Why secessionist nationalists want to stay in the European Union

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Scottish secessionists rally prior to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.
Scottish secessionists rally prior to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

In several European countries, nationalist secession movements simultaneously seek independence from their countries' governments, but also want to remain part of the European Union. British political commentator Theodore Dalrymple argues that this combination of attitudes is a "glaring contradiction":

All the current nationalist parties of small nations in Europe-the Scots, the Welsh, the Basque, the Catalans, the Flemish-strongly support membership in the European Union, which is dedicated to, and even predicated upon, the extinction of national sovereignty. One would have thought that these parties wanted, at a minimum, national sovereignty. The contradiction is so glaring that it requires an explanation.

In reality, there is no great contradiction here. Secessionist nationalists in Europe historically fear their local ethnic rivals far more than the more distant EU, which is sometimes seen as a protector against the former. For Catalan nationalists, the main enemy is not the EU, but the Spanish national government in Madrid. For the Scottish National Party, it is the UK government in London. And so on. There is a long history of local minorities looking to distant power centers as possible protectors against their local adversaries or oppressors. Here in the United States, for example, local minorities have often sought help from the federal government to counter oppression by state and local governments.

European secessionists also want to remain part of the European Union because they know that their very small would-be nations cannot succeed economically without guaranteed access to the EU's single market. Britain is large enough to take the risk, but Scotland or Catalonia probably cannot afford it.

Finally, although the EU's power has grown, it still does not regulate or tax nearly as much as national governments do. For example, government spending constitutes some 40% of UK GDP, of which less than 1% goes to the European Union. The central governments of Spain and the UK constrain Scottish and Catalan autonomy far more than the EU does. Even if the EU ultimately does seek the "extinction" of national sovereignty, as Dalrymple fears, it is a long, long way from achieving that goal, and may well never do so. By contrast, existing nation-states have done much more to restrict (even if not completely extinguish) the sovereignty of their regional minorities. For these reasons, it is not surprising that, in the wake of Brexit, Scottish nationalists are likely to seek a new referendum on independence, which will—among other things—enable them to stay in the EU.

None of this implies that the secession of Scotland, Catalonia, and similar regions in other European countries is necessarily a good idea. I am no fan of nationalism of any kind, and believe that secession movements must be evaluated by their likely consequences rather than based on any supposed inherent right of ethnic groups to have states of their own. Whether the world will be a better place with an independent Scotland or an independent Catalonia is, in my opinion, a tough call.

I am also no great admirer of the European Union, though I think it does deserve credit for establishing free trade and freedom of movement over a vast area. But whether we sympathize with their cause or not, whether we like the EU or not, it is entirely understandable that European secession movements should want to stay in the EU even as they simultaneously seek independence from their national governments.