The Catalan crisis has brought up deep and perplexing questions about identity, Europe and nationalism which do not have simple answers. These questions echo similar ones raised throughout Europe, with other secessionist/independence movements (most notably Brexit).

Independence movements are appearing throughout Europe on two levels, the Pan-European and the sub-national. Quite apart from the movements among nations to extricate themselves from the EU, there are many other sub-national movements (like Catalonia’s) to secede from nations. Both of these categories of independence movements share a desire to express more local identities, control local political processes, and save money.

But these movements also share a desire to reject the larger polities in favor or smaller more ethnically homogenous entities. This drive is wholly separate from any hard-headed assessment of where economic interests actually lie. The question of whether England, or Scotland, or Catalonia, etc., would be richer on their own is a complex mathematical problem, although the economic consensus seems to lean toward the economies of scale achieved by larger polities. What the math is saying, in other words, is: Stick with the union!

Both types of secessionist movements also exhibit a relationship to memory as a prime driver of political action. History is largely about memory. Once we forget, the past tends to lose its power over us, and any motivational force that past may have had in directing our actions is gone. This is  why history repeats itself.

The EU was willed into existence by a generation of individuals with disturbing memories of war, and that generation has gone.  Gone along with them is their defining motivational drive–the memory of World War Two.   Is Europe, therefore,  becoming a victim of its own success? Do we need the constant memory of war to remember how good we have it?

All those individuals and groups who have over the centuries proposed European integration have done so as a means of avoiding cataclysmic war and violence–the like of which has been regularly visited upon the continent. Going back at least into the seventeenth century, prominent individuals, reacting to the struggles of their own eras, proposed various types of European integration.

We could do worse than begin with Willam Penn, the founder the of US colony of Pennsylvania. Penn was a Quaker, and as  such he was also a pacifist. The war between France and the League of Augsburg in 1689 not only ran against his anti-war sentiment but required more men and taxes, both of which he needed to run his semi-feudal state of Pennsylvania–granted to him by the King as a way of repaying the loan Penn’s father had extended to King Charles II.  Conflict in Europe, in other words, was bad for business.

In 1693 Penn wrote his Essay Towards the Present and Future Peace of Europe by the Establishment of a European Parliament (parliament deriving from the French parler, “to speak”). The creation of an English parliament, he believed, had been central to the resolving of England’s constitutional crisis not long before; if it had worked for England, why not for the continent of Europe?  Not far behind in Penn’s  rear-view mirror was also Europe’s Thirty Year War, a bloody conflict involving Protestant and Catholic European states (although the causes as always go well beyond simplistic religious associations), and one of Europe’s most deadly, causing some 8 million casualties. War, in other words, was front-and-center in Penn’s experience and there was ample motivation to shuffle the political cards in an attempt to eradicate it.

And let’s not forget the irony, in these post-Brexit days, that Penn was an Englishman.

There were plenty of others from hereon in who made similar proposals. But one hundred years later, Immanuel Kant, in 1795 wrote the Philosophical Project for Perpetual Peace. Drawing on earlier European philosophical ideas, this predicted the rise of a single European state.  Like Penn, Kant’s aim in proposing/predicting this was largely to avoid war. The kind of union he proposed was a federation of integrated states, anything more would tend toward the despotic: “For the laws progressively lose their impact as the government increases its range, and a soulless despotism, after crushing the germs of goodness, will finally lapse into anarchy.”

Writing in the 1790s Kant’s memories were largely of the struggles which shaped the Europe in which he lived–that is to say the Seven Years’ War, referred to by many, including Winston Churchill, as the “real First World War,” because it involved so many nations and was fought on three continents. Ultimately, the war was a struggle between the British and French in North America and India, and in Europe between the powers of Austria and Prussia and their allies, all of which previewed the later and larger cataclysm of 1914.

But even closer to Kant’s day were the multiple wars that kept Europeans and others from the pleasures of peace including (but not limited to) the Austro-Turkish war (1787-91), the Russo-Swedish War (1788-90), the Polish-Russian War (1792) and of course the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802).  Now, “Kant” is a vast body of work which has been interpreted multiple ways by hundreds of scholars, but there is little disagreement about his putting forth the notion of a shared European future as an antidote to perpetual war.

Building on the works of Kant and Penn, came the likes of Jeremy Bentham, whose 1798 Principles of International Law restated Penn’s case for a European parliament.   European wars continued into the nineteenth century, leaving little room to forget about conflict.  The Napoleonic wars,  the Russo-Persian war, the Russo-Turkish War, The War of Greek Independence, the Carlist wars (I & II).

At the 1851 International Peace Congress in Paris, Victor Hugo called for the creation of a United States of Europe. “We say to France, to England, to Prussia, to Austria, to Spain, to Italy, to Russia, we say to them, ‘A day will come when your weapons will fall from your hands, a day when war will seem absurd and be as impossible between Paris and London, St. Petersburg and Berlin, Vienna and Turin, as today it would seem impossible between Rouen and Amiens, Boston and Philadelphia’.”

Voila! Victor Hugo himself said it. By the twentieth century, however,  the language about European union (or as some wags–and Auto Correct– would have it, the European Onion), had shifted from lofty ideals about peace coming from high-brow philosophers, to more level-headed ideas about prosperity coming from lawyers and industrialists–such as the Italian Giovanni Agnelli. For them a union–and the peace it presumed–was simply better for business (ultimately, however,  Agnelli  seems to have become disillusioned with Europe and threw his weight behind Mussolini).

