On the anniversary of Mussolini’s seizure of power, Alessandro and Emmanuel discuss a century of inter-ethnic relations in the Italian borderlands
Vito Timmel, “L’incendio del Balkan” (1941, Rivoltella Museum, Trieste)
At the end of October 1922, King Vittorio Emanuele III offered Benito Mussolini the task to form a new executive. In the previous days, the fascists camicie nere had seized control of several towns in northern and central Italy and threatened the government led by the liberal Luigi Facta to move the assault to Rome if this did not cede power to the National Fascist Party. The details of these events are well-known and have been studied extensively. What is less known however is that at the beginning of October 1922, the fascists had used the same tactics to take over the northern Italian city of Bolzano in what some fascists later defined as a kind of general rehearsal for the planned occupation of the capital.
At first sight Bolzano was an outlier in the series of urban attacks carried out by the fascists in the early 1920s. Indeed the black shirts usually targeted municipalities led by Socialist administrations. By contrast, a coalition of Liberal and Catholics ruled Bolzano. Yet Bolzano was not a random choice. Most of the city’s inhabitants were German speakers and the city was the main urban centre of South Tyrol, a territory that Italy annexed at the end of the First World War along with the mostly Italian-speaking Trentino. South Tyrol was also overwhelmingly German-speaking and several local parties and organisations had repeatedly opposed annexation asking that the local population be given the opportunity to have a say about its future. Post-war Italian liberal governments had rejected these calls, but had guaranteed the preservation of Austro-Hungarian legislation in the area, promised to respect minority rights and begun negotiations for regional autonomy. To the Fascist Party this sounded like a betrayal of the sacrifice of the Italian soldiers who had died in order to conquer an area that – the fascists believed – was ‘inherently’ Italian and had been Germanised by the Habsburg Empire. The March on Bolzano was an attempt to force the Italianisation of the city, as well as a test of the liberal elite’s commitment to respecting minority rights.
Taking advantage of the 100th anniversary of both the March on Rome and Bolzano, in a recent paper published by the Pierre du Bois Foundation for Current History, Alessandro and Emmanuel discuss fascist policies in the new provinces annexed at the end of the Great War – South Tyrol as well as Venezia Giulia – and the impact of the fascist attempts to Italianise the populations living in these borderlands on the rest of the 20th century, most notably on relations with the neighbouring countries of Austria and Yugoslavia (today Slovenia), as well as with Germany. The paper also examines the contradictions of the fascist approach to minorities. It argues that fascist thinking about the allogeni – the fascist term to identify Italians of non-Italian origins – and policy in South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia were informed by a form of ‘consistent ambivalence’ whereby fascists authorities were torn between the naif belief that the assimilation of the allogeni was inevitable and a deep-seated distrust of them, since they were deemed to be inherently disloyal citizens.
Yet 2022 marks another important anniversary: the 50 years since the signing of the second statute of autonomy of Trentino-South Tyrol which ushered in a period of stabilisation in majority-minority relations in the area. This statute of autonomy turned South Tyrol from a hotspot of nationalist conflict to an oft-cited success story of minority recognition and cross-border cooperation in Europe. To account for that, the paper goes beyond the interwar period and details the considerable, although hard-won, advances in minority rights and conflict management achieved in the second half of the 20th century.
Our edited volume with Bloomsbury Academics has eventually gone into production
In September 2022, Bloomsbury Academics announced that the edited volume Sovereignty, Nationalism and the Quest for Homogeneity in Interwar Europe, which Emmanuel, Davide and Mona have been putting together for the last two years, has eventually gone into production and should be released in May 2023.
It has been a long and twisted journey, marked by the pandemic and other dramatic events, first of all the sudden demise of Eric Weitz, who was supposed to write the conclusion of the volume and to whom this will be dedicated. The Myth of Homogeneity team started working on it in March 2020, right after having held the workshop Sovereignty, Nationalism and Homogeneity in Europe between the World Wars, the last event before the first wave of lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic began. The event was co-organised with the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy (more info on it in our podcast on the event here).
The volume bridges the East-West divide still existing in the historiography of minority questions in interwar Europe. It also puts together contributions examining majority-minority relations from different perspectives, notably comparative, bottom-up and transnational. It includes discussions of: the transition from empires to nation-states with an innovative comparison of traditional cases of imperial breakdown, such as the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, with the United Kingdom, usually considered in this context as a nation-state rather than a composite monarchy; the Paris system and how the new international order inaugurated in the French capital extended its influence over the entire continent causing quests for national homogeneity in different European regions; the concept of national indifference, its applicability to the interwar years and its alternatives; and the transnational organisations and networks of activists that defended minority rights, either directly, as in the case of the Congress of European Nationalities, or as part of a broader concern for peace and international collaboration, as in the case of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Through 14 chapters and thanks to an outstanding line-up of authors (see below for the full list), the volume fills an important gap in the historiography of the interwar years, touching upon a wide range of topics such as the history of nationalism, internationalism, minority questions, human rights, activism and gender.
