Identity and Geography – Handle with Care

The past decade has witnessed a sudden uptick in secessionist movements in Europe. The uptick started on the western side of the continent with the 2009 Belgian elections, where the New Flemish Alliance emerged as the largest party in the country; further to the east, we might point to the Russian invasion and partition of Georgia. Flemings, Abkhazians, and South Ossetians rarely fall in the same category for analysis. Nevertheless, there is something they have in common that warrants exploration. Moreover, that something is shared by the Scots, the Catalans, and the Russian-speakers in Crimea and the Donbass region.

In the crudest possible terms, what these groups have in common is a political narrative that combines an appeal to a specific identity with an argument about geographic entitlement: this is you, and this is your place. There is nothing terribly new about this combination. In fact, it is one of the oldest political narrative forms. Think about the Crusades and the overlapping claims that were made on the Middle East. Being familiar does not make the combination of identity and geography any less perilous. On the contrary, much of Europe’s history has evolved around attempts to limit the damage such a narrative can bring. The attempts to unite the German peoples during the Second World War is one illustration; the ethnic cleansing that took place in the former Yugoslav republics is another. It has been a bloody and painful experience.


The problem with identity politics

Modern politicians who want to combine claims to identity and geography should do so with care (if at all). Secession is not always a dangerous process, but it is hard to manage without clear desire from all parties to do so. The peaceful separation like that which took place between Slovakia and the Czech Republic is challenging to engineer. Where the motivations are not shared, where families will be divided, and where economic relationships are not easily untangled, the potential for conflict to spill over into violence is tremendous.

Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that contemporary political leaders do not appreciate the power of the forces they are unleashing. Political identities have a frightening tendency to gravitate toward grievance, resurfacing past injustices and projecting them onto presentation generations in the form of animosity and mistrust. This is true particularly in the context of secessionist movements, where groups laying claim to a specific identity and geographic entitlement seek to escape what they argue are the predations or injustices of a larger political entity. The recent trauma of the referendum campaign in the United Kingdom is relatively exceptional insofar as it involved a sovereign nation seeking to leave a supranational arrangement. The crisis in Catalonia more representative of the more general problem.

Fortunately, the people politicians try to mobilize are not easily unleashed from the many ties that bind them to larger political systems or market economies. The Swiss case is a remarkable illustration of this stability in action. Although the country plays home to four linguistic communities which concentrate in relatively discrete and identifiable geographic spaces, it is not prone to secessionism. Populist political leaders may mobilize voters around the problem of immigration, for example, but the result is to reinforce divisions between people who speak the same language in Switzerland and its neighboring countries rather than pitting the Swiss linguistic communities against one another.

This Swiss situation is so unprecedented that scholars cannot agree on what holds the country together. The debate among them centers on whether the Swiss have evolved into a unique form of multi-cultural nationalism or whether they have abandoned nationalism altogether. Whatever the answer to the question, it is not clear how to apply the lessons of Switzerland beyond its borders.

Other countries are not as stable as Switzerland. Nevertheless, they are more stable than they might seem at first glance. To see what how this works, it is useful to focus on the West European cases which are untainted by external (i.e. Russian) interference. Specifically, it helps to look at Flanders, Scotland, and Catalonia. In each of these cases, secessionist movements have flared up only to be contained.


Stability cannot be taken for granted

If the good news is that these situations are more stable than they might seem, the bad news is that such stability should not be taken for granted – particularly when the ties that bind the people are threatened or when people find incentives to change the way they are connected to states and markets. This is the ‘handle with care’ part of the argument. Although secessionist leaders may not succeed in binding a group together in sudden opposition to their near neighbours, they may create the conditions where national affinities whither, where political institutions become unrepresentative, and where economic self-interest points in different and new directions. When that happens, the problem is not that secessionism gets stronger, it is that national institutions become more fragile.