Now we come to the nitty-gritty, as deep historical background gives way to the more recent historico-political events with which we are more familiar, and are the near-background for the creation of the EU.  Bronislaw Geremek, was a ten-year-old Polish Jewish boy, when he witnessed the Warsaw ghetto burning before his eyes.  In April 1943, the Jews of the ghetto began the largest uprising in occupied Europe, and the biggest act of resistance carried out by the Jews.   Immediately, the SS moved into the ghetto and began exterminating its inhabitants. It was no accident that Geremek became one of Poland’s most ardent advocates of European integration, as a leader of the Solidarity movement, the Polish foreign minister, and then a member of the European Parliament.

Other Europeans also had direct memories of the war. But in Germany it should also be remembered that Helmut Kohl (b.1930), was the direct successor of Adolf Hitler–that is to say he was the fist leader of a united Germany since the fall of the Third Reich. As such he was a tireless promoter of the EU, and, along with France’s Francois Mitterrand, drafted the Maastricht Treaty which created the EU and the Euro as a currency.

Today European war as a personal memory does not play much of a role in the support for European Union. War-avoidance does not appear high up on politicians’ to-do lists. The need to stay together is being edged out by the need for local control and ethnic homogeneity which borders on xenophobia. Meanwhile, the European Union has become, through its inevitable imperfections, an “onion” indeed, with many layers and a pungent whiff–a melange of and economic inefficiency, bureaucratic ineptitude, and a generalized political heavy-handedness, reminiscent, perhaps of what Kant was afraid of when states become too large.

But even within the member-states of the EU, the forces of dis-integration are rapidly on the rise. Most nation states, after all, are more-or-less-historically accidental groupings. But while many of them came together through force, or dynastic fiat, time has often melded them into less-arbitrary groupings, as populations have moved (Andalusians to Catalonia, for example) and economies merged. Time–as well as media and ideology– has often made a nation out of an arbitrary or forced political union, and this seems to be true for Catalonia-in-Spain, at least half of whose residents would rather maintain their relationship to the Spanish mother ship.

But time and ideology only have limited influence in the face of another historical force–that of memory, not of war this time, but the memory, real or imagined, of ethnic purity.

And Catalonia is far from alone in experiencing separatism movements and desires based largely on this kind of memory. To name but a few others: the Basques, the Scottish, Padania, in Northern Italy, the Veneto, Flanders, Bavaria, Corsica, and South Tyrol. Based on issues similar to Catalonia (language, economic disparities, history), this kind of sub-nationalism is making a distinct comeback as the pendulum swings between larger and smaller unions.

Nationalism is first and foremost a story people tell themselves, a myth, in other words. A nation is, as the anthropologist Benedict Anderson calls it, an “imagined community,” in that we can never know all the members. A nation is also then an ideology. “Nations do not make states and nationalisms,” said Eric Hobsbawm, perhaps the preeminent scholar of nationalism,  “but the other way round.”  Or, in the words of the other preeminent scholar, Ernest Gellner: “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.”

Nations, in other words, are created by our fervid imaginations– thinking, as the Bard would have it, “makes them so.”

Even Catalonia, a small part of Spain, is home to more than seven million people. That is a big family, so big that commonality needs to be manufactured–as it is in all nationalist ideologies. It is just as likely that female Catalans, for example, actually have more in common with Female Brits; rich Catalans have more in common with rich Italians. Gay Catalans with Gay New Yorkers, etc. etc. Identity cuts many ways.

With no recent memories of a cataclysmic European war to drive our desires for continental union, then, Europeans are left to seek political solace in their smallest identity groups, feeling perhaps “left out” of a much larger and inevitably somewhat anonymous political entity.  When things go wrong, as they have done, especially in the unfortunately-named PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain), all the blame lies at the feet of the ultimate center of power—Brussels. And in nations with autonomous regions and large economic disparities such as Spain, the better-off don’t want to be dragged down by the less-fortunate.

Belonging in a nation just means that you choose to identify with others with whom you  share something. But the size, you might say, of that grouping is immaterial. Whether you are under the supervision of a distant or proximate government, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, you’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be Madrid or it may be Barcelona, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. Ultimately what these Euro-sub-nationalisms have done is to shrink the category of belonging down–in some cases waaay down. Britain decided to revert to serving London, rather than Brussels. South Tyrol wants to pay Bolzano (interestingly where one of the earliest Europeans–Otzi the Iceman now calls his home), instead of those two-headed dog-faced people over the hills in Rome.

Ultimately Catalan independence evokes contradictory emotions: seeing the Guardia Civil beat up citizens on the streets of Barcelona evokes Franco’s style of fascist nationalism; and yet much of the wave of pro-spanish unity seen across Spain–and Europe in general– in response to the Catalan breakaway bid comes from a progressive idea of Spain, not the Franco-esque dystopia.  A kind of “We are all Spaniards” kumbaya moment.

It is in this way, then, that a United Spain can have two different valences–progressive and reactionary–at the same time. Perhaps the notion of Spain disintegrating will be enough to promote a more appealing notion of Spanish Nationalism,  rescue nationalism in other words from the far right, in the same way that the prospect of the EU disintegration after Brexit will gird the loins of would-be Europeans and motivate them anew–without the need for war, to preserve a unity that has given them more peace than the continent has ever known.  But this will be challenging if the economic instability which dogs the EU is not fixed, since the one historical rule which appears to maintain is that ethnic divisions thrive under conditions of economic instability.













About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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