The volume features contributions from: Omer Bartov, Mona Bieling, Alison Carrol, Jane K. Cowan, Emmanuel Dalle Mulle, Sabine Dullin, Marina Germane, Brian Hughes, Alvin Jackson, Pieter M. Judson, Olga Linkiewicz, Xosé M. Núñez Seixas, Volker Prott, Davide Rodogno, David J. Smith and Erol Ülker.
The converging and diverging trajectories of Joan Estelrich and Josip Vilfan discussed at a Conference in Santiago de Compostela
On 9-10 June 2022, the research project La España global: identitades españolas en prospectiva transnacional organised a workshop at the University of Santiago de Compostela to discuss transnational historical research involving Spanish actors, identities and processes. The event allowed presenting results from the Myth of Homogeneity project about the transnational activities of minority representatives in interwar Europe. More specifically, Emmanuel examined the converging and diverging trajectories of the Catalan-Spanish nationalist leader Joan Estelrich and the Slovenian-Italian minority representative Josip Vilfan, both prominent members of the interwar Congress of European Nationalities, as a prism to reflect upon the entanglements between the study of minorities and transnational history.
At the core of the concept of transnationalism there is an idea of border crossing. More often than not, the border that is being crossed is that of the nation-state. Emmanuel’s presentation did engage with cross-border activities that challenged state jurisdictions, but also tried to extend the notion of transnationalism to the trespassing of regional and identity boundaries. Coming from countries beyond the remit of the minority protection system of the League of Nations and acting, for a considerable part of their lives, within repressive authoritarian regimes, Estelrich and Vifan eagerly engaged in transnational minority networks as a way to promote an internationalisation and reinforcement of interwar minority protection. In many ways, their story is one of successful collaboration. Yet, from the mid-1930s, their trajectories diverged considerably. While Vilfan remained a staunch supporter of transnational cooperation and of the work of the CEN, Estelrich drifted towards domestic engagement within the institutions of the Spanish Republic first, and transnational activity on Franco’s side later. However, despite their apparent glaring differences, both Estelrich and Vilfan had to confront similar painful dilemmas of collaboration and betrayal generated by their minority advocacy that forced them not only to cross state borders, but also to redefine the boundaries of their reference communities and severe previous bonds of loyalty.
Beyond the relevance of Estelrich’s and Vilfan’s transnational trajectories for the history of minority-majority relations in interwar Europe, the paper proposed two broader reflections on the nature of transnational history and the state of the current historiography that centred on questioning both the trans and the national in transnational. To be begin with the national, most of the historiography focuses on the national as the nation-state. Yet any scholar familiar with the nationalism studies literature knows that the nation and the nation-state never coincide. This is all the more glaring when it comes to minority populations who do not identify with the state they live in. Hence, the presentation proposed considering the everyday life of people identifying as national minorities within their state of citizenship as a transnational experience in and for itself, even if this everyday experience does not involve crossing the border of any nation-state. Concerning the trans, the paper explored, although still in very tentative form, the possibility that the crossing activity implied in this term might actually occur in the mind of historical actors, rather than in their physical whereabouts. In other words, examining the many identification dilemmas, twists and turns in Estelrich’s and Vilfan’s lives, the paper proposed to explore the concept of transnational interior processes. Stay tuned for future updates.
In interwar fascist Italy migration, both internal and external, turned into a tool of national homogenisation of borderland minority areas
On 7 June 2022, Emmanuel gave a lecture (whose video is available here) at the University of Neuchâtel within the framework of the Migration History Talks series co-organised by this university and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research—The Migration Mobility Nexus (NCCR on the Move). It was a great opportunity to present results from the Myth of Homogeneity project about the Italian case, notably on the nexus between homogenisation and migration.
Italy has historically been known as a country of emigration. The state’s laissez-faire approach towards outward migration, as well as its diaspora policies, have widely been studied. However, it is less known that during the fascist dictatorship (1922–43) migration was used as a tool to promote the homogenisation of the minority populations inhabiting the provinces of South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia. In this presentation, Emmanuel showed how, being unsure about the legitimacy of their sovereignty over these borderlands, fascist authorities promoted land colonisation, surreptitiously encouraged emigration among members of the Slovenian/Croatian minority, and in 1939 signed an agreement with Germany that forced Tyroleans to choose whether they wanted to become German citizens and emigrate north of the Brenner or stay in Italy and become ‘true’ Italians.
