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Communities vs. States: Catalonia’s Referendum and the Question of Regional Autonomy in the EU


Observing events in Catalonia can help us to explore our ambiguous definitions and trends of thought about nation states, multiculturalism, and ideas regarding who has the right to be ‘independent’.

First, we need to fix few absolute statements about independence movements. There are ‘nations’ which have successfully claimed independence in Europe, while others have been unable to do so. This differentiation is usually made ad hoc, or motivated by clear geopolitical logic, and by decisions made by classic great  powers. For example, there are no clear and conventional explanations to describe how Kosovo became independent. The case of the former Yugoslav state wasn’t particularly different from that of other freedom struggles. There were independence fighters, and there were radical, even ruthless attempts to suppress the rebellion by the Yugoslav state. While similar scenarios also played out in other regions in Europe in the last century, such as in Northern Ireland, no one gained independence so quickly, and international recognition did not come on such a broad scale.

Likewise, geopolitics can explain other similar situations in the same region. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s population is composed chiefly of three South-Slavic ‘nations’: the Serbs, the Croats, and the Bosnians. The Dayton Agreement brought a dysfunctional multi-ethnic state into being over the ruins of the former Yugoslavia, into which ethnic conflict was coded from the foundation. The newborn state easily could inherit these tensions. So why did Western Powers force these nations to keep the former SFRY state borders? If the Serbian enclave would have joined Serbia, the newly born Croatia would have taken the Croatian part. What would have been left from this territory? A Sarajevo based region with a Muslim majority, into which had already started to flow Islamic radicalism from the Middle East. The US and EU did not want to create a Muslim mini-state at the doorstep of Europe.

In the 2017 edition of its annual Transforming World Atlas — which uses maps and other data visualizations to illustrate major global issues — Bank of America Merrill Lynch focuses one map on the growing secessionist movement across the continent.

Another interesting factor can be a given nation’s attitude towards independence movements. For example, Russia wouldn’t recognize Kosovo, but do promote ‘independence’ movements in Eastern Ukraine (which receive financial and military support from the Russian state)and may support other border claims If they were in Russia’s interest. But there are other nations, like Romania or Slovakia, which would never recognize movements like the drive for Catalonian independence. The rest of Europe usually suspiciously watches every small step that these ‘nations’ take toward self-governance.

Now we can clearly see how independence fights are, first and foremost, decided by the cold logic of politics. Nothing matters, just the power behind you, and luck. But can we Europeans afford geopolitical games inside our community, or should we focus on how we can maximize our personal fulfillment and well-being?

Europe has approximately thirty separatist movements nowadays, and many of them  have yet to bear fruit, because the status quo has proven stronger than the separatist motivations. These conflicts can really harm the EU politically and financially, if we don’t find solutions for the people’s problems in these regions. The biggest problem is that people in these areas can’t live happy lives. Sometimes, states which rule these territories are afraid to make financial or infrastructural investments in such regions due to the possibility of separation.

We Europeans really must start to reconsider some of our long-held notions. The biggest current debate about the EU’s future is over which path we choose: the federalist, or the nation state approach. While at a first glance these two models may appear to be incompatible, they really aren’t. We just need to admit that nations do not necessarily live inside one nation state, as it developed in Western Europe in the 18th century, and because their nature has never been and never will be identical to that of homogeneous European nation states.

This concept would employ these ‘real’, linguistic and ethnic communities as the building blocks of our future, rather than old-fashioned artificially constructed institutions such as modern nation-states. We should also take Europe’s regions seriously. Every enclave which has its own unique characteristics, be they linguistic, religious, economic or historical, that clearly separates them from the majority population surround them, and which is in addition easily definable, both in the ways mentioned above, and geographically, should govern themselves. This can mean different things for different groups, whether it’s autonomy for the Szekelys or independence for the Catalans.

By Gábor Sarnyai


About the author:

Originally from Serbia’s Vojvodina region, Gábor Sarnyai holds a degree in political science from Budapest’s Corvinus University, and has worked as a journalist at numerous Hungarian news outlets. 


Images via the Transforming World Atlas and