political revue


Year LIX, 2017, Single Issue, Page 116






European (and global) federalism came into being, as political forces, in the aftermath of World War II with the aim of overcoming nationalisms and uniting, in a common political project, the beleaguered nation-states of the Old Continent, and progressively the whole of mankind.

Today, this is still the aim of this political philosophy, for which the establishment of the European Union, even though it is not yet a fully federal polity, represents a crucial and historically important success.

However, nationalist tendencies have proved resilient in the West and around the world, and to some extent the imbalanced phenomenon of globalisation, with its lack of a strong social and political dimension, has had the effect of reviving and fuelling them. Thus, nationalism recently proved victorious, albeit by small margins, in the United Kingdom, with Brexit, and in the United States, with the election of Donald Trump, a media and business personality and vocal supporter of a strictly “America first” and anti-immigrant agenda.

Simply put, nationalism as a doctrine believes that culturally homogeneous or dominant communities must have their own, separate political organisation, in the form of a state, and that their exercise of sovereignty over the territories that fall within these states must be absolute.

These two nationalist dogmas are both problematic from the perspective of guaranteeing a peaceful international order. The first requires either a multiplication of the existing sovereign states, so that there are as many of them as there are identifiable cultural communities (in Europe this number could be as great as a hundred), or the suppression of cultural minorities, in situations where one particular nationalism is dominant over others in a given geographical space. It is a principle that has implications for the stability of the currently established political states, while also making for complicated decision-making in inter-state affairs.

The second fosters wars, since the dogma of absolute sovereignty means that the state, as an entity, recognises no superior, with the result that a condition of anarchy reigns in relations between states. In short, the rule of force, instead of the rule of law, prevails.

Federalism, on the contrary, opposes both these nationalist dogmas. Sovereignty is not absolute, excepting perhaps a sovereignty exercised by the whole of mankind as one, in which case different cultural communities could belong to the same political organisation, provided they shared its values and principles. Federalism also recognises the right of autonomy for distinct cultural communities, and is thus opposed to the concept of dominant nationalisms within nation-states.

In any event, from a federalist point of view, even the notion of nation is quite problematic. Renan in his famous conference, ended up concluding that it cannot be defined by language, culture or history, but rather by the presence of a considerable number of people believing that they all belong to one.[1] Albertini seemed to deny the concept altogether.[2]

This is the reason why federalism aims to unite not nations, but rather democratic states, which constitute an objective construct, characterised by the existence of a political entity that has the monopoly on the use of force (power) within a given territory, and exercises it according to the rule of law. This applies regardless of whether the state comprises one nation (i.e. cultural community) or more than one. In actual fact, it would be more accurate to say that it is states that created national identities, through centralised education systems and military conscription, rather than the other way around.

The European Union represents the concrete realisation of this ideal: the old European nation-states, determined to avoid further wars in the continent, decided to pool their sovereignty in an increasing number of fields, effectively setting up a multilingual and multicultural political project, to the point that even a common European cultural conscience is now recognised.

The Catalan independence movement, supported by no more than 48 per cent of the electorate according to the outcome of the September 2015 regional poll, may be seen as yet another example of a nationalist backlash fostered by the economic and financial crisis and by the existence, in a substantial part of the population, of a strong sense of shared identity, which in this case is felt to be incompatible with Spanish citizenship.

The Catalan question, although complex and influenced by a diversity of factors, clearly revolves around the old questions of national identity and the redistribution of wealth,[3] quite apart from certain other conjunctural factors, such as the Spanish Constitutional Court’s annulment, in 2010, of a number of articles of the revised Statute of Autonomy, which had been approved by popular referendum in the region.

Given that there has never been an independent Catalan state, the Catalan language (a Latin language closely related to Italian, French and Spanish) is the main foundation upon which Catalan nationalism has built the idea of the existence of a Catalan nation.[4] Historically, the ancient County of Barcelona joined the Kingdom of Aragon in the Middle Ages. Embracing Aragon, Valencia, the Balearic islands, and at some point even Sardinia and Sicily, this kingdom was much larger than present-day Catalonia. Then, through the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand, it entered into a dynastic union with Castille. Even today Catalan is not spoken only in Catalonia, but also in Valencia and the Balearic islands.

Upon the adoption of the Spanish Constitution in 1978, Spain in fact became a federal state, the fourth most decentralised of the OECD countries. Since then, Catalonia has enjoyed self-government, having its own regional parliament endowed with exclusive legislative competencies in many fields, including education and culture.