This escalation of coercive uses of migration to homogenise the borderlands annexed at the end of the Great War failed. For the historian, they are an unmistakable reflection of the ‘consistent ambivalence’ that marked the fascist approach to the country’s national minorities throughout the interwar years. On the one hand, fascist authorities shared a rhetoric whereby assimilation was inevitable. The Italian ‘civilisation’ was deemed to be so powerful that no minority group would resist its assimilative spell. On the other hand, the fascists fundamentally distrusted the members of the two minorities that it wanted to incorporate within the body of the nation. The allogeni, the term used by the fascists to indicate Italian citizens of non-Italian origins, were thus kept in a limbo of forced assimilation and latent segregation that further reduced the effectiveness of the assimilative measures adopted by the regime.
Or how sub-state national mobilisation occurred, but it was more fleeting than minority nationalist leaders would have hoped for
On the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference, in 2019, Emmanuel and Mona presented a paper at the 29th Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism (ASEN) examining whether there was a ‘Wilsonian Moment in Western Europe’. A revised version of that paper has now been accepted for publication in European History Quarterlyand it is due to appear online and in print in 2023. The paper entitled ‘Autonomy over Independence: Self-Determination in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol in the Aftermath of the Great War’ (and available in pre-print here) fills an important gap in the historiography of self-determination in the immediate post-WWI period.
While the impact of the post-war spread of self-determination on the redrawing of Eastern European borders and on the claims of colonial independence movements has been extensively researched, the international historiography has paid little attention to minority nationalist movements in Western Europe. Focusing on three regions (Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol) that experienced considerable substate national mobilisation between the world wars, Emmanuel and Mona inquire into whether the leaders of Western European minorities and stateless nations shared the same enthusiasm as their anti-colonial and Eastern European counterparts for the new international order that self-determination seemed to foreshadow in the months following the end of the Great War. Since President Woodrow Wilson stood out as the most prominent purveyor of the new international legitimacy of self-determination, the article further examines how Western European nationalist movements exploited Wilson’s image and advocacy to achieve their own goals.
Emmanuel and Mona conclude that nationalist forces in Catalonia, Flanders and South Tyrol initially mobilised self-determination and referred to Wilson as a symbol of national liberation, but this instrumentalisation of self-determination was not sustained. Large-scale mobilisation occurred only in Catalonia and, even there, it disappeared almost overnight in spring 1919. Furthermore, substate nationalist movements in Western Europe tended to mobilise self-determination to gain regional autonomy, rather than full independence, thus pursuing internal, not external, self-determination. The willingness of these movements to privilege autonomy over full independence made them more receptive to compromise solutions and radical forces became stronger only in the 1930s, largely for reasons not directly connected to the post-war mobilisation around self-determination.
In other words, the wave of unprecedented international legitimacy for national self-determination claims inaugurated at the end of WWI did extend to Western Europe. It was not a uniform phenomenon, but a mix of different local attempts to mobilise the new language of self-determination that however did not last as long, and were not as powerful, as the leaders of Western European minority nationalist movements would have wished.
The documents of the Holy See are an underexploited source on majority-minority relations
Transnational actor by definition, the Church could not afford ignoring minority questions in interwar Europe. There are at least two reasons why documents held at the Vatican Archives are a privileged source on majority-minority relations in interwar Europe: linguistic politics and the double nature of the Catholic Church as, at once, a transnational organisation devoted to the spiritual welfare of worshippers and a state keeping diplomatic relations with foreign governments.
In interwar Europe local priests and the Church hierarchy confronted nationalising states increasingly willing to assimilate populations that spoke a different language from that promoted by state institutions. In such minority regions, the lower clergy often identified with the minority population and defended Church practice (also reflected in the Church’s Code of Canon Law) whereby religious teaching had to be given in the mother tongue of the local population. Yet this position put the clergy in direct confrontation with state officials willing to homogenise minority areas. As a consequence, state nationalisers frequently associated the local clergy as a bastion of minority nationalism. The fact that some priests did participate in minority nationalist movements, sometimes even within radical fringes, did not contribute to dispelling suspicions of the clergy’s disloyalty to the state. Be it in democratic Belgium or authoritarian fascist Italy, many of these priests and, although more rarely, also some bishops were expelled from the state territory, accused of being dangerous agitators paid by foreign powers to bring about chaos in minority areas.
