Catalonia’s bid for independence seems to have involved a major political puzzle for considerable parts of the European public, including academia. In response to the puzzle, there has been a recurrent inclination to perceive Catalan sovereigntism as an additional symptom of the larger malaise which has in recent years entailed the rise of nationalism, populism, and welfare chauvinism all over the Continent. The paper will argue that such views are a blatant misinterpretation of the Catalan process. At the same time, it will hold that the significance of recent political developments in Catalonia goes way beyond the opening of a new round of the conflictual relationship between the Spanish state and an ever contentious periphery.
What is at stake today in Catalonia is not just finding an adequate response to the old question of how to accommodate particular national identities in liberal-democratic states by relying on some version of the minority-rights-cum-territorial- autonomy formula. The issue rather is how to find democratic ways to change the foundations of pre-democratic forms of statehood. Seen against this background, the Catalan process calls for a thorough re-assessment of the meaning of sovereignty in complex polities and thereby bears a great potential for democratic innovation. We are confronting a phenomenon that has little to do with an anachronistic resurgence of nationalism or with a particular version of South European populism. On the contrary, the driving force of Catalan sovereigntism has been and is a popular republicanism with a substantial transformative impact. That this impact is hardly appreciated at the level of the European Union is one of the tragic ironies of what is currently happening between Brussels, Madrid, and Barcelona. To the extent that it stands by the side of the Spanish government in the conflict, thereby prioritizing the Europe of the states vis-à-vis the Europe of the citizens, the Union is ultimately undermining the very normative promises that once sustained its constitution.
Peter A. Kraus is a full professor of political science (comparative politics) and the director of the Institute for Canadian Studies at the University of Augsburg (Germany). He has been the chair of ethnic relations at the University of Helsinki, an associate professor of political science at Humboldt University in Berlin, a John F. Kennedy Memorial Fellow at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University, and a visiting professor at the New School for Social Research and at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. He has published widely and in several languages on cultural diversity and identity politics, ethnicity, nationalism, and migration, the dilemmas of European integration, as well as problems of democratization and democratic theory. He is the author of A Union of Diversity: Language, Identity, and Polity-Building in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2008). His most recent publications include The Catalan Process: Sovereignty, Democracy and Self-Determination in the 21st Century (edited w. J. Vergés, Barcelona: Institut d’Estudis de l’Autogovern, 2017) and The Politics of Multilingualism: Europeanisation, globalization and linguistic governance (edited with F. Grin, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2018). Kraus has been the Chair of the Research Networking Programme “Responding to Complex Diversity in Europe and Canada” (RECODE, www.recode.info), funded by the European Science Foundation, and a member of the steering committee of the European Commission’s Seventh Framework project “Mobility and Inclusion in Multilingual Europe” (MIME, www.mime-project.org).