Catalonia, statehood, and the end of history

Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s writings, we are not at the end of history, and change on the global stage is inevitable

Governments the world over know that by granting independence to a secessionist movement, the territorial integrity of their country will forever be in question
Governments the world over know that by granting independence to a secessionist movement, the territorial integrity of their country will forever be in question

In his 1992 book “The End of History and the Last Man”, Francis Fukuyama, who is one of the world’s most recognisable political scientists, wrote that Western liberal democracy may represent the pinnacle of humankind’s ideological development. It is easy to throw around criticism of that idea nearly a quarter of a century later. But it seems to be human nature to want to attribute some form of exceptionalism to the time in which we live. We don’t appreciate that most of our constructs, such as democracy, are subject to gradual change over time.

This brings us to a related concept– that of what is a nation state and who can become one. According to the 1933 Montevideo Convention, the criteria for the creation of a new country is that it has a permanent population; defined territory; government; and capacity to have diplomatic relations with the other states. But this definition only scratches the surface.

A nation can be considered as a grouping of people who share the same language, culture and history, whilst a state is an entity that has the political legitimacy to rule over this society within a defined geographical territory. These definitions are flexible, but this is a good point of departure.

Whilst the definition works well enough on paper, in practice the reality is far more complex. In Europe, borders were often drawn by wars and peace deals for thousands of years, although there are still examples of states which are not necessarily heterogenous. Belgium is one such case, as its evenly split between French and Dutch speakers, although there is a Flemish separatist movement that wishes for a partition of the two.  

Other regions have had it worse, as their borders were imposed upon them by outside powers. The borders in the Middle East find their origins in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 between France and the UK, with Russia’s acquiescence. This created political problems which still exist today, not least the inability of the Kurds to have a unified homeland, with the Kurds being divided into minorities amongst Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Nearly every nation in Africa, with few exceptions, has had their national identity and borders at least influenced, if not set by colonial powers in the 20th century.

The birth of a nation state is rarely without incident, and requires the support of both its neighbours and the outside world. Since the end of the Cold War, this is more relevant than ever.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, less than thirty new members have been admitted to the United Nations, and most of those were either former Soviet or Yugoslav states. It is becoming more and more difficult for separatist movements in places like Scotland, Catalonia and Kurdistan to find enough support from larger powers to stake a claim in achieving statehood. There are various reasons for this, not least due to concerns that it would bring about political instability in a region, social unrest, or economic disruption.

Catalonia is a relatively wealthy Spanish region, and some Catalonians feel resentment at their disproportionate contribution towards Spain’s economy and tax coffers. However, with Catalonia’s relatively rapid moves of late towards independence, and a 43% turnout for the referendum vote, it lacked the overwhelming popular support on the ground to give Madrid pause for thought.

Whilst the Spanish government has won the battle in the short term, the heavy-handed tactics of its police at the voting booths may have unwittingly strengthened the independence movement in the long term.

What the Catalans, the Scots and the Kurds and other may well reasonably ask is: we already exhibit the characteristics of being a nation (same culture, language, and history), but why are we consistently being denied the chance to be a nation-state, with recognised legitimacy to rule ourselves?

Governments the world over know that by granting independence to a secessionist movement, the territorial integrity of their country will forever be in question. These governments generally hold the cards in the short term, as most new potential nation-states usually struggle both politically and economically in the first few years, especially if diplomatic recognition by potential trade partners is slow in coming.

National governments are within their rights to try to keep their country together, although the methods used can impinge upon whether they will have the backing of the international community when doing so. When a government to violence, it loses its moral authority in the debate. With its actions, Spain has damaged its relationship with the Catalans, even amongst those that were previously opposed independence.

On the other hand, the international community has made it difficult for aspiring nations, such as the Kurds, and Kosovars to achieve global recognition, in part due to geopolitical rivalries between larger powers, such as the US and Russia, or even regional ones, who fear the creation of a potentially hostile neighbour, such as in the case of Turkey/Iran (Kurds) and Serbia(Kosovo). Meeting the criteria on paper for statehood remains secondary to the position taken by the country its separating from, and the prevailing winds within the international community.

Not every nation can feasibly function as a state. Geography and a lack of resources can prove to be a limiting factor (although Malta bucked that trend). Governments which are facing separatist movements, such as Spain’s, should consider granting more powers of autonomy to disaffected regions, whilst reinforcing and recognising the importance of the region’s culture and language. Catalonia and other nations aspiring to nationhood need to recognise that a messy divorce from their parent country would harm it considerably, and such fractures are not easily repaired.

There are various levels of self-government, from degrees of autonomy within an existing state to full statehood. Nations should carefully and pragmatically consider where their destiny should lie. The international community should also recognise that contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s writings, we are not at the end of history, and change on the global stage is inevitable. Whether that change is peaceful or otherwise depends on the wisdom of those in power. History will judge us on our ability to adapt to it.

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