State pressure to have the lower clergy abide by laws of linguistic assimilation that imposed monolingualism throughout the state territory was felt not only in minority regions, but also in Rome. The Vatican Apostolic Archives brim with exchanges in which diplomats of states dealing with minority populations urged the Holy See to have priests stay out of politics and provide religious teaching in state, instead of minority, language. In more extreme but not unfrequent cases, the Vatican received requests of removal of bishops deemed to engage with minority nationalism.
In April, Emmanuel spent two weeks at the Vatican Archives gathering material on minority questions in interwar Belgium, Italy and Spain. The documents confirm that Church authorities had to walk a tight rope between the need not to disaffect local populations seeking protection against linguistic homogenisation and keeping favourable diplomatic relations with important European states. Caught between the hammer and the anvil, Church authorities tried to defend their autonomy and religious practice, but in the radicalising age of the 1930s, it became ever harder to protect the linguistic rights of minorities, especially in authoritarian state like fascist Italy or in the extremely polarised context of the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing onset of Franco’s dictatorship.
The Vatican records constitute an invaluable source that would nourish the academic output of the Myth of Homogeneity project.
Emmanuel presented a paper co-authored with Alessandro entitled Victims of their own Rhetoric: The 1939 Option Agreement and the Consistent Ambivalence of Fascist Homogenisation Policy in the Italian New Provinces. The paper provides a re-reading of the 1939 Option Agreement between Italy and Germany in light of about two decades of fascist attempts at homogenising the border regions of South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia. It argues that although the behaviour of fascist authorities in the crucial months when 1939 drew to a close were ambivalent indeed, as many authors have already pointed out, that ambivalence was very much in line with the pattern followed by the regime throughout the interwar period. It thus concludes that such ‘consistent ambivalence’ was a key feature of fascist policy in the new provinces (as South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia were called at the time) and explains the bizarre behaviour of Italian officers in the second half of 1939.
As fascist Italy and Nazi Germany drew closer in the late 1930s, the Anschluss realised the Italian nightmare of a Greater Germany at its doors and Italian attempts to assimilate the population of South Tyrol continued to be disappointing (from the fascist perspective), finding a diplomatic solution to the question of South Tyrol grew ever more important. By mid-1939, the two countries came to an agreement whereby the population of the region would have to decide whether it wanted to remain in Italy or adopt German nationality and move north of the Brenner border. The Option Agreement, as it was called, was a strange hybrid between an option procedure, a plebiscite and a population transfer. It also created serious dilemmas for the two countries. Should they push for the transfer of all South Tyroleans or for as few as possible? The Nazi government needed men for the war effort. It was thus clearly in favour of a clean sweep solution. The Italian position was much more nuanced: while some were in favour of a total resettlement, many within the regime, especially at the local level were not. Furthermore, the Italian behaviour does not suggest a support for radical options. Nazi officers immediately began to spread propaganda in favour of resettlement (or to scare those South Tyroleans who wanted to stay, which actually were a majority). Italian authorities, in contrast, first remained silent. Then, when they realised that most people were inclined to vote for Germany, they tried to convince locals to stay. However, their propaganda was hampered by the strictures that their previous rhetoric and their fundamental distrust of the South Tyroleans imposed to their discourses.
The paper argues that this ambivalent approach was surprisingly consistent with fascist thinking about and treatment of Italy’s minorities. The ambivalence at the core of fascist policy in the new provinces stemmed from the combination of a naive belief that assimilation was inevitable – that the German-speakers of South Tyrol and the Slovenian and Croatian speakers of Venezia Giulia could not but assimilate to the great Italian civilisation – and a profound mistrust of the allogeni (as members of these two minorities were called at the time). Hence, the allogeni were simultaneously included by force in the Italian nation and marginalised in a liminal state of latent segregation.
The paper received positive comments and led to an interesting discussion about the differences between South Tyrol and Venezia Giulia, the precedent of the option procedure and the difficulties of co-writing an article.
Thanks to the recent improvement of the sanitary situation in Europe, the team of the Myth of Homogeneity is again presenting research results at international conferences. The ‘awakening’, after more than a year of forced inaction, began already in May 2021, when the team organised a panel at the Annual Convention of the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN). This year, the event, which usually takes place at Columbia University in New York, was held online. The panel, entitled Minorities after Versailles in Europe and the Middle East: A Comparative Perspective, explored interwar majority-minority relations in a broad comparative framework fostering dialogue between experts specialised in different geographical areas and political contexts.
