Nation-state model of Europe has failed, breeding wars and misery
Europe is being torn apart by separatist sentiments, flaring across the continent: Catalonia, Scotland, Venice; places that seemed solid just a few years ago now face the issue of reshaped borders – something central governments do not wish to happen. Why the sudden popularity of pro-independence movements? Is it because of the economy, or with the globalization of the world, with people growing tired of following orders from the far away capitals? To tease this out, we speak to a member of the European Free Alliance Party: Francois Alfonsi is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: You’ve said that accepting the claims of separatist movements across Europe would be equal to democracy. “Democracy is messy and democracy is what Europe needs”. Are you saying Europe is undemocratic?
Francois Alfonsi:Democracy is a living body, it is something that evolves with the demands of the people. Europe hasn’t changed much since the Second World War. Today It needs to adapt and evolve, needs to listen to the democratic demands expressed by the people of Europe. These people have contributed to Europe’s history and today want to contribute to Europe’s future. I am talking about the Scotts, the Catalans, but also the Corsicans, and also the 40 political parties which constitute the European Free Alliance, of which I am the president.
SS: The EU heads of state say that in case of independence, countries won’t be part of the union anymore. Is it true that the EU won’t allow it?
FA: 25 years ago, nobody could have imagined that the countries on the other side of the Iron Curtain could one day become European. It was necessary to adapt, to create the conditions to make that possible. European nations like the Scots, should have the right, if they desired and if a perfectly clear democratic request was made to gain independence.Today democracy has arrived and in the context of democratic development, national demands are expressed. The Catalans have always declared themselves as part of Europe, and if they are independent tomorrow, they will still be part of Europe. Not only are they part of the territory, but they also have the economic and democratic standards that are totally European. It is uncanny to imagine that we can refuse them the right to stay European if they make a decision that only concerns them and consists of deciding to be independent.
SS: No, they aren’t refused the right to be European, they are refused the right of being part of the European Union. For example, in the case of Scotland, the EU has stated many times that in case of independence Scotland won’t be a part of the Union. We can also say that this has influenced the referendum to a large extent. Why is the European Union so against the independentist movements?
FA: Mr Juncker, who will be the next president of the commission after Mr Barroso, has adopted a much more nuanced position. He has spoken in front of the European deputies of the Ibero-European Alliance,where he was questioned by our deputies, notably the Catalan deputy, he had a much more nuanced reply than Mr Barroso, since Mr Barroso’s answer was dictated to him by UK. Mr Juncker understands that he will have to manage this situation during a number of years, he said that if a country’s request for independence was well-founded and democratic and that if it did not result in any conflicting problems, that it could take place by negotiation, and that Europe would help this negotiation to take place and would ensure its doors were open. It doesn’t matter for the EU , If the roads that lead for example from Edinburgh to Brussels no longer pass through London or if those that lead from Barcelona to Brussels no longer pass through Madrid, it doesn't change anything. It is only the member state that, at a certain point, could provoke a crisis situation which is more or less aggravated – we saw that in Great Britain, the referendum was accepted by the Prime Minister, and while the 'no' vote won, the 'yes' could have won as well and we would have entered a negotiation phase. We know that in Catalonia it's a lot more tense with Madrid but, in any case, the democratic will of the people is the only thing that counts, since the only thing that assures the future of Europe and the EU is to maintain the democratic framework which, for five decades now, has enabled to build an exceptional geopolitical body which generates an area of peace, a powerful economical area.
SS: Wouldn’t a community of smaller states ultimately be beneficial for the EU? Wouldn’t it give more power to the officials in Brussels?
FA: Yes, this is one of the arguments of the European debate : today Europe's small countries are often more engaged in European policymaking than the big countries, who want to keep the prerogatives and a strength, or at least a power, over others which is proportional to their size. Now, we cannot control the size of a country – the German nation is numerous, and it will always have a bigger influence in the European process than Corsicans. But I believe that if tomorrow, a large state such as Great Britain gives way to smaller states such as Ireland – which has already been done – and Scotland tomorrow, I think that Europe will have more to gain. Andif tomorrow Great Britain decides to leave the EU, at least Scotland will be able to stay. Is it a good thing that London wants to hold a referendum to leave the EU, and that would implicate Scotland - in its decision? it must be the right of the Scottish people to make this decision democratically, even if London decides to leave Europe.
