Since the beginning of the Euro crisis, there has been a substantial amount of analysis, and more than a bit of hand-wringing, over the (arguably counterproductive) resurgence of nationalism among the European Union’s constituent states. Nicholas Sambanis’s New York Times op-ed from a few weeks ago is representative: he suggests that the crisis has refocused the European populace on their parochial national identities at the expense of their (potentially) continental one, and that such socio-psychological (re)orientation is preventing concerted action to solve the problem:
As Europe’s status declines, the already shaky European identity will weaken further and the citizens of the richer European nations will be more likely to identify nationally — as Germans or French — rather than as Europeans. This will increase their reluctance to use their taxes for bailouts of the ethnically different Southern Europeans, especially the culturally distant Greeks; and it will diminish any prospect of fiscal integration that could help save the euro.
The result is a vicious circle: as ethnic identities return, ethnic differences become more pronounced, and all sides fall back on stereotypes and the stigmatization of the adversary through language or actions intended to dehumanize, thereby justifying hostile actions. This is a common pattern in ethnic conflicts around the world, and it is also evident in Europe today.
Indeed, the economic malaise plaguing Europe provides some interesting evidence for the interaction between crises, insecurity, institutions, elite behavior, and political identity. It has certainly provided a clarifying moment for those who argue that European identity is sufficiently well-developed to have coherent political meaning. The importance of identity is difficult to observe when peoples’ various subject positions (religion, regional identity, nationality, etc.) coexist in harmony. It is when identities are brought into conflict—via social unrest, economic crisis, political competition or war—that they become the most salient. Events of recent years have not boded well for the European project, and have arguably reaffirmed the primacy of the nation-state as the locus of mass political allegiance.
Recent days have added another wrinkle to this narrative. Underreported in the American press, September 11th saw a colossal Catalan nationalist rally in Barcelona. Local police reported 1.5 million attendees. To put this into perspective, that’s nearly as many people as live in the city, and more than 20 percent of the total population of Catalonia. September 11th is Catalonia’s “national day,” commemorating the 1714 Siege of Barcelona that, according to the relevant national mythos, marked the end of Catalan independence. The holiday often draws a decent-sized crowd. This week’s demonstration, though, was orders of magnitude larger than usual. Reports indicate that protesters expressed grievances over their homeland’s disproportionate tax burden within the Spanish state, itself cash-strapped as it struggles with a balance-of-payments crisis originating in Brussels and Berlin.
There are a few points to be made here. The first is to reiterate that for European elites who profess such dedication to their continent-wide project of neoliberal cosmopolitan governance, austerity policies have been highly counterproductive. By requiring Europe’s periphery to deflate its way to renewed growth, Brussels (read: Berlin) is imposing scarcity and economic misery on the very populations it seeks to bind into a unified community of fate. Competition for a shrinking resource base is a poor breeding ground for mutual identification and positive fellow-feeling, yet rather than play savior by easing the damage done to places like Catalonia by international capital markets, institutional Europe has only exacerbated their ill effects.
The second is to note that the last few years provide a measure of support for the account of modern nationalism advanced by Karl Polanyi more than a half-century ago. For Polanyi, the overly-intensive identification with volk and fatherland that plagued midcentury Europe had roots in the collapse of the nineteenth century economic order and the incapacity of extant institutions to assert control over the fates of their societies. The renewed intensity of Catalan nationalism suggests that it continues to function as a kind of psycho-social defense mechanism through which people search for communities of fate with the capacity to control their own destinies. Madrid lies at the mercy of international creditors and lacks the institutional capability to address Spanish problems with any kind of decisiveness. In some ways it’s not surprising that the citizens of Catalonia search for other notions of community with the potential to do better.