The three contributors to this panel explored the contradictions and intricacies of the new international order ushered in at the Paris Peace Conference, an order based on population politics and a lingering tendency to seek national homogeneity. Sarah Shield (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) argued that, after the Great War, the Great Powers mobilised ‘self-government’ in the Middle East to legitimise foreign rule (through the mandate system), to excuse violence (for instance in the French Syria), and to alienate territory (as in Palestine). Building on the cases of Alsace-Lorraine and Asia Minor, Volker Prott (Aston University Birmingham) inquired into the factors that explain differences in patterns of conflict and violence between these two areas. Finally, Chris R. Davis (Lone Star College-Kingwood) shifted the focus from minorities to majorities and dissected how transnational networks of ethnologists in Romania and Hungary shaped notions of belonging relating to the respective majorities and minorities in either country. Overall, the three papers emphasised to the need to expand the comparative study of minorities in Europe and the Middle East, and, especially, to connect the largely self-contained literatures on minority protection, on the one hand, and the mandate system, on the other.
In August, the team will be presenting a paper at the Annual Pierre Du Bois Conference, which will take place at the Graduate Institute in Geneva. The event, organised by the Pierre du Bois Foundation and Professor Michael Goebel, will feature distinguished speakers from universities across the globe. The team’s contribution will examine fascist policies of assimilation in interwar Italy. Taking as a starting point the 1939 Option Agreement between Italy and Germany on the ‘voluntary’ resettlement to the German Reich of the inhabitants of the German-speaking Italian area of South Tyrol, the paper argues that the ambiguities inherent in the agreement and in the fascist approach to the Option reflects the larger history of attempts at assimilating minorities in Italy (both in South Tyrol and Venetia Giulia, the other minority region annexed by the Italian Kingdom at the end of the Great War). More specifically, the paper shows that fascist policies of assimilation were characterised by three main features: a naïve belief that the assimilation of these minorities would be an easy task; the lack of means to carry out radical solutions; and a deep-seated distrust of the allogeni (as Italian citizens of non-Italian origin were called at the time), even of those who willingly assimilated to Italian culture and who enthusiastically joined the Fascist Party. As a result, the ambivalent policy pursued by fascist authorities during the period of the Option was consistent with previous attempts at assimilating the German-speaking populations of South Tyrol.
We are proud to publish here the fifth post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by Ferran Requejo (Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona), examines the reasons for the rise of demands for independence in Catalonia in the last decade. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.
History matters. Current political conflicts display historical roots. Perhaps with history we do not explain everything, but without history we do not explain anything.
Having lived through a bloody civil war in the 1930s followed by four decades of General Franco’s dictatorship, the Spanish state carried out a transition to a democratic system at the end of the 1970s. The 1978 Constitution was the legal outcome of this transition process. Among other things, it established a territorial model – the so-called “Estado de las Autonomías” (State of Autonomous Communities) – which was in principle designed to satisfy the historical demands for recognition and self-government of, above all, the citizens and institutions of two minority nations: Catalonia and the Basque Country. This territorial model occupies an intermediate position between the classic federal and regional models of comparative politics, but has more regional than federal features. Forty years later, many Catalan and Basque citizens and political and social actors show a deep disappointment regarding the development of this territorial model in terms of collective rights, political recognition and self-government.
In recent years support for independence has increased in Catalonia. Different indicators show that pro-independence demands are endorsed by a majority of its citizens, political parties and civil society organizations. This is a new phenomenon. Those in favour of independence had been in the minority throughout the 20th century. Nowadays, however, demands of a pro-autonomy and pro-federalist nature, which until recently had been dominant, have gradually lost public support in favour of demands for self-determination and secession
What has happened?
The reasons for this change are to be found in Catalonia’s political evolution over the past fifteen years, especially in the shortcomings with regard to constitutional recognition and political and economic accommodation displayed by the Spanish political system. The latter have been exacerbated by the reform process of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy (Constitutional Law) (2006) and the subsequent judgement of Spain’s Constitutional Court regarding this Law (2010).
Before going into this case study, it is important to point out two theoretical elements that are behind the current political debates about secessionist processes in current liberal democracies:
Like Canada, Belgium or the UK, Spain is a plurinational country. At the beginning of this century, the United Nations clearly established that a politics of recognition is an integral part of the struggle for human dignity (Human Development Report, 2004). Moreover, it established that national and cultural freedoms, which include both individual and collective dimensions, are an essential part of the democratic quality of a plurinational society. As a result, values such as dignity, freedom, equality and pluralism become more complex in plurinational contexts than in those of a uninational nature. In this sense, the overall challenge of plurinational democracies can be summed up in the phrase “one polity, several demoi”
An established academic typology divides theories of secession into two basic groups: Remedial Right Theories, which link secession with a “just cause”, in other words, they regard secession as a remedy for specific “injustices”; and Primary Right Theories, which regard secession as a right belonging to certain collectives that fulfil a number of conditions. These latter theories are subdivided into those of an adscriptive or nationalist nature and those of an associative or plebiscitary nature. A third group of theories consist of a revision of traditional political liberalism that tries to establish a formal and deep recognition of national minorities and their accommodation in the constitutional and political rules of present-day democracies.
