The Catalan referendum is throwing up a number of crucial questions concerning democracy in the European Union. Olivier Tonneau analyses this in the context of France.
Olivier Tonneau is Lecturer in modern languages, Homerton College, Cambridge, Member of La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity
After the crackdown by the Spanish police on Catalan voters yesterday, French president Emmanuel Macron expressed in no uncertain terms his support to the government of Mario Rajoy, stating that the incidents were a matter internal to Spain and that France only recognized one partner, “Spain in its entirety”. Meanwhile, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the head of the radical left party France Insoumise (Defiant France) who has established himself as the leading opponent to Macron’s government, said that “the Spanish government has lost its way. The nation cannot be a straightjacket”. These two opposite reactions (although neither of them amount to a recognition of Catalonia’s status as a nation) bear comparison and tell us much about the complex political realignments caused by events in Europe.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a self-proclaimed Jacobin, is a staunch defender of the “one and indivisible French Republic”: the law must apply to all (hence his dogged opposition to Macron’s flexibilization of working laws), school programmes and even schedules must be the same everywhere (hence his opposition to school reforms aiming at giving schools more autonomy) and regional identities, whilst acceptable at a cultural level, can have no political expression. A dedicated scholar of history, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has also often expressed his uneasiness with redrawing frontiers (he was a vocal opponent of the war in Kosovo and the carving up of Yugoslavia): nation-states may be artificial entities but they nonetheless have gained a precious degree of stability and coherence over the centuries, which should not be jeopardized on a whim. It was by no means obvious that he would go so far as to say that the nation cannot be a straightjacket – which, in effect, means that there must be a way out of it, and that people cannot be forced into it.
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Macron, as a pro-Europe liberal, never fails to accuse Eurosceptics (among whom Jean-Luc Mélenchon himself) of being “nationalistic” and “sovereignist”. The nation is bound to be superseded by European institutions, which will enable the final rolling back of the State and the “liberation of energies”. These principles have very serious consequences: Emmanuel Macron, who only recently agreed to the absorption of Alstom by Siemens, thus depriving the French state of control over patents and technologies that were of vital importance to its military self-reliance, justified his decision by the need to create “European giants” (it did not matter that these are private giants who are under no obligation whatsoever to serve Europe). His minister of finance brushed aside all concerns regarding France’s fundamental interests as “misplaced patriotism”. Emmanuel Macron, then, is not merely a Europhile idealist for whom national sovereignty is not a priority; he is actively working to liquidate it.
Meanwhile, in his speech on Europe at La Sorbonne last week, Macron returned time and again to the themes of culture and identity. As in every speech of this kind, it was rather superficial and contradictory. Superficial because European culture was apparently limited to the Acropolis, the Mona Lisa and Goethe (the president did drop the name Gdansk in the context of an enumeration of cities); contradictory because Macron both asserted that there existed such thing as a European identity and that it needed to be built by voluntarist programmes – most of them borrowed from the strategies put in place in the 19th century by the French Third Republic. Finally, this so-called European identity seemed to amount to little else than to a set of loosely defined values (peace, democracy, human rights) and a collection of regional traits. Europe enjoyed unity in diversity and all that sort of things: nothing could be more beautiful than a camaieu of traditional songs and dishes.
This conjunction of anti-nationalism and regionalism is typical of European liberals. It is within the frame of the nation-state that workers have managed to pressure capital into accepting the implementation of welfare states and, to this day, peoples tend to expect redistribution and protection from states. Rather than rolling back states, liberals have long concluded that dissolving the framework within which they operate was simpler and more efficient. Yet people need to belong; regionalism provided a perfect alternate form of belonging. Regionalist movements have always construed national states as illegitimate oppressors (even when, as is the case for Brittany, regions have received enormous amounts of money from the state who even subsidize the desperate attempts to reanimate customs that meant little to the majority of the population), and were therefore natural allies of liberals; let everyone turn against the state and cherish their particularisms, and the resurgence of identity politics would clean the grounds for liberal economics.
Emmanuel Macron’s commitment to a liberal Europe enshrined in regional identities could therefore, at first sight, make him sympathetic to the Catalan cause. Yet he forcefully supported Rajoy’s government and put forward a distinctly Jacobin vision of a one and indivisible Spain.
How, then, can we explain the difference of attitudes between Macron and Mélenchon who seem, in a sense, to have swapped roles? The answer is perhaps not very complicated: for both Mélenchon and Macron, the cleavage between the people and the ruling class (characterized by the former as the oligarchy and by the second as the technocracy) trumps ideological commitments. In other words, Mélenchon’s recognition of the need for popular insurrection against austerity-driven powers leads him to reluctantly accept that this insurrection could take place at a regional level, whereas Macron’s authoritarian tendencies in the face of popular movements (which were already evident in the brutal repression of protests against the previous set of labour reforms he had designed as François Hollande’s minister of the economy) leads him to side with Rajoy who is, after all, a member of the party of Angela Merkel at the European level.
The dissolution of nation-states thus leads to unexpected results. Their contestation from below now worries Europhiles who fear that the dynamics of protest could have other consequences than those they hoped for: Catalan independentists may now look to Europe for support but they certainly do not display a temperament compatible with the kind of tutelage that was imposed to Greece. At the other end of the political spectrum, those who hope for organized resistance to neo-liberal policies
hoped to see such resistance take a continental shape – hence the close links established by Mélenchon with Die Linke from the moment that he left the Parti Socialiste after the latter’s conversion to neo-liberal Europhilia – and only reluctantly fell back to a national perspective; they may now have to accept that the dissolving power of neo-liberalism has forced them to regroup on regional scales.
Let us, however, not get ahead of ourselves. The far-right, already prominent at the national level, is often dominant in regional politics. To change the scale of battle would come at the risk of giving it a strategic advantage. Moreover, even seemingly left-wing regionalist movements often play into the hands of neo-liberals. In Scotland, for instance, the Scottish National Party made serious headways by rebranding itself as an opponent to Tory austerity, thus hunting on Labour grounds when Labour had strayed to the right. Yet when Alex Salmond was asked to put forth his economic plan for an independent Scotland in Europe, one of the measures he advocated was the lowering of
corporate taxation to 12% (the Irish rate). Surely, the European Union needs another fiscal dumping tax paradise like it needs a hole in the head.
In a Europe that is more divided than ever, regional movements offer no miraculous solutions, hence the prudence of Jean-Luc Mélenchon who, whilst condemning the Spanish government’s intransigence, stopped short of endorsing Catalan nationalists’ demands. True, one should be receptive to surges of popular energy wherever they occur, but one must remain equally attentive to the political content of their demands, and inscribe them within a plausible strategy to confront transnational capitalism. Nations may have the means to lead this confrontation; regions, certainly not.