Europe and the Middle East: On the verge of unravelling
Democracy can be messy. In the northeast corner of Spain this week, democracy was downright chaotic. Catalans went to the polls on Sunday to vote in a referendum on whether to stay in Spain or go their separate way. The Spanish authorities, however, declared the vote illegitimate and sent in the national police to disrupt the referendum.
In many locales, as the police swept into the polling station to seize the ballots, the Catalans merely hid all the voting paraphernalia. When the police left, the Catalans set up again to register voter preferences, and lines reformed outside.
The Spanish government has been monumentally stupid. Its case for unity is much stronger than Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont's case for independence. The Spanish constitution of 1978 speaks of the country's "indissoluble unity," while also according Catalonia considerable autonomy. "The Catalan government claims the right to self-determination," The Economist points out. "But international law recognises this only in cases of colonialism, foreign invasion, or gross discrimination and abuse of human rights." None of those conditions applies to Catalonia.
Sure, the relatively wealthy Catalans are aggrieved that a portion of their economic success is redistributed elsewhere in Spain. But that's a fundamental element of the modern state. New Yorkers subsidise New Mexicans, London subsidises Leeds, Germans subsidise Greeks. Catalans can certainly challenge the terms of the economic arrangement - after all, the poorer Basque region doesn't share much of its tax revenues with Madrid - but neither Spanish law nor international law allows them to gather up all their marbles and go home.
Ultimately the Catalan crisis boils down to consent - whether the Catalans continue to agree to be part of the larger Spanish nation. In an 1882 essay on nations and nationalism, the French philologist Ernest Renan famously wrote that the nation is a "daily referendum." He meant that the nation is a matter not of inviolate borders or ancient history. Renan continued:
***The Internet and social media have broken the monopoly on national media, providing civic movements (along with global disrupters like the United States and Russia) the means to challenge the once authoritative narratives of the nation-state.***
"A nation is therefore a great solidarity constituted by the feeling of sacrifices made and those that one is still disposed to make. It presupposes a past but is reiterated in the present by a tangible fact: consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life."
Europe has always been a patchwork of different peoples, all striving for sovereignty over their own territory. People of varying histories, cultures, languages, and religions have been mixed together in a way that has defied any easy drawing of borders. Order has usually come over the centuries by force of arms. In the last century, two world wars were fought to upend those orders, and a third war beckoned.
If the Catalans withdraw from Spain, they are also withdrawing from the EU, which would amount to a second defection in so many years. The decision could prove even more costly for Catalonia than Brexit is proving for the UK, since it doesn't have an economy the size of England's, hasn't preserved a separate financial system (and currency), and doesn't have the same international profile (for instance, Catalonia is not a member of the World Trade Organisation).
Now that the "Europe of regions" has faded into irrelevance, Europe faces more fracture points. As a result of the Brexit vote, Scotland is once again reconsidering its commitment to the United Kingdom, though public opinion polls suggest that a second referendum on independence would fail by a narrow margin just like the first. In Belgium, the largest political force is a nationalist party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), which supports Flemish independence. Of course, the Flemish are the majority in Belgium, and Flanders is doing much better economically these days than Wallonia, but Belgian unity remains a fragile thing. Other regions of Europe are also restive - Basque country, northern Italy, Corsica.
Although the Catalan vote isn't likely to unravel the tapestry of Europe quite yet, other forces are at work in Europe - and not just Europe.
Kurds have wanted their own states for centuries. They've attempted to carve out autonomous regions in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Last week, the Kurdish territory in Iraq held a non-binding referendum on independence, which garnered overwhelming support.
Baghdad, too, rejected the non-binding vote. But unlike Madrid, the Iraqi authorities did not attempt to stop the vote from happening. Iraq banned flights to Kurdistan airports and imposed sanctions on Kurdish banks. But it didn't send in troops. The Kurdish government has announced new elections for November 1, and Baghdad seems to be waiting to see what the Kurds' next move will be. Neither side wants war.
Indeed, it's hard to imagine the Kurds dialling back their ambitions in Iraq. They've been running a de facto state of sorts for years. They thought, not unreasonably, that they could trade their extraordinary efforts against the Islamic State for a shot at real, de jure sovereignty. They've even embraced a rather ruthless realpolitik to their ethnic brethren across the borders. Kurdistan has maintained strong ties toward Turkey - despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's crackdown on Turkey's own Kurdish population - and have been cool toward the de facto Kurdish state of Rojava in northern Syria.
Technology has amplified this trend. Communications advances make this global market possible, and the transfer in microseconds of huge amounts of capital in and out of nation-states renders national economic policy increasingly illusory. The Internet and social media have broken the monopoly on national media, providing civic movements (along with global disrupters like the United States and Russia) the means to challenge the once authoritative narratives of the nation-state. What happened in the Arab Spring to authoritarian governments is now happening to democratic governments as well (witness the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's victory).
Finally, in the world of geopolitics, the overarching reasons for ideological unity are gone. The West no longer faces a "Communist threat," while the East no longer huddles together against the "Yankee threat." Sure, there's the Islamic State and its ilk to worry about. But all nation-states see these non-state actors as a threat. The "war on terrorism" hasn't forced states to give up a portion of their sovereignty for the cause - only citizens to give up a portion of their civil liberties.
In the 1950s and 1960s, utopians dreamed of a world government even as dystopians feared a global Big Brother. Today, when the international community can't even come together to stop climate change, the prospect of world federalism seems impossibly quaint. A much grimmer reality presents itself in places like Libya and Somalia and Yemen: failed states and the war of all against all.
Today the world faces a crisis of the intermediate structure. The EU is under siege. The power of nation-states is eroding. If this trend continues, with the world continuing to splinter, the only entities left with any global power will be corporations and religious organizations, a world where frightened people pray to Facebook and the gods of Google that the fierce winds of nationalism and the rising waters of climate change and the random fire of lone gunmen will stay away for one more day.
John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and this article is extracted from Foreign Policy In Focus