It seems the historical turn to dismantle the state is knocking on civilisation's door, just as once it ushered in the state. Since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia opened the modern state era, built upon nationality, we have seen, across violent centuries, statehood being forged in one way or another: empires collapsing, our most relevant one being the British, "where the sun [would] never set," producing over 50 independent states (judging by British Commonwealth membership); some areas even elevated independence over nationality construction, generating multi-national hybrids, like the United States, and so forth; while divided nationalities also dotted the firmament, as in Germany, Korea, and Vietnam, among others. Post-Westphalian history down to the present times has been bloodied by the resultant vicissitudes.
The simultaneous movements to practice and spread democracy released another dynamic that often collides with statehood based upon nationalism. Democracy gives each individual sovereignty, therefore in multi-ethnic states, the seed is sown of future conflict should minority interests get short-ended too frequently. Such may be West Europe's nation-state case.
What Westphalia did to break Europe's over-extended, matrimony-based or militarily-acquired empires, such as the Bourbons, Hapsburgs, and the Holy Roman Empire (which, as is famously noted, was not holy, nor Roman, and not even an empire in its strictest sense), European ethnic groups may now be repeating against nation states, or the European Union, which is a composite of these states, what nationalities ganged up to do against those empires, highlighted by the 1648 peace.
Going back to the Westphalia system, on the one hand, new countries sprang out over time, like Italy in the 1860s: city-states, like Florence, Milan, Rome, Savoy, and so forth, sought a broader identity and platform across a peninsula that they went on to call Italy (there were no 'Italians' beforehand, only Florentines, Milanese, Romans, and so forth). The task of unifying those ethnically different groups, which began with Count Cavour and Giuseppe Garibaldi, among others, in those tempestuous 1860s, remains incomplete even today, since analysts continue distinguishing the dynamic 'northerners' against the more relaxed 'southerners': Sicilians, to put it crudely, have been known to excel in building Mafioso networks, but when it came to industrialising and financing, the country needed connections, resources, and skills that, apparently, only the northerners could supply.
Generalising from that, even though Germany was united in 1871, then again in 1989, differences within a group blandly called the 'Germans' still appear in bold profile today: eastern Germans like the Prussians tended to have more martial skills and fewer democratic experiences than their western brethrens in, say, Bavaria (or Austrian), reflecting a huge autocratic past, going back to the Hohenzollern dynasty, highlighted by the finest soldiers of the time in Europe, then Soviet-installed German Democratic Republic. Sometimes these ethnic shades mesh with nationalistic identities, as between the Anglo-Saxons and the Welsh inside the multi-nation-state of United Kingdom, or they might clash, as between Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs in Yugoslavia. Tensions and conflicts between such groups often arise: Ireland entered the European Union as a separate member than as part of Great Britain, with Scotland very recently pushing its own independence button through the 2014 referendum. Czechoslovakia broke into the Czech Republic and Slovakia peacefully, but Yugoslavia's 1990s slaughterhouse was a reminder of India in the late 1940s. Many artificial states (dubbed state-nations, as opposed to nation-states, since the state was established before any national identity), especially littering Africa, constantly struggle to prevent inter-tribal, rather than inter-national, tensions and conflicts.
Spain, one of the stars behind the evolution of West European integration, that is, the shift from the European Community to the European Union in November 1993, and one of the first nation-states after Westphalia, now faces its own identity Achilles heel. It is not just the embedded differences between Catalonians and the more dominant Castillians, but also the collective weight of democratic practices breeding a sense of identity, a sense only sharpened by the advent of the Internet, which has individualised the social phenomenon we call 'culture' so sharply that we now easily and constantly search for identities below the state-level: these could be ethnic-based, as in Spain presently, or racial, as with the emergent populists in France or Germany, or the Ku Klux Klan in the United States; or market-economy practitioners, like within the World Economic Forum who meet in Davos at the start of every year; or even grassroots groups over the environment, about climate change, human rights, women empowerment, or possible 'Me too' associates in the wake of the campaign to expose sexual harassment violators.
Catalonians need to be heard to prevent a rupture, much like Bangalees should have been between 1947 and 1971 to preserve Pakistan; but though Bangalees were a majority within Pakistan from the very start in a way that Catalonians are not within Spain, forcefully impeding Catalan identity-search through direct-rule or baton-wielding policemen may just hasten a rupture that negotiation might have halted. If that is the case, there will be added incentives for Basques within Spain, even though they represent far weaker, practically non-existent, credentials of statehood than Catalonians. With Barcelona, the key Catalan city, and historically a pre-eminent financial centre, now a tourist haven par excellence boasting one of the world's top soccer clubs, Catalonia can punch above its weight in a way many minor groups can not. Ultimately, surviving as a state demands more resources than sentimental preferences can muster. Catalonian sentiments rippling across West Europe (to the Scots, across Italy, and so forth), could do more damage to European Union integration than Brexit threatened to do, but may eventually feed the Brexit scepticism continent-wide.
Nevertheless, since the luxury to even think of a European-ness to produce the European Union was another democracy-statehood alignment, the absence of force to prevent that may very well be the lesson Spain must quickly learn if it is to stop disintegrating. On the one hand, it would pluck the European Union out of its most fragile moment since the 1965 Empty Crisis pitted France against the Federal Republic of Germany; on the other, it would promote the dialogue Europeans have perfected and been promoting abroad, as opposed to the military alignments typical of the United States (in Syria, with North Korea, and implied over Iran, among others), for instance, to a far more divided and restless world.
At stake is not just Catalonian identity that every global group can sympathise with, but also the 'European model' that must now brace a different internal storm than what Brexit summoned. Faulting groups and clubbing them into existing moulds may be the wrong recipe at the wrong time for the wrong people, as too announcements that Catalonia would not be permitted European Union entry or membership; and if any state knows that better than all the others across the wide world, the original Westphalian nation-states across West Europe, like Spain, are the very ones. If anything, the 'European model' has promoted a negotiated alternative to many crises outside the European continent. It is time the European Union salvaged Spain from its darkest hour using Europe's finest instrument.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.