SS: Can we really talk, on the other hand, about separation, if by leaving the power of their central governments, the small states submit to the power of the EU?
FA: But, the EU – France is an independent country, Germany too, as is Sweden, and all member countries – what the EU is - is a federation of states, it's an evolving mechanism, since this federation is not very powerful. You know that the budget of the European Union is 1% of the average GDP of Europe, whereas in the US, for example, which is a federation of states as well, the federal budget is 20%. The degree of integration of the EU remains pretty low, and that the countries are still very independent. However, they are obliged to be solidary.
SS: The French say they are sick and tired of following the decisions made by people in Brussels, people that don’t even know them…
FA: Oh, you know, when we are in Corsica, sometimes decisions are made for us in Paris and what is important is that the decisions be made at the right level : there is the regional level, which for us is a very important level and which should even be a level at which the application of directives should be made via laws, there should be a legislative level, which should be very present, and the general level, which is the level of Europe, these are decisions on the euro for example, since a small state cannot decide the fate of a global currency. Europe is an extremely diversified mosaic, it’s in a unique situation, since the continent is so fragmented but – excuse me – but at the same time this mosaic was forged by history and has its consistency and each one of its fragments is important. And there are the big, and the small pieces, but the small pieces are just as important as the big ones. All must create their spot in the European mosaic, and the European Union is a construction. Now, there may be mistakes in this construction, directives can be written in Brussels which impinge on what should in fact be decided in the regions.
SS: In your opinion, the Scottish referendum - has it brought a new understanding of the scale of the separatist movements in Europe? Before, we never heard about the movement for Venetian independence, for independence of Bavaria…
FA: Yes, well, these movements have different and varied levels of importance. There are four important regions in Europe, who – excuse me – who have raised the level of claims to a substantial level in a democratic way : I'm referring to the Basque Country, Catalonia, Scotland, and even to Flanders. Nationalist parties that have been managing the institutions of these countries for many years. When people bring nationalist parties to power in regional institutions, it is because it wants national recognition. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean independence, it can be a request for autonomy within states that are too centralized. It can be a request to participate in a European decisional process. Well, I think that the claims are varied, but what is real and what is profound is that there are 40-odd peoples in Europe who have claims, based on their history, to be more recognized and more listened to, who want to defend their own interests certainly, but also to participate in the common construction.
SS: Another interesting case is Catalonia. The Spanish constitution says that the question of Catalan independence has to be resolved by a vote of the whole country’s population. Does that mean Catalonia has no right of self-determination?
FA: But the right for self-determination is a universal right. It is part of the fundamental conventions which constitute the organization of the United Nations and if we reasoned using the words of the Spanish constitution, never would Ireland have gained independence, never would East Timor or other countries, For the international community, all peoples have the right for self-determination. I remind you that Catalonia suffered under the Franco regime during 50 years – the Catalan people have been denied their rights, their rights have been violated. Today, in the European democratic framework, they want a full recognition of their universal and inalienable rights, such as the right for self-determination, as defined by international law.
SS: It’s clear that the majority of Spaniards will vote against the Catalan independence - how is it that the Andalusians, the Galicians decide the future of the Catalans?
FA: But I see that this procedure is illegitimate – it is completely illegitimate,In the previous Spanish constitution, the François one, a lot of things were included that were completely illegitimate and that, thankfully, were flushed way by history, and this pretension to arrange, from Madrid, the fate of the Catalans, is something that does not correspond with the democratic aspirations of the Catalans. Europe must follow these democratic bases, which are fundamental. It is a democratic pedestal, and on this pedestal is the right to self-determination.