Launching the reform of the Catalan Statute (2003-2006)
As laid down in the Spanish Constitution, the reform process of the Statute of Catalonia had to be carried out in three stages: it had to be passed by the Catalan parliament (majority of 2/3), by an absolute majority of the members of the Spanish parliament, and finally it had to be approved in referendum by the Catalan citizens. After a rather baroque process, finally a referendum was held (2006) to approve the new Catalan Statute in which it received the support of 73.9% of the Catalan electorate, although the turnout was really low (48,8%). Its final content disappointed many Catalan citizens. Two important parties, the secessionist Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Spanish People’s Party (PP) recommended the “no” vote, although for opposite reasons. This referendum should have marked the end of the reform process by closing a legislature devoted to this issue. However, the appeal of unconstitutionality lodged by the PP caused the controversy to drag on and ended up hindering the deployment of the powers contained in the new text.
The judgement of the Constitutional Court (2006-2010)
The judges of the Constitutional Court (appointed by the Spanish parliament, central Government and the General Council of the Judiciary) took nearly four years to deal with the appeal, generating constant uncertainty regarding the final outcome. Over these four years, the process became increasingly convoluted and politically convulsive. The Court’s impartiality was questioned, seriously damaging the institution’s legitimacy. Finally, the Court published its ruling in July 2010. It affected the constitutionality of 14 articles of the Catalan Statute and “interpreted” 27 others. The aspects revised by the Court can be divided into three areas:
Recognition: the judgement states that the Preamble (in which Catalonia was defined as a nation) had no legal value. Regarding the Catalan language, the wish to make it the preferred language within the administration and the media, and the duty to know it were eliminated; the linguistic rights of consumers and users and its role as the primary language in the education system were limited.
Powers: in this area the Statute’s regulation limiting the scope of “base laws” (the central government’s main way of invading Catalonia’s autonomous powers) was cancelled. Moreover, the concepts of exclusive powers, executive powers and spheres such as international relations, culture, civil law or immigration were reinterpreted.
Finance: in this area, two articles referring to the levelling of incomes taking into account similarity of fiscal effort and legislation on local taxes were declared unconstitutional. The interpretative part affected regulations regarding the ordinal principle and state investments according to GDP, among others.
In short, the process resulted in a clear watering down of the objectives of recognition, self-government and political accommodation that had been established at the beginning of the reform process. This new practical content of the Catalan Statute has never been approved by Catalan citizens in a referendum. This is a key element to understand the subsequent emergence of secessionist demands in Catalonia. First of all, the reform had demanded the legally binding recognition of the national reality of Catalonia within the framework of the Spanish Constitution. This demand had been stripped of all legal value by the end of the process. Secondly, greater depth and protection for self-government had been sought so that the Catalan government could further develop its own distinct powers, but this demand resulted in extremely modest gains. Thirdly, it was not possible to attain a finance model which ended a system regarded as unjust (quantified as between 7% and 9% of Catalonia’s GDP and described by some commentators as “fiscal despoliation” in political debates), nor respect for the “ordinal principle” once the territorial transfers have been made.
The combination of the extremely long-drawn-out process to reform the Statute (7 years) and its final disappointing outcome generated a widespread feeling in a large part of the Catalan citizenry of a lack of institutional legitimacy.
Increased support to secession (2010-2019)
Since the Constitutional Court ruling on the Catalan Statute events speeded up. Catalan elections (2012) established a new minority government (led brecognition, a center-right nationalist federation of two parties) which sought stability through a “Agreement of Government” with ERC. This Agreement included aspects connected with the economic crisis as well as three aspects pertaining to the “right to decide” the Catalan constitutional future: 1) a “Declaration of Sovereignty” (2013) in the Catalan Parliament; 2) the creation of the Advisory Council for National Transition (CATN, 2013-2014) which was tasked with advising the Catalan government on the different scenarios, procedures, legal frameworks, international experiences, institutions, etc., relating to the exercise of the right to decide and secession—most of its 14 members were university professors, mainly from the areas of political science, economics, and constitutional and international law; and 3) the calling of a referendum on the constitutional future of Catalonia which was suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court, although a “participative process” was finally organized (November 2014). This “process” was based on civil society “volunteers” who counted on legal protection and some infrastructures of the Catalan government. It had no legal consequences, but mobilized more than 2,3 million voters and around 80% of them voted “yes” to secession.
