Can Europe Make It?

The state: the final frontier

If Catalan markets are subject to European regulation, if redistribution is increasingly coming under threat, and if the inhabitants of Catalonia prefer a different combination of public services, why should it have to share the same state structures as Spain?

Jacint Jordana
30 October 2014

Antoni Gaudi stain glass window in Barcelona.Wikimedia commons/Mstyslav Chernov. Public domain.

One of the many ways to analyse the persistent conflict between Catalonia and Spain relates to the international dimension and its local impact. Thus, a very common argument against Catalan independence asks why, in the context of globalisation, and with the opening up of markets and the ease of all forms of communication, we need new states, when what we truly need are greater opportunities for integration.

It is also worth noting that the nation-state model that emerged in the nineteenth century and combined the provision of public goods and services and the regulation of relatively closed markets, and later served to introduce redistribution policies, fell into crisis decades ago. However, for that very reason, supporters of independence point out that they are not asking for much. The existing states in Europe are not as relevant these days, they argue; they have fewer functions and they already pool much of their sovereignty into the European area. 

Both parties agree on the diagnosis, but they hold opposing positions: one side wants to maintain the status quo, while the other wants to change it. Why is this? How can we explain it? What happens to European states in the context of globalisation? We will attempt to answer this question by posing some key dilemmas.

Firstly, we encounter what could be referred to as the “end-of-history” effect. We are all perfectly aware that the current borders of European states are not the result of rational decisions, but of multiple historical events. Throughout history, change has been driven by the acquisition of more territory in order to extract more resources and reach larger markets. Some states achieved this through territorial continuity, and others through colonial expansion; long, harrowing histories either way.

Luckily, this model of territorial expansion has been in decline for some time now, and the new expansion methods used by states and companies scarcely require territorial control; thus, the history of border changes in Europe, for many, has come to an end as no more incentives exist for territorial expansion. Lack of interest in border changes creates such an “end-of-history” effect, freezing any change that might alter the current territorial equilibrium. 

Secondly, it is worth pointing out that globalisation has driven large-scale changes in many public policies. Redistribution policies are being subjected to all kinds of tension. Moreover, states barely get involved in regulating markets these days, while many public services don't need to be sizeable, as demonstrated by the explosion in decentralisation processes the world over. In any case, we can see how the balance between regulation, redistribution and public services that was forged over time in each country, with varying degrees of success, is no longer appropriate from a state power point of view.

With Europeanisation and globalisation, major European states still hold many of their instruments of power, but their traditional balance has been shaken up. This gives rise to a seemingly clear-cut question: if Catalan markets are subject to European regulation, if redistribution is increasingly coming under threat, and if the inhabitants of Catalonia would prefer a different combination of public services, then why should it have to share the same state structures as Spain?

Thirdly, the number of states in Europe has been rising in parallel with the globalisation process. In recent years, the number has increased relatively rapidly (about 12 new states since 1990), at a similar rate to the rest of the world (about 34 new states since 1990). Often, they are small, rather homogeneous states that rarely regulate their own markets and merely adopt the regulations of other countries, or those of transnational or international organisations.

Whether as is often the case, or not, they reinvent the traditional symbols and rhetoric of the nation state, most of these new states, however, stem from the collapse of the communist world, or from ethnic-territorial rearrangements in post-colonial areas. In fact, they very rarely emerge from the break-up of nation states with their operational capabilities intact. This is because all states, once established, are highly resistant to fragmentation. State bureaucracies set up organisational structures with the capacity to develop a range of reactive strategies to maintaining the status quo. In spite of the abovementioned imbalances, these bureaucracies continue to play an active role in controlling risks and preventing institutional breakdown.

These three trends suggest that, although there may be more states in Europe, future outcomes cannot be predicted with any certainty. While state sovereignty is gradually being diluted, the relevance of EU policies is increasing, redistribution is decreasing and spaces for public service production are being restructured into smaller units, the major unitary states in Europe are coming under increasing tension.