SS: The devolution in the UK, a bilingual system in Belgium, autonomous communities in Spain - the governments are trying hard to control separatism. Is it not enough
FA: I think that states today are facing a problem regarding their future; States are spectators of a major transformation which consists of saying : we will contribute more skills at the European level because it is there that we will be able, on a diplomatic level, for currency, for major economic decisions, it is there that we will be able to ensure the prosperity and the security of our citizens. So these states have consented to a decentralization, most often at the beginning of the 1970s, a bit later in Great Britain.Decentralization can be an efficient response for a German land, where the national question is not asked in the same terms as for the Basques in Spain, or the Corsicans in France. So decentralization is one level, and after that there are levels of complete independence, which can happen – Scotland would have been a first in this sense, within European borders, but there are also intermediary steps. I think that the field is very open. Now it is necessary to open doors and ensure that everyone can measure their own interests, solve their own conflicts. And so that it would not be like, as you said earlier regarding Madrid, Madrid who decides everything for everyone, including for peoples which are different from the Spanish people. Here are the equilibriums that Europe has to strive to promote, because Europe needs to be a structure that makes all Europeans at ease in the EU, and the Catalans must feel just as at ease as the Spanish, because during the 19thand 20th centuries, historically Catalonia was regularly assaulted by the Spanish police and Spanish army.What is unacceptable, I think, for Europe, is a state that refuses evolution. Refusing evolution is, in fact, creating tensions, and these tensions will prevent Europe from prospering. For Europe to prosper, it must be a living body, it must evolve, we must be able to transform border areas with new solidarities: the Rhine basin associates a part of Germany, of Switzerland and of France, so it is a basin of life, which must be given the opportunity to organize itself, and it is a historical basin, not simply a basin of life linked to recent technological evolution. So what is really important is to put democracy on center stage – each people has the right to self-determination, Europe must propose solutions that enable each people to find their place in the future of Europe.It is not always convenient, becausetechnocrats always prefer managing a single people, a single population, a single language, a single society, except when there are 500 million citizens fragmented by a history that spans several centuries and who today are unified, well there are bound to be complex situations, small nations as well as large ones have to function side by side, situations or habits or democratic practices of different types must be managed together : some live in a very centralized manner, others in a very decentralized manner, but in any case each people must have their rights, their liberty to organize themselves, and the liberty of the European people will guarantee the liberty of Europe in general.
SS: Why does the Swiss model that combines four distinct linguistic cultures work - and the Belgian doesn’t for example?
FA: I think that the difference is that in Switzerland, there was never a community – for many centuries, they are a confederation, and there has never been one part of the confederation that wanted to dominate the others. And that's the problem : in Belgium it is the wish of the francophone community to dominate all of Belgium, via the Belgian royalty, the economic dominance as well, facilitated as it was by the steel industry – all this created a situation of conflict and this domination, they also wanted to bring it to the linguistic and cultural fronts – they wanted to make the Flemish language disappear, and this situation has resulted that todaybut there is very clearly a separation, and this separation is, like in the case of couples who end up divorcing, there is the conclusion that there is a lack of common destiny between two populations, one population that finally belongs to the French space, while the other belongs to an area that is more to the North, in association with, of course, the Netherlands, and so it is necessary that these two populations, which do not feel to be part of a whole, must be able to live separately, all the while staying in the European entity. There you go, the conclusion must be made that – sometimes we look for the reason why people get divorced, and both people have their reasons, and maybe we do not understand these reasons, but we must take note of the facts, and take note of the democratic wish that exists today, which the Flemish people express, which is having complete control over their own destiny.
SS: Speaking about a divorce - the last time we saw a peaceful separation of one state from another in Europe was 1993 with the Czechs and Slovaks. All other secession attempts sparked wars. Aren’t you wary of instability separatism brings to the table?
FA: Listen, it is the tensions that create the destabilization, and often – look, we avoided tensions between the Czechs and the Slovaks by acknowledging their will to continue following their paths separately, and today everybody consents willingly, and everybody considers that theirs is a stable situation which has ensured peace in these regions and which does not allow us to fear that tomorrow, things will turn out badly. And in other places, when people have separated, I think that, for example, the evolution in Yugoslavia has put an end to tensions and to wars more than anything else, and I think that now, progressively, you have seen first Slovenia, now Croatia, these countries have been integrated into the EU and have reached levels of democracy and of peace, which is the best we can hope for their populations. If they had stayed in the former Yugoslavia, these tensions would still exist.
SS: If all the small nations that your movement consists of separated, the map of Europe would look like something from the Middle Ages. Is the future in the past?
