On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

The Possibility of Post-Brexit Ethnonational Fragmentation across Europe (part I; 03/29/17)

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I offer here some first drafting of material I will use as the basis of a talk on Brexit, upcoming at my University at Buffalo, SUNY campus, this April. I plan to go back to some of my earlier reflections (to which I have provided many links here), as I think further on how to frame the tensions between ethnonationalism and transnationalism revealed by the recent populist-nationalist reactions against EU globalism.


Nationalism breeds nationalism. Since I began this blog, that is the sentence I have found myself repeating most often—and the recent renewal of the Scottish Independence Referendum movement made after Nicola Sturgeon called for a 2018 referendum vote (see this BBC analysis)  has only added to the evidence of the snowballing nationalism the world has seen in the past few years of what seems like wave after wave of intensely populist movements.

Snowballing, however, is a potentially problematic metaphor—for even though we might think of the reenergized Scottish independence movement as an addition to a running tally of global nationalism, it is not through addition but fragmentation that nationalism mostly seems to work. The positive Brexit vote of 2016—which was a major populist event whose shockwaves will be felt for many, many years to come—has seemed to set Europe on course for a period of intense efforts to produce fragmentation along Ethnonationalist lines. While the responses to the United Kingdom’s formal “triggering” of Brexit include some statements of small hope that the decision can be reversed (as you can read here in this BBC article, such a walking-back of the Brexit decision would require unanimous assent from the twenty-seven member states of the European Union), it seems quite likely that nationalist short-sightedness, both within and outside of the UK, will mean that the UK will fully separate from the European Union (as you will see below, I do have some skepticism that the process is irreversible).

If, as I have discussed in responses to the Brexit debate here and here, the core issue at stake in reactions against the European Union is a series of nationalist reactions against globalism and its neoliberal underpinnings, then it is vital to recognize that the reactions will likely not be limited to discrete national movements which will each seek neat departures from the European Union community, but will involve exponentially increasing dissolution: fragmentation will feed off fragmentation, as ethnic enclaves break off from the larger unities of which they are a part. (See these Terri-stories entries for more on this.)

While Scotland may be the most obvious case that comes to mind, Catalonia is another key example of the sort of ethnonationalism that is being generated by the localist critique of globalism, as I have written about here.  While the successful vote for an independent Catalonia by 2017 was cut short on Spanish Constitutional grounds, it seems unlikely to me that efforts to separate will cease any time soon. There are always populist politicians who will channel notions of difference—linguistic, regional, historical, etc.—as a means to legitimize the more immediate goal of trying to concentrate more wealth in a zone that imagines itself as unfairly contributing more resources to other parts of the nation-state (such numbers can be easily manipulated to show both sorts of outcomes, and there are always pundits and politicians willing to present cooked data to foment whatever political outcome they desire, whether it be conserving unity or advocating secession).

With numerous ethnicities and singular regions existing throughout Europe, the potential number of separatist movements is simply staggering. Indeed, considering that many modern nation-states only consolidated their unified forms relatively recently (Germany and Italy being the clearest examples, having only consolidated into anything resembling their current forms in the late nineteenth century), it is a wonder that more separatist movements have not already begun to spring up. Much as the nineteenth century saw an explosion of nationalist movements develop, particularly in the wake of Romanticized celebration of Greek secession from the Ottoman Empire, Brexit could easily serve as a trigger for awakening ethnonational movements that have perhaps simply been slumbering in the relatively prosperous times of global free trade.

Besides Italy and Germany, there are other national states that, while we sometimes think of them as ancient, have only really been tightly organized since the nineteenth or eighteenth centuries. France, for example, could see more intensity in Corsican, Provençal, Occitanian, or Basque separatist movements, and could see more movement towards autonomy in traditional regions, while a unity like Belgium could come completely undone into its constituent parts. Various ethnic separatist movements could call more loudly either for new states or for remappings of other states, with activist Basques in Spain and France, ethnic Greeks in places like Albania or Cyprus, or Frisians in the Netherlands. The Czech Republic could disintegrate further in its ethnic status, into Silesians and Moravians. Examples—especially if we looked into the notoriously fractious Balkans—could be multiplied.