There are no examples of fixed paths in history, and is it difficult to make predictions on issues like these. Almost any situation is possible, the deviations are multiple, and the rates of transition may also differ greatly. Nevertheless, it is quite plausible to suggest that Europe will have more independent states or that a number of unitary states will have undergone complete federalisation within the next 20 years; however, guessing which states will be affected involves something more akin to intuition than science.

Could new waves of diffusion of states emerge in Europe?

If we think about the creation of new states as change processes that take the form of waves, where the changes in one country have an impact on other countries, it can be understood as a policy diffusion process, but in this case relating to decisions on the formation of new states. One of the features common to diffusion processes, which have been extensively studied in the social sciences, is an uncoordinated interdependence between the decisions made by their proponents over time. In these situations, it is thought that the actions of an individual (or a community, state or any other body) or the results they obtain have a knock-on effect on other individuals, in that they increase the chances of the actions being copied. In the field of creation of new states, some studies on decolonisation processes have clearly shown the existence of conditional probability sequences in which aspects such as shared language or territorial proximity increase the chances of the decolonisation path being rapidly pursued.

Thus, it is thought that the chances of the phenomenon being reproduced are significantly higher the closer these societies are. That is not to say that things always happen the same way. Indeed, in studies on diffusion, one of the most extensively explored aspects is the set of factors that influence the chances of decisions being adopted over time. Mechanisms that influence the adoption of decisions have been identified, and include learning from the experience of others, emulation between states and territories, and competition.

In a diffusion process, a three-stage sequence is frequently observed. Firstly, we have the starting point, when the process begins with the appearance of isolated cases of innovation adoption. The second phase starts when numerous followers adopt similar decisions within a very short period of time. Finally, during the third phase, a few individuals continue to adopt the innovation, but the rate of adoption is much slower. This sequence represents a common pattern of diffusion of innovation (and of political change), and has been observed in many different social phenomena.

Of the second phase, i.e. the generation of the “wave” itself,  we can say (now with even more conviction following the results of the Scottish referendum) that there is no wave in motion, since there are no incipient cases of new statehood beyond the latter cases of previous waves, such as some new republics in the Balkans.

Secondly, it is worth noting that it is still possible for a new wave of creation of new states to emerge in the context of western democracies, particularly in Europe, where several states have shown signs of tension in national governance for decades (e.g. Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Belgium, etc.). But it is also apparent that these tensions have been managed using political decentralisation processes adapted to the characteristics of each case, and therefore the intensity of the conflicts between territories within democratic states has not reached the point of no return, in terms of intergovernmental relations, although we cannot rule out this possibility in the future.

In fact, although we are discussing the possible diffusion of processes to create new states, an alternative situation is equally possible, i.e. the diffusion of new institutional designs to structure the relationships between the regions within a state.

Thirdly, it is clear that the national identity game has a great deal to do with defining the chances of diffusion. If areas of multiple identities are set up in Europe, spanning local identities and the European nation, it is possible that the existing state structures will be maintained, more because of the sunk costs involved in changes than because of some great collective dream.

If, by contrast, exclusive national identities are set up in Europe, and nation states manage to retain their strength in today's Europe thanks to the alliance of bureaucratic structures and elites that benefit from them, social and economic sectors in territories without their own state but with the capacity to forge their own way in a globalised manner will undoubtedly benefit from the opportunities presented by a process of diffusion of new states, especially if there are examples nearby, with a high level of contact and some institutional similarity.

Finally, it remains a paradox to point out that the strong growth of transnational networks in many sectoral areas and the emergence of supranational organisations are related to the rise in the number of states around the world observed in recent decades.

To some extent, the relative loss of centrality of states in an increasingly interconnected and global world, despite the endurance of their symbolic elements, makes their fragmentation and multiplication more likely (although by no means their disappearance as areas of sovereignty). All of this is shaping a new scenario that differs from the mainstream scenario of the twentieth century in which the emergence of multiple sources of legitimacy, beyond territorial frameworks, suggests that transnational communities and supranational structures such as the European Union itself can recognise new areas of territorial sovereignty even more forcefully than the individual states themselves.