FA: Well, the past exists, and forges nations – a Russian nation exists because it has a big history which has created the reality of the Russian people. The same thing goes for the French people, and the Corsican people as well. I am Corsican and proud to be Corsican. And I don't listen to anyone who disputes my right to be Corsican. And this desire is not at all chimerical, it is based on historical and cultural realities, and above all on the will of the Corsican people, which is [an open reality], a reality that takes into account all those who today have come to share the destiny of the Corsican people. They realize that it is only possible to build one's future in the well-being of one's citizens, on condition of having more sovereignty. And this is something that we defend. So, can it threaten the equilibrium of Europe? You know, Europe today consists of 28 countries for 500 million citizens, more or less. The United States is 51 states for 300 million citizens. Last I heard, they are managing quite well. So I don't think it is a problem of number of states.And I think that Europe can see 5, 6, 8, 10 more states without being destabilized. It is a question of political will to find solutions. What is more destabilizing for Europe, is not having more states, but having more differences, especially economic differences, but also democratic differences, between its states. Greece's situation compared to Germany's situation – this is a real problem, but it is not because this problem exists that people start saying that Greece must be independent. People say that Greece, which is a proud and independent nation, must finally experience economic development and must be able to meet European standards which, for the last few years, they have failed to do. So there – the problems are the differences of economic, but also maybe democratic levels. We must ensure that, within Europe, there are no states that turn to dictatorship or which take paths that are not in conformity with Europe's profound democratic philosophy. That's the difficulty. But if tomorrow there are 10 new states, it doesn't change much.
SS: How come the Scots have chosen to remain under London; or the Quebecois - who also voted to stay, twice? It seems there aren’t that many people who actually want drastic border changes...
FA: Clearly, it is always a leap of faith – most certainly, and I say this truthfully and lucidly : winning a referendum of self-determination is very difficult, because if for decades, a state was dominant, over Corsica, over Catalonia, clearly reinforces the feeling for a part of the population which feels linked to the interests of the central state, be it the armed forces or people whose economic activity is completely linked to the capital, etcetera, and then you also have a part of the population who have lived for 50, 60, 80 years of their life within a system, and leaving a system is always a choice, which is choosing the unknown, in a way. And the older we are, the harder it is to choose the unknown. So it is very difficult to win a self-determination referendum. And I think the percentage that the Scottish reached, 45 percent, is remarkable. And what must be noted above all is that even those that voted 'No' said that they agreed with the proponents of the referendum, in that the present situation must evolve. And besides, London has promised more evolution and more power for Scotland. Will they do it? That's the question, because we know that often enough, states do not respect their promises. And this is actually what happened in Canada, with Quebec – Quebec finally chose to stay with Canada, because promises were made with regards to the French language and the culture, which are practiced in Quebec, which were very favorable, and then they were not kept.We will see what happens in Scotland's case, but I think that indeed, winning a self-determination referendum is very difficult...
SS: Would people in Corsica vote ‘yes’ to independence if they had a referendum today?
C) I think that in the Corsica of today, they would not vote yes, I think that a long process must be carried out first, and that in any case, I hope that we can put into place a negotiation with Paris and with Brussels, a negotiation regarding the future of the Corsican nation. Because that is the whole question: why is it that today, people are turning towards independence in Europe? Because Europe itself is going towards the intergovernmental structure instead of evolving like in the 80s, when there was an impetus towards a projection into a European future. Today, we can see that the heads of state, in general, are backtracking, are going back to interests that are strictly those of the capitals, and no longer those of Europe in general, and that this retraction of the European construction, which I deeply regret but am obliged to observe, leads to some saying: well, if it is like this, since the states always want to be the dominant structure, well we also want to reach this level. This is quite understandable in Scotland, which has as many citizens as Denmark or in Catalonia, which has even more. With regards to Corsica, the question is raised – we have the same population as Luxembourg, so, somewhere, we are also in one of the links of the European construction. But I think that a different solution also exists, provided that a post-statist Europe is built. Europe must finally project itself in the 21st century, it must leave the 19th century – because the 19th century is the one that generated the Great Wars and the economic decline, and caused terrible tragedies. So Europe's mission is to build an entity which is post nation-state, and all the states must progressively be dissolved, or in any case evolve in a very different way than they are evolving at the present moment. The more dynamic this movement is, the less independentist movements will come up. And if this process is stuck like it is today, we will see more independentist claims appear in several European regions.