Thus, there is no clear historical or legal basis for the exercise of external self-determination in Catalonia, since according to the United Nations a territory can legally secede from a state only in certain circumstances: military occupation, colonialism, cultural discrimination, or continued and massive human rights violations. With regard to this last scenario, in the wake of Kosovo, we talk of “remedial secession”.

Aside from the successful construction of an exclusive national identity, with which around half of the population identifies, another factor driving the nationalist surge in Catalonia is the perception that Catalonia is the victim of unfair wealth redistribution policies vis-à-vis other regions in Spain, regions that can be likened to richer territories in other parts of Europe (Veneto in Italy, Flanders in Belgium, etc.). Indeed, in 2012, the nationalist president of Catalonia, Artur Mas, launched a bid for independence after the central government rejected his claim that all taxes should be collectible by the region, which would then pay into the common national budget only the amount that it, in turn, would receive from it in transfers, thereby cancelling out any redistributive effect.

In 2014, the nationalist Catalan independence movement unilaterally organised an informal referendum, in which less than half of the electorate participated. In 2015, nationalist parties failed to achieve at least 50 per cent of the vote in the regional election, but they nonetheless continued to pursue their independence agenda. Finally, on 6 and 7 September 2017, the pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament passed two unconstitutional bills that were taken as the legal basis for a self-determination referendum to be held on October 1st. Again, no more than 40 per cent of the electorate took part in what amounted to an unconstitutional referendum with no independent recount body, as the nationalists themselves admitted. On the basis of this so-called referendum, the regional parliament, in the absence of most of the opposition, declared independence on 27 October. On the same day, the Spanish Senate voted to suspend the region’s autonomy, using as its legal basis, the mechanism of federal execution provided for in article 155 of the Constitution, which was copied from article 37 of the Fundamental Law of the German Federal Republic.

The Catalan pro-independence movement therefore appears to contradict several federalist principles, both in substance and in methodology.

First, the Catalan nation, as a cultural community, is already fully self-determined within Spain, and any grievances could and should be resolved politically and in full respect of the existing constitutional boundaries. It is very clear that the unilateralism that has characterised this nationalist movement is incompatible with the rule of law and the principle of territorial integrity, both key principles enshrined in the Treaty on the European Union (articles 2 and 4.2).

Second, federalism does not believe that every nation has the right to its own separate, fully sovereign political state, because this contradicts the principles upon which the concept of European federation rests: shared sovereignty and a multicultural polity.

Furthermore, European federalism could never endorse the indiscriminate birth of new sovereign states in Europe, given that this would affect the strength and stability of the Union, and ultimately complicate its decision-making processes, assuming the Union were to survive the challenges of the emergence of nationalism within states, not only in Spain, but also elsewhere. It is not by chance that the Supreme Court of the United States declared the American federation “an indestructible Union of indestructible States”, thus enforcing the concept that the principle of territorial integrity works two ways, at both state and federal levels.

Third, demanding independence on the basis of claims, moreover grossly exaggerated by the nationalists,[5] of unfair redistribution of economic resources is tantamount to rejecting the solidarity principle, which is a fundamental value of both federalism and the European Union.

All in all, micro-nationalisms, whether in Spain or in any other member state, are a regressive and negative force for the European integration process and the pursuit of federal global governance. They pose a threat to the key federalist principles of supra-state sovereignty, multicultural political entities, solidarity and a stable international order, and in the case of Catalan nationalism, also to the rule of law and democratic statehood, which are the basis of any regional or global federation. If history has an end, in the ideological sense, it should be leading us towards a federation of free, democratic and liberal states, not in the direction of a proliferation of new nations conceived along narrowly linguistic or cultural lines.

For these reasons, regional nationalists should not be indulged or supported in Europe, still less so by European federalists.

Domenec Ruiz Devesa


[1] Ernest Renan, Qu´est-ce qu´une nation?, Clamecy, Mille et une nuits, 2010.

[2] Mario Albertini, Nazionalismo e federalismo, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1999.

[3] For an overview of the historical and economic claims of Catalan nationalism, see Josep Borrell, Francesc de Carreras et al., Escucha, Cataluña; Escucha, España, Barcelona, Península, 2017.

[4] See Josep Borrel and Francesc de Carreras, op. cit..

[5] See, in particular, Josep Borrell and Joan Llorach, Las cuentas y los cuentos de la independencia, Madrid, Catarata, 2015, and the book reviews with a federalist outlook by Pilar Llorente, Economics and the Tall Tales of the Independence of Catalonia, The Federalist Debate, 30, n. 1, (2017), and Ruiz Devesa, Los mitos del nacionalismo y las cuentas de la independencia en Cataluña, Letra Internacional, n. 122 (2016).



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