After a new electoral period (2015-2017) a pro-independence coalition (Junts pel Sí – Together for Yes) obtained an absolute majority in the Catalan Parliament (72 seats out of 135). The main point of the programme was to call for a referendum of independence, ideally established in agreement with the Spanish central government, following the Scottish experience in the UK (September 2014) and the Quebec experience in Canada (1980, 1995). Finally, after the rejection of the Spanish Government to enter in negotiations regarding this referendum and the subsequent rulings of the Spanish Constitutional Court, a referendum was celebrated organized basically by civil society organizations. All the practical difficulties notwithstanding, which included a strong and violent repression by Spanish police forces, the referendum was held on October 1st, 2017. The results (source: Catalan Government) were as follows:
Number of Votes
With regard to the legitimising positions put forward by the different political actors, there is a clear contrast not only between the values and objectives they defend, but also between the different language and theoretical frameworks they employ. On the one hand, the central government and the main Spanish political parties put forward reasons of a legal-constitutional nature: in the Spanish case, they say, it is not legally possible to enter into a dynamic similar to that which occurred in the case of Canada or the United Kingdom (based on negotiation and bilateralism). Moreover, a number of actors have employed arguments relating to the potential economic decadence of an independent Catalonia or its automatic exclusion from the European Union (in contrast with empirical evidence and the Scottish debate). In practical terms, macroeconomic decisions remain in the hands of the central government, as do decisions relating to the management of the main taxes and fiscal transfers which enable the Catalan government to pay everything from the salaries of its employees to its suppliers. The economy is currently one of the key instruments used by the central government to put pressure on Catalan institutions.
On the other hand, the Catalan actors put forward two kinds of legitimizing argument depending on whether the aim is to justify the holding of a referendum on secession, or to defend the soundness of Catalonia becoming an independent state. The fundamental reason used to justify an independence referendum is its democratic nature. The prior assumption is that Catalonia is a specific demos that has the right to decide about its future according to liberal-democratic values and rules. The differentiating roots of this demos are of a historical and national-cultural nature (Catalonia was an independent state some centuries ago; Catalans have their own language and culture). Thus the legitimizing arguments for the right to decide usually combine the perspective of adscriptive or national theories of secession with the perspective of democratic and plebiscitary theories. Moreover, the legitimizing arguments in favour of independence add to these two avenues those associated with theories of just-cause secession. In this case, “injustice” is present both in relation to the systematic mistreatment at the economic and fiscal levels that Catalonia receives from the Spanish government—Catalonia’s fiscal deficit with regard to the state is in the order of 15,000 million euros a year, according to a number of economic and fiscal studies; lack of infrastructures, centralism with regard to Barcelona’s airport and other infrastructures, lack of recognition of the distinct national reality of Catalan society, linguistic policies (absence of linguistic pluralism in state institutions and practices, etc.), marginalization of Catalonia from the European and international spheres, shortcomings in the use of political symbols, etc.
A formal but rather “symbolic” and non-implemented Declaration of Independence followed the referendum in the Catalan Parliament (October 27, 2017). As it is well known, the Spanish central government reacted immediately applying article 155 of the Spanish Constitution which implies the control of Catalan institutions by the Spanish central government, which also called for new elections in Catalonia (December 2017). The results did not change the previous situation, with an outright majority obtained by secessionist parties (70 out of 135 seats). This elected a new president, Joaquim Torra, who acts in accordance with former president Carles Puigdemont who lives in Belgium. In 2018, a Spanish euro order to arrest Puigdemont was refused by the Court of the German land of Schleswig-Holstein, where he was provisionally arrested. In parallel, a political trial in the Spanish Supreme Court has emerged against members of the former Catalan government and the President of the Catalan parliament that remained in Catalonia. In contrast, other members of the Catalan government and MP’s, including the president of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, preferred to live “in exile” in different countries (Belgium, UK, Switzerland) in order to avoid being judged in Spain. Although the “autonomous government” in Catalonia has been formally reinstituted the practical situation is far from being “normalized” in political and democratic terms. In October 2019 a new central government was built by the Socialist Party (PSOE) and a leftish party born in the last decade (Podemos). A “table for dialogue” has been created in February 2020 between the Spanish and Catalan governments. However, the programme and calendar are undefined and a clear scepticism is present about its potential as a way to solve the deep historical, national and political problems that are at stake. Not to mention that the fact that Catalan leaders remain in jail or must live in “exile” is not the best framework to obtain a realistic solution. There is a deep divergence between the objectives, language, values and procedural rules shared by the different actors on either side of the “dialogue table”.
