From Nation-States to EU-States: the Case of Catalonia

The situation in Catalonia shows a process of modern state development 25 years after the early period of globalisation and European political integration.

The recent situation in Catalonia has sparked several discussions regarding statehood, sovereignty, and stability. Has the discourse about the “death” of the nation-state been exaggerated? Does the EU have and uphold double standards when it comes to self-determination inside and outside of the Union? Is the conflict mainly about the Spanish state-nationalism and Catalan ethno-nationalism?

The situation in Catalonia shows a process of modern state development taking place 25 years after the early period of globalisation and European political integration. It also explains why EU inter-governmentalism is preventing eventual Catalan independence.

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[Image: Massey University]

Globalisation versus the nation-state

Since the end of the Cold War, academic, political, and popular discussions have focused a great deal on the development of the nation-state in a more globalised, post-national, or post-Westphalian, world. Political actors were aware that economic integration through globalisation and regionalisation in Europe would change and have an impact on national sovereignty.

Economy-driven integration has often led to challenges in other policy areas. In Europe, the formation of the single market was not only about economic visions and governance at the EU-level, but also about social, environmental, and transport standards. Impacts on national sovereignty led to a change in the character of EU-states, and similar processes took place globally. Today, very few states can be said to be “fully” sovereign, as North Korea might be. Most states across the world are, to a greater or lesser extent, globalised, regionalised, cooperative members of different intergovernmental organisations.

Is the EU destroying national sovereignty?

When it comes to sovereignty, many critics of the EU argue that the Union is “destroying” or reducing the national sovereignty of EU countries. To understand the sovereignty issue within the EU context, it is important to remember that the EU is a kind of social contract between governments. Since there is no European constitution, states are obliged to follow common legislation, as set out in EU treaties. The Treaty of Lisbon from 2009 states, for example, that a common EU migration policy should be developed by the Union and its member states in the future.

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Flags of the 28 member states of European Union [Image: Schengen Visa Info]
There are also other paradoxes. The EU does not in accordance with the original understanding of the polity that makes up a democracy, have a demos, but it is based on a liberal-democratic model. It does not have a government (there are 28 state governments), but it follows a confederate model. The sovereignty of EU states is “shared and pooled” on the EU-level. States support each other and the union in general by sharing political values, resources, and interests.

In the aftermath of the Catalan referendum, it would seem that the idea of the nation-state is still largely popular when it comes to democracy and identity. The issues surrounding national sovereignty and identity in Europe are still vital, as was also demonstrated in the case of Brexit.

The EU paradox

It can also be argued that there is a kind of a paradox in action since the 90’s. As a union of states based on reducing political and ethno-nationalism, the EU has also empowered its nation-states in different ways. The sharing and pooling of sovereignty and related powers however, indicates that the development of the Union depends primarily on the intergovernmental decision-making process. This means that states, in many cases, are not able to act as traditional nation-states were wont to do with “pure” or fully national or realist interests. Instead, they act institutionally as EU-states in a Eurocentric manner, as argued by the new inter – governmentalism school of thought.

This is done in order to achieve common positions, consensus, cooperation and compromises. When EU-government ministers in environmental or economic areas meet in Brussels, they know each other’s positions and behaviours, more or less. The bureaucrats and national administrators in the Council work towards the same position of the Council in order to find common ground with the interests of the EU Commission and the democratically elected European parliament. If we were to compare this to the US, it would be as though all 50 states had their presidents meet each month in Washington or at a hotel in Las Vegas, where environmental ministers from California and Alaska would need to cooperate on how to solve supranational, American problems at the federal level.

EU state behaviour, as opposed to nation-state behaviour, also explains why other EU governments have been supporting the Spanish government and not Catalonia, while simultaneously many pro-independence Catalans wave the EU-flags and chant pro-European slogans during their demonstrations. To put this in perspective, imagine the northern part of Colorado wanting to separate from Colorado in order to create an independent, US state, while other US states oppose. There would be no federal government that the people from North Colorado could turn to for support in such a case.

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Catalan demonstrations [Image: TODAYonline]

The future of new states

The Catalan case shows why such institutional problems are not a Spanish, but an EU-wide issue. The current situation raises questions concerning the ways in which the EU should be governed. Should the state-centric inter – governmentalism be used in order to prevent new states from forming? Or should EU governments respect the popular will of the Catalan population by voting Yes in favour of independence? In order to become a member state of the Union, new states would have to be recognised by other EU-states. Spain would probably never accept Catalonia becoming an EU member state. In addition, the EU Commission is not directly elected by the EU citizens and is therefore not a kind of federal government with a link to its citizens that Catalonians can appeal to.

Catalonia shows that aspirations for both a national and European state can go hand in hand. There is a conflict between the idea of Spain as a multi-national state and ambitions to establish Catalonia as a new nation-state. But, in either case, there would be no conflict about being a EU state. Neither Spain nor Catalonia can be framed as “anti-European”.

The same goes for Scotland as a more pro-European part of the UK, while the rest of the UK is often presented as Eurosceptic. The nation-state, having a more civic or ethnic character, is not dead when it comes to aspects regarding identity, culture, or welfare.  At the same time, the character of the state would change if it came to aspects such as political decision-making and institutional development in areas of economy, environment, and finance.

For the EU, however, the situation could result in more popular distrust towards the EU as a polity if more Catalans feel abandoned by those very European institutions they hope will provide them with enough support for Catalonia as a new EU-state.

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