-state, and can as easily be divested down, and invested up, is a grand goal. But like all grand goals, somebody might stumble across it; dressed up as a pill states can swallow, it might do some good for Europe’s lurgy, and it might just show the world a federal Europe united as being a particular answer to one continent’s particular virulent diseases and questions.

Christopher Cannell

Christopher Cannell

Christopher Cannell is an independent political, historical and cultural researcher. He formally worked with the Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis company, covering South Asia. He has a Masters Degree in South Asian Area Studies from SOAS, University of London, and a Master of Arts (Honours) Degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews. While his focus remains on Asian politics and Asian relations, particularly India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the current situation in his home continent of Europe and home country of Scotland has led to a broadening of his research and analysis to the Western world.
Christopher Cannell

Latest posts by Christopher Cannell (see all)