As I suggested earlier, the most intense separatist movements triggered by Brexit may be very close to home indeed. As I have written of here before, Brexit’s anti-globalist movement is surely spurring more intense feelings of national identity in Scotland. Scotland’s independence movement is by far the most pressing ethnonational issue that will follow directly from the Brexit movement: at the very least, another independence referendum will be held, and it seems to me that it is looking increasingly likely that Scottish voters will choose to depart the United Kingdom. While Scottish nationalism has proven to be intensely unstable (it seems to wane, for example, relative to oil prices), it was clearly given a new lease of life due to the Brexit vote. As I have made clear more than once on this blog, I do not think the Scottish independence movement is a simple matter, and I would not trust commentary that would see Brexit as absolutely driving Scots to depart from the United Kingdom.

I still believe that there is a distinct possibility that the very fear of Scotland departing the UK may do just the opposite—drive the UK to hold another referendum and to come, hat in hand, humbly requesting the EU countries to halt the Brexit process and vote unanimously to keep the UK integrated. There are two reasons for this view. Firstly, nearly all of the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal is located in Scottish territory, and the archipelagic nature of Scotland is what makes the United Kingdom an especially powerful military, with the ability to maintain personnel and systems in numerous sites across a vast swathe of oceanic territory. With Scotland out of the picture, a Great Britain consisting only of England, Wales and North Ireland, plus some scattered island territories, is much more vulnerable. Secondly, I believe that there is a massive potential for territorial disputes that would follow a split between Scotland and Britain, especially if they each maintain the same monarchical line (as I have discussed here)—once they realize how messy competition for land and sea claims could potentially be, and especially with a very active and aggressive Russian Federation not too far in the distance, I suspect the English and the Scots may just figure out a way to cut a face-saving deal.

Welsh and Northern-Irish independence movements are also quite plausible outcomes from Brexit producing an ethnonational chain reaction (I would list a Cornish separatist movement as implausible, but still potential). The Welsh case is quite stark: it is linguistically independent, has maintained an ethno-regional idea for as long as England has, and it certainly did not enter into partnership with an imperial England in a spirit of unity and peace (Edward I’s ravaging of Welsh lands in the 1280s remains shocking to read about today). If nationalism breeds nationalism, then the United Kingdom—which some see as a strangely unified collection of sub-nations, a bias that seems to be given strange recognition by World Cup and other international athletic events, in which Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland compete alongside individual “nations” (and to see how awkwardly such nationalism fits with British sports identity, see this entry)—could well see itself dissolving into multiple movements, if not states. Who knows how far it could go? Perhaps long-dormant regional identities in the Western Isles, in Galloway, or in the Orkneys might further fragment Scotland, or London could mirror California in the United States and seek to become a progressive, liberal oasis in an increasingly nationalist world.

While it seems unlikely to me that the United States would have actual territorial fragmentation due to the recent anti-globalist wave, it is striking how ferociously anti-globalist rhetoric has catapulted Trump into power, as I have discussed here. https://randyschiff.wordpress.com/2016/12/30/after-the-american-electoral-deluge-an-alarming-analysis-of-anti-globalism-appears/ While there have been whispers of a Calexit, and indeed there will be an effort to place such an idea on the ballot, I am at this point skeptical that it will be anything more than a symbolic gesture that, in making such arguments as that California’s massive economy means it can survive on its own and that its massive revenue generation actually helps fund rural areas of the country, is strikingly similar to the separatist rationale of rich regions such as Cataluña. Don’t get me wrong: I do not doubt that there are fervent secessionist movements in the United States, with Texas as the perennial example of a state filled with individual s actively seeking to secede from the United States (I have written about the sometimes paranoiac fever of such separatism here, which in its anti-federalist terms can sometimes mirror anti-EU rhetoric). More significantly, the United States from 1861-1865, as Benedict Anderson reminds us in Imagined Communities that Americans sometimes conveniently forget, actually split apart, and required the US Civil War—arguably, the bloodiest in US history—to reintegrate Southern states. The spirit of secession also exists on more microterritorial levels—such as in the tax-related desire of areas like the San Fernando Valley to separate from Los Angeles, about which I have written here. Secession may be more alive and ready to rear its ugly and negatively energetic head than we think—especially if we start to see a chain reaction of self-interested ethnonational splitting start to carve new territories out of the wreckage of a foundering EU that took globalism directed mostly to the well-heeled too far.



Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English and Middle Scots literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

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