Consider Belgium

The Belgian case illustrates how this process develops over the very long term. Belgium was created in the early 19th Century as a union of oppositions. The French speakers in the south of the country did not want to belong to France or to the Netherlands; the Flemish speakers in the north did not want to belong to the Netherlands or to France. Instead, they decided to live together speaking French as a common language. Over time, however, the Flemish speakers felt disadvantaged in that relationship and so began to agitate for the recognition of their own language. As they gained power, this search for language rights and cultural identity began to disrupt and divide key institutions. The national political parties separated into language-specific groups; the universities were divided; and they began to experiment with a ‘personalized’ form of federalism that organized people politically around their cultural identities wherever they happened to live.

By the early 1980s, Belgium began to experiment with more conventional forms of geographic federalism, where possible tying language and culture to place rather than to people. This geographic turn created perverse incentives because French speakers were more scattered across regional boundaries while Dutch speakers remained more concentrated in their northern regions. The francophones opposed the creation of hard linguistic borders; the Flemish speakers encouraged them. And, in the end, geography came to predominate. In 1993, Belgium became a federal country. The Belgians maintained linguistic communities in the francophone parts of the country and in the Brussels Capital Region, but in reality the two main communities – the Flemish and the Francophone – began to evolve in radically different directions. For example, now they do not have parallel political parties which speak different languages; they have different party systems altogether.

This evolution in Belgium explains why secessionism is such a threat today. The problem is not that the Flemish speakers have suddenly woken up to their cultural identity. On the contrary, Flemish nationalism has been an active force for over a century. What is different now is that Flemish nationalists do not have to rely solely on identity politics. Indeed, identity is no longer so central to their political arguments. Instead they can make a civic appeal by pointed at the failure of national institutions to represent their region’s economic self-interest and by showing what they can accomplish working solely at the regional level. The argument they make is compelling because it combined identity with geography and because it builds on the many changes in relations between the different parts of the country. When Belgians from different language communities meet today, they are as likely to speak in English as in French.


Now think about Scotland

The Scottish case follows a similar trajectory. The Scots have always existed as a separate nation within the United Kingdom. They have their own language and cultural identity but they have also played an important role in constituting what it means to be British. Moreover, the Scottish economy is tightly integrated into the economy of Great Britain. The currency looks different and yet it is functionally equivalent.

The other parallels with the Belgian case concern the rise of separate nationalist political community and a greater emphasis on cultural distinctiveness. The Scottish National Party (SNP) was entrepreneurial in that respect. It was also very successful in winning progressive concessions from the British government in the name of regional autonomy. This devolution accelerated sharply with the election of a New Labour government in 1997 and the promise that Scotland would be able to re-establish its parliament together with local competence for a range of social services including control over health, education, and social welfare.

The Scottish parliament is very different from the British parliament in Westminster in terms of both how its members are elected and how they exercise authority. This created incentives for the SNP to shift from being an identity-based nationalist party to becoming a more left-leaning party focused on enhanced solidarity and civic inclusion. In this way, they effectively pushed the British Labour party out of Scotland and created a new image of themselves as the best representatives of the Scottish people.

The SNP did not drop its secessionist agenda, but it did adapt that agenda to reach a wider audience more interested in having local authority to tackle local problems. Hence, when the SNP campaigned for Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum, the surprise was not that the campaign lost but rather that almost 45 percent of the population voted ‘yes’. Moreover, the British government campaigned against independence by promising to cede even greater autonomy to the Scottish parliament. If they fail to maintain that pledge, it will be easy for the SNP to argue that the people of Scotland were misled and to insist on another referendum. Indeed, that is already happening.

The main question for the SNP leadership now is to try and hold the referendum when the timing is most appropriate. For their part, the political leadership in Westminster is trying to craft an explanation for why such a referendum cannot be held at all. Having seen the consequences of allowing the SNP to combine identity with geography, the British government is unwilling to accept the risk that a further referendum on Scottish independence will go against them.


Catalonia is also relevant

The Catalan situation follows a similar pattern of long-standing but somewhat marginalised appeals to narrow conceptions of identity gradually fusing with a broader campaign for regional autonomy grounded in changing relationships and political competences. What distinguishes Catalonia from Flanders or Scotland is the degree to which the Spanish state has pushed back on claims to assert greater regional autonomy or to hold a plebiscite on political independence. The response of Catalan separatists to this resistance from Madrid sheds light on just how hard the combination of identity and geography is to resist. Although it might be tempting to criticise the Belgian state for moving to a geographic federation or the British state for tolerating a Scottish referendum, the Catalan case suggests that the alternative could be even more problematic.