To sum up, the future prospects of Catalan and Spanish politics regarding the territorial-national question remain open. Spanish opposition to a referendum in Catalonia, in contrast with the agreement between the British and Scottish governments, leads the current political process into unknown territory. There are a number of different possible scenarios: either through agreements within the context of the Spanish state—which currently seem unlikely—, through agreements with European or international mediation (following, for example, the procedural rules established by the Canadian Supreme Court in 1998 in relation to the relationship between Quebec and Canada, or through the mobilization of Catalan citizenry in a reinforced new secessionist institutional attempt at disconnection).
The lack of national recognition and accommodation shown by the Spanish state has played a decisive role in causing the predominant Catalan demands to shift from being regionalist or pro-autonomy towards secessionism. The Catalan case constitutes a clear empirical point of reference within the sphere of comparative politics on secessionist processes in liberal democracies, and constitutes a dynamic element in the European Union in an increasingly globalized world.
Ferran Requejo is Professor of Political Science at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, where he is director of the Research Group on Political Theory. His main fields of research are theories of democracy, federalism, multinational democracies, political theory and political liberalism after World War II. In 1997 he was awarded the Rudolf Wildenmann Prize (ECPR), in 2002 he received the Ramon Trias Fargas Prize, and in 2006 the Spanish Political Science Association Prize to the best book (Multinational Federalism and Value Pluralism, Routledge 2005). He has been furthermore member of the Spanish Electoral Board (Junta Electoral Central, 2004-2008), of the executive committee of the European Consortium of Political Research and of the Comparative Federalism Research Committee (International Political Science Association). He is currently a regular contributor to the newspapers “La Vanguardia” and “Ara” (Barcelona) and other Catalan, Spanish and international media.
The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.
Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:
On 27-28 February 2020 we organised a workshop on Sovereignty, Nationalism and Homogeneity in Europe between the Two World Wars.
For a day and a half, 18 scholars specialised in different aspects of late 19th and early 20th century European history met at the Graduate Institute Geneva to discuss intergroup relations and, more specifically, minority issues in interwar Europe. The papers presented at the event showcased the complexity of minority questions by using different approaches often emphasising varied aspects of majority-minority relations. While some participants examined majority-minority relations in different European countries from a broad comparative perspective, others looked more closely at specific cases or questioned the appropriateness of using the categories of majority and minority to refer to such groups. Others yet followed minority representatives and other individuals concerned with minority questions across borders and into interwar organisations and networks of activism.
The overall result was a rich exchange that highlighted how after Versailles, regardless of whether they lay in the ‘civilised West’ or the still ‘backward East’ (to quote some stereotypical views hegemonic at the time), European states tended to fit the populations living within their borders into neat ethno-cultural categories and, although to different degrees, promoted homogeneity through a wide range of nation-building strategies. Minority representatives and organisations vocally denounced violations of minority rights and fought for better protection of their cultural peculiarities, but, at the same time, often exaggerated the importance of group identity for the wider populations they claimed to speak for and the homogeneity of minorities themselves. At times, ordinary people followed the injunction of minority representatives; sometimes, however, they showed signs of ‘national indifference’ and based their behaviour on considerations and interests not directly linked to their purported national identity—of which in many cases they were not even aware. The rich, and sometimes contradictory, tapestry of perspectives stemming from the different panels highlighted the need for a multi-dimensional approach to interwar intergroup relations; one taking into account different actors, contexts and motivations for action.
In the evening of the first day, Eric Weitz, Distinguished Professor of History at City College and the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York, broadened the thematic contours of our workshop by presenting his wide-ranging new book, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States. In the talk, Professor Weitz explored the relationship between nation-states, human rights and minority rights in the context of the ’emergence’ of minorities between the late 19th and early 20th century as well as during the process of decolonisation in Africa.
Apart from advocating the ‘multi-dimensional’ approach mentioned above, the workshop also contributed to bridging the East-West divide currently existing in the literature, whereby minority issues are still implicitly considered as a ‘Question of Eastern Europe’ (to quote the title of a famous interwar work on the subject) while the international history of majority-minority conflicts in Western Europe remains in its infancy.
The Myth of Homogeneity Team would like to thank the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Pierre du Bois Foundation, the Graduate Institute and the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy for their kind support as well as all the participants for their insightful contributions.
Below you can listen to the paper given at the workshop by our team members, Emmanuel and Mona, entitled Sovereignty and Homogeneity: A History of Majority-Minority Relations in Interwar Western Europe.