Catalonia is yet another political case that demonstrates the necessity of strengthening a federal construct in the EU. Now that Britain is on the way out, and a major critic of federalism as a viable political option will no longer be present (after all, even with the ‘home nations’ and devolution, the UK never managed to progress to a federal state), it is time for the EU to embrace the politics of unity. Federalism is just such a project and various models demonstrate how multiplicities of language and identity are viable within a politically unified system.
Germany is already such a nation, with proper federal constructs set up while at the same time maintaining regional identities and smaller decision-making capacities in municipalities and city-centred politics. Certainly there are different forms of federalism, and beyond Europe, arguably two of the most successful are Australia and Canada. In both countries, various powers are devolved to the states and provinces at the sub-federal level. For example, if a state such as Western Australia sees the need to set up a trade commission/delegation to a given region or nation, it is free to do so and indeed has done just that. All Australian states have trade commissions around the world. Canadian provinces have power over immigration, and can organise their respective education and health systems at the provincial level. Sections 51 and 52 of the original British North America Act of 1867 ensured that federation would not take away from these decision-making powers, and Australian federation in 1901 kept the same sections of the constitution. Canada’s ‘repatriation’ of the BNA Act in 1982 and the subsequent additions to the original formative constitution kept these legal positions and even when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was added, which is a radically progressive addition guaranteeing individual and group rights and freedoms while at the same time curtailing hate speech and incitement to violence, it still placed primacy on balancing the rights of people(s) with local(ized) governing capacities.
In the Canadian case, there have been two recent ‘internal secessions’ and an ongoing debate about Quebec. There is no space here to discuss Quebec in detail, and this is always a process of negotiation. But politics is not only about consensus. It is also about living with dissensus and finding ways to accommodate various forms of difference while, crucially, expending neither blood nor treasure. In the case of Quebec, there was almost a proper secession in which Quebecois voters sought to leave Canada and form some type of ‘sovereignty-association’. The political (and cultural, social, economic) negotiation continues and there are varying degrees of success and failure, accommodation and conflict.
The two ‘internal secessions’ I want to focus on here, can be similar to Catalonia, provided we have a stronger federal construct in the EU. Such federal constructs then manage to take away the large modern problems that nations have difficulty managing individually (the military, and other special resource distributions such as building and maintaining transportation and communication connections, fixing environmental problems, are all massive transnational undertakings). This means that states and provinces have autonomy, like Catalonia would inside a federal construct. On the first of April, 1999, the Northwest Territories split in two parts, one retaining the original name, and the other part became Nunavut, a self-governing territory with an elected legislative assembly. This was the end of a long process around land claims by local Inuit people as well as an eventual referendum. This is an important political realignment recognizing First Nations and Indigenous Peoples capacities for political life. Canada’s tenth province, and last to join confederation in 1949, sought a constitutional amendment for several years, and was successful in a name change to officially change to Newfoundland and Labrador in 2001. Again, a political realignment within a federal construct meant that expressions of identity in a political territory could be negotiated with a desired change of the political designation, the actual name, of said territory. Internal negotiations not loss blood and treasure; accommodation by various political powers, not violent reactions to shifting territorial alignments; acceptance of identity claims, not rejection by powerful arms of the state.
There is much to be learned from Australian and Canadian federalism, and much to be gained by the EU, from moving in the direction of creating a type of confederation that both of those countries enjoy. It is in this way that dissensus can be managed, and secessions like Catalonia can then become viable political options without creating more political grievances that destroy nations.
Dr Robert Imre is currently Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Advanced Social Research (IASR) at the University of Tampere and he begins as a researcher at the Tampere Peace Research Institute (TAPRI) later on in 2018.