The Catalan political system has been different from the rest of Spain since the end of the Franco regime and the adoption of the 1978 Spanish constitution. It began to evolve even more differently, however, with the adoption of a controversial statute of autonomy in 2006. The Catalans argued that this statute reflected an increasing popular desire for self-government. The main unionist parties in Madrid complained that it undermined important delicate balances within the Spanish constitution. As this conflict worked its way through the judiciary, the separatist parties in Catalonia were able to build a case that their interests were being thwarted and their rights trampled. That campaign built on momentum generated through a series of local, grassroots referendums on independence and culminated in the 2014 referendum on self-determination. Along the way, the different separatist political parties in Catalonia established an effective working relationship that allowed them to dominate the regional government after the September 2015 elections.

What followed those elections was an intensive process of institution building at the regional level to equip Catalonia with the public administration it would require as an independent state. The separatist parties also made plans for a fully-fledge referendum on national independence. Their focus on geography and identity went hand in hand. And while the Spanish state pushed hard to prevent these developments, the cost it incurred was very high in terms of both the symbolism of oppression and the need to usurp the powers of the Catalan government. Now the government in Madrid faces a standoff insofar as it cannot yield control over Catalan institutions without allowing the separatists to reassert the political leadership. The longer this standoff remains in place, the more likely it is that attitudes among the separatists will harden against any kind of compromise. This does not mean that Catalan separatism will ultimately result in secession; what it does mean, however, is that the hold of the Spanish government over the Catalan region has become more fragile.


European ambivalence

The role of European integration in each of these examples has been ambivalent. Although it is often believed that Europe strips power away from the nation state and so makes it easier for regions to assert their independence, the reality is much more complicated. No one in the European institutions is eager to see the dissolution of existing member states and the institutions are not well-designed to accommodate successfully secessionist regions. Hence when the Catalan government fled to Brussels it found only a cold welcome. At the time of its own referendum, the Scottish government was cautioned that it would have trouble establishing relations with the European Union as well.

Now that Great Britain is leaving the European Union, that ambivalence takes a very different form. The problem is not just that Scottish nationalists perceive the chance to build a new relationship with the European Union post-independence, although that is certainly a consideration. Rather the ambivalence of Europe can be seen in the case of Northern Ireland. This is a story about competing narratives that combine identity with geography in an explosive combination. The Protestants in Northern Ireland seek to maintain their union with Great Britain; the Catholics seek unification with the rest of Ireland. The conflict between these groups, and involving the British state as well, boiled over for more than a quarter of a century. It came to an end with a complicated deal on regional power-sharing that involved all three governments – Britain, Ireland, and the Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont. This agreement was possible in part because European integration had changed so many relationships, tying the Irish, British, and Northern Irish economies and societies in ways that were not possible beforehand.

Now that Britain is leaving the European Union, those ties risk coming unbound. If there is one point of agreement among the main political groups in Northern Ireland, it is that this change in relationships should not be allowed to happen. Both sides fear what would come if a border were to be introduced between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland or between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. They have transcended the link identity and geography in the current situation. If new borders were put into place, they fear, that link between identity and geography would be reestablished. Moreover, the Northern Irish know all too well the potential consequences. They do not have to believe that violence would erupt between the two different communities of Northern Ireland to know they do not want to run the risk. In an odd sort of way, respect for the power of mixing identity and geography has become the greatest force binding Great Britain to the European Union. What plays out in most places as the push for secessionism is in this case a force for integration – or maintaining integrated links – instead.

Perhaps that more than anything else is that the secret to the anomaly that is Switzerland. The Swiss value what they have and know how easily it could lost under the right conditions. The temptation to combine identity with geography may existing in Switzerland as elsewhere, but the Swiss are committed to resist it.

This piece was originally published in German in the July/August 2018 edition of Schweizer Monat magazine, pp. 80-84. In this English-language version, I have used different sub-headings.