In Catalonia, a Warning on One-State Solutions

Gershom Gorenberg

My latest column at The American Prospect debunks new and old arguments that a one-state solution will work because nationalism is dead:

From the balconies above the narrow stone-paved streets of Girona hung gold-and-red striped flags. A blue triangle and white star adorned most of them, transforming the banner of the autonomous region of Catalonia into the standard of Catalonian independence. Here and there a legend emblazoned a flag: Catalunya, Nou Estat D’Europa—”Catalonia, A New State in Europe.”

I’d taken the train north from Barcelona to see Salvador Dali’s personal museum in Figueres and then explore Girona’s medieval old city. I was on vacation from the Middle East. But a political writer’s time off can so easily become a busman’s holiday. I looked at the flags and thought of the arguments about how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, about political scientist Ian Lustick’s very recent New York Times essay despairing of a two-state outcome, and about the furies that the late Tony Judt released almost precisely 10 years ago when he came out for a one-state solution. Nationalism was passé, the great historian of modern Europe wrote; nation-states had been replaced by “pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural… as any visitor to London or Paris or Geneva will know.”

In Catalonia, as any visitor to Girona or Barcelona will know, nationalism is alive and very 21st-century. In mid-September over a million and a half people—a fifth the region’s population—formed a chain the length of Catalonia to demand independence from Spain. Since the end of the Franco era, Catalonia has been on a long march toward ever greater autonomy from the central government in Madrid. The Franco regime repressed the Catalan language. Today the regional government works in Catalan, schools teach in it, and a language law requires businesses to use it. That menu, fair visitor, is in Catalan, not Spanish. The restaurateur does not get to choose.

Media reports on demands for independence often stress finances: Better-off Catalonia is tired of paying more to Madrid than it gets back. Regional President Artur Mas includes that problem in his case for secession. But let’s not fall into lazy economic determinism. If giving more to a federal government than you receive in return was reason enough to demand self-determination, you’d see million-person rallies for independence in California and New York.  The economic argument resonates in Barcelona because so many Catalans feel that their shared language, culture and history give them a national identity separate from Spain, and want to express that identity in their own state. This is nationalism, and it’s the platform of Catalan parties on both the left and the right.

North of the Pyrenees, there’s further evidence that post-nationalist pluralism hasn’t progressed quite as far as Judt claimed.

Read the rest here.