Why are European states afraid of border changes?

We are asking why, when there are so many different frames of mind, current EU leaders have shown so much fear of border changes. We have seen it in Great Britain, Spain and Italy; everyone can sense their nervousness. Some reasons must exist to justify these reactions. In fact, although many concerns may arise, changing borders within the European Union should not be a technically complex problem.

Many of our legal rules are derived from European frameworks, the convergence between public policies is huge, and the movement of goods and people in all directions within Europe is intense. However, the problem has not been presented as technical in nature, but as one of great political magnitude, to the extent that one of the major arguments of the existing states has been the very threat of expulsion from the European Union of any territories wanting to break away.

Our question remains unanswered. We could attempt an institutional argument: the emergence of new states within the EU could alter the delicate balance of power within European institutions. This is certainly inconvenient for all parties concerned, especially for those that lose relevance, since this also involves losing a great deal of power. Naturally, no one wants this. Moreover, this analysis leads us to another clue: the owners of the EU are not the citizens, but the member states. This has recently been pointed out by the states, and they obviously display it often. Perhaps this situation will change within a few decades, but let's not confuse our desires with the current reality. Currently, as owners, states have no interest in making room for other states, and even less so if there is no benefit for everyone, unlike when the EU expands.

All of this leads us to a new, by now somewhat predictable, question: what do we mean when we talk about a state? There are many theories concerning the state, and we're not going to uncover anything new. Briefly, one interpretation that is fairly widely accepted suggests that a state is an organisation, in charge of producing public goods for a community, and with a monopoly on violence within the territory in which it operates.

For it to work, it requires some form of legitimacy and rules to maintain its internal cohesion (like the principle of hierarchy, coordination mechanisms, selection of representatives, etc.). Basically, they are highly complex, unique organisational structures, which, among other things, or perhaps more so than other things, are concerned with survival, stability, and wherever possible, growth. Division, reduction and redefinition are not in their DNA. Thus, opposition to their fragmentation basically constitutes the same problem faced by European institutions that want to obtain more autonomy, their own resources and direct democratic legitimacy. The state as an organisation perceives it as a tremendous loss, and opposes with all its might, which is huge, any change that could limit its powers.

At this point, we could consider our question answered and leave it at that. However, we would be left with an incomplete response, based only on organisational and institutional dimensions. States, in addition to being providers of public goods, have also become specialised in managing community identities. In fact, the construction of national identities over the last two centuries by states has been enormous, as a quick mental scan of recent history demonstrates.

The advantage of having a population identity with a collective sense of community, in terms of social discipline, military effort, homogenisation of local identities, etc. was huge, and even more so in cases where the ideal of the nation state was implemented very efficiently. Of course, all this represents a secular process that is difficult to perceive in terms of the human life cycle. If in the nineteenth century nation states were defined and constructed, with varying degrees of success, and in the twentieth century those states brought their beneficiaries rich returns, in the twenty-first century we are facing a slow process of disintegration of this ideal as it comes under tension from many directions.

Nevertheless, not all states evolve simultaneously. While in some parts of the world there are states in their relatively early stages, and new states even being created in pursuit of the nation-state ideal, the oldest states, such as those in Europe, are particularly badly affected by this crisis of secular maturity.

The emotional attachment to the idea of the nation state is still alive and well among broad sectors of the population, and when territorial tensions arise, the symbols and mysteries of sovereign power are recreated. This is the case even though many people no longer marry, even under civil law, the customs authorities have become mere risk management systems, and large companies have stopped paying taxes, in addition to many other symptoms of this state breakdown.

Restoring the communion of national identity has become the new shared religion, whose faith is not disputed so as to avoid casting doubt on the beliefs underpinning the support for states in these uncertain times. Perhaps here we begin to arrive at an explanation for the sense of panic: territory is seen as the very heart of state sovereignty, and in a context of crisis, the final frontier.


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