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Between Independence & Re-Centralisation

In 2014 the push for devolution became a major political issue. Scotland remains in the UK, but only after last minute bargaining devolved further powers to Holyrood. This has encouraged calls for more devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and for the formation of an English parliament. George Osborne’s Autumn Statement proves that Westminster is listening. Meanwhile, MPs and local governments want more powers entrusted to local authorities. Manchester is following Bristol’s lead in appointing a mayor. The UK is not alone in this trend. Emboldened by the experience in Scotland, Catalonia held an independence vote of its own, even if unrecognised by the government in Madrid. Legal or not, that vote may also boost efforts in the Basque Country, Bavaria and Flanders. While these votes may prove unsuccessful, the tension surrounding them will linger. The issues depend on the contextual consequences of the increasing trend towards devolution. There are two forces operating in two different directions: on the one hand, city/regional small nations are demanding Independence from their referential nation-states, while on the other hand, nation-states themselves are re-centralising or decentralising their structures and powers. Over the coming months, this Special Series will focus on the diverse angles to this debate by identifying and emphasising certain innovative and thought provoking case studies for the purpose of comparison. Posts will cover topics like the re-scaling of nation-states, constitutional change, the right to decide, independence movements, the federal EU hypothesis, the Europe of Regions approach, democratic participation and civic nationalism in relation to city-regions.

The Spanish state has been suffering from a deep crisis for several years, as Basque and Catalan claims for the ‘right to decide’ have clearly illustrated. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that the federalist option has been rediscovered as a way to solve the problems of the ‘State of Autonomies’. Is federalism a realistic solution? To answer this question, two aspects should be considered: 1) the potential of federalism as a solution to the specific problems linked to national pluralism; and 2) the viability of federal reform in Spain. 1. Federalism and national pluralism Federal studies have been considerably revived over the last 20 years and have abandoned some of their former beliefs or convictions. Federalism is not a panacea for solving problems of national pluralism in democratic contexts. Nor is federalism is a project necessarily concerned with national diversity (see Seymour and Laforest 2001: 9-10). This renewal has been greatly motivated by the difficulties encountered in advanced democratic systems (Canada, Belgium, Spain, to give a few examples) to reconcile deep diversity with the specific demands of the democratic principle. That is what Carl Schmitt already referred to in 1928 (2003: 356) when he emphasized the necessity of (existential) cultural and political homogeneity to ensure the stability of federal states. Empirical evidence confirms the German jurist’s theory. The great majority of federations, including those which started with important cultural and political diversity, evolved towards a form of Unitarian federalism which, in its fundamental aspects, eventually adopted the shape of the dominant State, the Nation-State (one State, one people). Schmitt refers to this federal form as ‘the federal State without federal bases’ (2003: 368). In the most recent specialized literature calls this type of federalism ‘territorial federalism’, that is to say a way to organize the political power of a single people or nation from a legal and territorial point of view (otherwise known as a monistic theory of federalism; see Karmis and Norman 2005: 3-17).

In Spain, the 1978 Constitution was the legal outcome of a political transition to a democracy, following the horrors of civil war and dictatorship. Among other things, it established a territorial model – the so-called “Estado de las Autonomías” (State of Autonomous Communities) – which was in principle designed to satisfy the historical demands for recognition and self-government of, above all, the citizens and institutions of two minority nations: Catalonia and the Basque Country. This territorial model occupies an intermediate position between the classic federal and regional models of comparative politics, but has more regional than federal features. Yet thirty-six years later, many Catalan and Basque citizens and political and social actors show a deep disappointment regarding the development of this territorial model – in terms of collective rights, political recognition and self-government. A movement for change In recent years, support for independence has increased in Catalonia. Different indicators show that pro-independence demands are endorsed by a majority of its citizens, political parties and civil society organizations. This is a new phenomenon. Those in favour of independence had been in the minority throughout the 20th century. Nowadays, however, demands of a pro-autonomy and pro-federalist nature, which until recently had been dominant, have gradually lost public support in favour of demands for self-determination and secession. The following graph shows this recent trend.

The recent plebiscite on Scottish independence has triggered a much wider debate in the UK about the organisation of state power in institutional and territorial terms. In particular, the role and economic position of the main cities vis-à-vis the state have raised headlines about ‘cities going independent’, such as ‘Devo Met’ (The Economist, 25 Oct 14). This not only continues the strong focus on the economic dimension of statehood and its territorial and institutional manifestation, but also that of identity and the sense of community (commonality). No longer, so it seems, does nationality operate automatically through the ‘nation state’ as a territorial and governmental entity. Instead, metropolitanism is encouraging, perhaps requiring, a ‘reterritorialisation of politics’ (Sellers and Walks, 2008). This growing emergence of an urban (metropolitan) dimension to national (and international) discourses on shared values, imaginations and common purpose has come to challenge the nationalisation thesis formulated as part of ‘political modernisation’ (Hofferbert and Sharkansky, 1971), and its primary focus on territorial states as expressions of an existing and cohesive civil society, or as ‘nationalisers’ seeking to shape a national identity (Brubaker, 1995). This once prevailing thesis propagates national contexts as dominant, hegemonial conditioning factors which reach across states, including regional and local identities and discourses, whether urban or not. The understanding of nationality has thus been viewed from a top-down perspective of discursive nationality, and corresponds with the territorial view that cites, being down the scalar hierarchy from the state, are automatically an integral part of that – bigger – entity – geographically, institutionally and discursively. Such, in effect, triple hierarchisation – where territory, institutional power structures and discourse of identity and belonging (communality) sit in parallel hierarchical arrangements – is now being challenged by a growing urban/metropolitan voice stepping out of the seemingly homogenous sonority of a national discursive ‘backcloth’. This may appear as a reverse step to the integrative, even homogenising, effects of nationalising politics (Caramani, 2004), seeking to overcome spatial and societal differences in identities and sense of belonging. From such a (conventional) perspective, states are seen as the ‘natural’ rallying points of national discourses of self-determination and their geographic manifestation.