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‘Sovereignty’ is nationalism in drag

Sovereignty is nationalism in sheep’s clothing and is threatening to tear Europe apart, writes Angel Saz-Carranza.  

Angel Saz-Carranza is a professor and director at ESADE Business School’s Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics in Barcelona and Madrid.

In the early days of the current millennium, it would have been unthinkable to imagine the corrupt version of the concept of sovereignty that has since forcefully landed upon our European policymaking. This aberrant version of sovereignty works like this: the national government has full and sole authority over the national territory, and its mandate is solely to maximise national self-interest.

The debate and reasoning during the Euro crisis sadly exemplified a coarse national sovereignty logic—the Eurogroup’s major policies, jointly agreed on by elected representatives, must ceremoniously be approved by national parliaments. Leaders bravely uphold the defence of national sovereignty. I recall a prime minister declaring “We are a sovereign country” while asking the European Stability Mechanism for a bailout, and another one unilaterally calling a hasty referendum among its nationals to (in)validate a bail-out to be collectively agreed on by all Euro members.

The embarrassing politics around the refugee crisis again has abused the idea of sovereignty to play a dangerous public goods game, where most players try to coast, maximising their own returns while contributing as little as possible. The problem with such attitudes is that if all follow through with free-riding, the public good (in this case, the rightful, fair, and humane governance of refugees in Europe) is not delivered. The same phenomenon has been visible during the EU’s recent climate policy negotiations.

This sovereignty fever is unfortunate, because while the normative and cautious use of the concept of sovereignty serves the purpose of accountability and legality, it is more often than not inappropriately used as an undercover term for raw nationalism in an ever-more interdependent Europe. Sovereignty is not only an impractical concept, it is also historically faulty to conceive sovereignty in such a reduced and simplified version.

That sovereignty has to unquestionably reside in one actor was a normative idea which thinkers such as Bodin and Hobbes longed for, because of the violent civil unrest they experienced during their lifetimes. They visualised stability as the result of a strong hierarchy. Yet many countries explicitly divided sovereignty among their political units (i.e., practiced checks and balances) and even the 17th century Westphalian Treaty, which many consider to be the event framing the principle of non-intervention, contained plenty of exceptions to this absolute rule, such as the protection of religious minorities. Moreover, federal and confederal systems, among others, place ultimate authority for different issues at different levels.

Despite this, sovereignty in its most binary and simplistic interpretation is straining Europe in general, and in one city in particular: Barcelona. With a wonderfully heterogeneous history—it has been Iberian, Roman, part of the Visigoth Kingdom, Arab, Charlemagne’s most southern stronghold, and part of the Principality of Catalonia, the Crown of Aragon, the Crown of Castille and Aragon, and now the Kingdom of Spain—and one of the most international cities in Spain and Europe, Barcelona is being asphyxiated by two confronting Iberian nationalisms: Spanish and Catalan. The two distinct governance levels are demanding absolute and ultimate authority over the Catalan territory, of which Barcelona is the capital.

Perhaps an initial point to the current folly is the Spanish Constitutional Court’s 2010 decision to deem a few clauses of the new Statue of Autonomy unconstitutional, i.e., the Catalan Constitution). In 2006, after a long and exhausting negotiation within Catalonia and between Catalonia and central Spanish authorities, both central and Catalan chambers passed the new Statute of Autonomy. Catalans then seemed to settle in referendum the fiscal and governance conflict simmering for more than a decade.

Yet, the Spanish Constitutional Court—highly politicised and gridlocked—deemed clauses regarding identity to be unconstitutional. Catalonia is not a nation—a jaw-dropping debate in 21st century Europe! These include the federalisation of the justice system and fiscal issues, limitations on minimum and maximum fiscal transfer levels. Moreover, no central governance level proposed any remedy to the decapitation of the Statute of Autonomy.

The response has been forceful. Catalan separatists in turn called on an infantile conception of sovereignty and democracy (We are a nation, we decide!) and have been using all Catalan institutions to construct a Braveheart-esque narrative. As both sides lock horns and play a game of chicken, the cliff gets ever closer. Ironically, a full-on clash would have huge costs for both sides due to their intimate interdependence. To the delight of separatists, its support has now gone from 25% to 50% in a decade, and to the delight of Spanish nationalists, it has split Catalonia into two, breaking its traditional internal cohesion.

The absolute loser is Barcelona, parrochialised by Catalan nationalists, ostracised by the central government, and dually divided between unionists and separatists. Long gone are the days when Barcelona was ambiguous, full of shades of grey, proud of its multiple heritages and a Mediterranean outpost resisting toxic labels.

Sovereignty, a fundamental legal term, in real social life is rarely in the hands of a single authorit, and is often simply disguised nationalism. It is draining Europe, one Barcelona at a time.