‘The sight of Carles Puigdemont campaigning by video link from Brussels has been one of the starkest features of the campaign for this week’s election in Catalonia.
‘But what is the deposed Catalan president doing in Brussels? His decision to flee to the EU capital has brought into sharp focus how European integration affects dynamics of devolution and independence across Europe.
‘Catalonia-style demands for independence are often thought of as being antithetical to the process of European integration. In fact, “Europe” has indirectly sown the seeds for these demands. It has done so by offering incentives to regional-nationalist parties to pursue a strategy of “independence in Europe”.
‘These incentives are two-fold. The first is that integration makes smaller states more economically viable and so it reduces the economic costs of independence.
‘The second is that smaller states are over-represented in the EU institutions and enjoy formal equality with the larger ones in key decision-making situations.
‘This is a far cry from the power politics that prevailed in Europe for centuries, under which the big powers were regularly running roughshod over the smaller states. Only member states have a seat at the top decision-making tables in the EU; regions, regardless of their size or constitutional status, have to content themselves with representation in the Committee of the Regions, which has an advisory role only.
‘The more is decided at the EU level, the greater the incentive to access decision-making at that level. This makes statehood very attractive to stateless nations such as Catalonia or Scotland compared to ‘regionhood’.
‘The EU framework, though, also constrains independence in that there is a clear possibility that new states born out of secession would find themselves outside the EU and would have to apply for membership, and thus be subject to a potential veto on the part of the rump state as well as other member states.
‘This possibility seems to rule out EU membership for states created via unilateral, as opposed to negotiated, secession from existing member states. As we have seen in Catalonia, secessionist parties have sought to “Europeanise” their pursuit of independence, courting the EU as a potential ally or at least as a mediator in their dispute with the central government.
‘But the EU is a creation of its member states and is governed collectively by them. It is thus structurally unable to act as a mediator in secessionist crises within its member states.
‘Hence, the road towards “independence in Europe” remains fraught with difficulties. The tensions between incentives and constraints, however, produces devolution dynamics that profoundly alter the way the European states are governed.
‘Brexit has added an extra layer of complexity to the jigsaw. On the one hand, the prospect of being dragged out of the EU against its will has renewed Scotland’s calls for independence. On the other hand, an independent and EU-member Scotland would face severe challenges in managing relations with an out-of-the-EU rump UK, which would remain its largest market and most important partner in so many ways. Thus, Scotland’s independence faces at the same time renewed urgency in the eyes of many and even more formidable political and economic obstacles than in 2014.
‘Far from making independence irrelevant, integration has actually indirectly fed the demand for it. The paradox is thus that “Europe” aims to bring about uniformity but actually generates dynamics that lead to greater complexity.’
Dr Paolo Dardanelli, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Kent, is the author of Restructuring the European State (McGill-Queen’s University Press). He tweets @PaoloDardanelli.