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

The Possibility of Post-Brexit Ethnonational Fragmentation across Europe (final draft; 04/10/17)

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Well, today was the Brexit panel– and it was a great event, with some amazing papers by colleagues in Economics, Political Science, History, Antrhopology, and English. For those of you who have beem keeping track of the drafting of this paper, I thought I would put in what ended up being the final draft:


Nationalism breeds nationalism. Since I began blogging on geopolitical issues in a digital space I call Terri-stories, that is the sentence I have found myself repeating most often—and the recent renewal of the Scottish Independence Referendum movement made after First Minister of Scotland (and SNP leader) Nicola Sturgeon called for a 2018 referendum vote 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 intense populism.

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 primarily through addition but fragmentation that today’s nationalism seems to work. The positive Brexit vote of 2016—which was a major populist event whose shockwaves will be felt for many years to come—has seemed to set Europe on course for a period of intense efforts toffragmentation along Ethnonationalist lines. While recent responses to the United Kingdom’s formal “triggering” of Brexit include some statements of hope, however small, that the decision can be reversed (it would require unanimous assent from EU member states), it seems likely that emotive, populist short-sightedness, both within and outside of the UK, will mean that a nationalism-wracked UK will fully separate from the European Union.

If the core issue at stake in reactions against the EU is a series of nationalist responses to globalism and its neoliberal underpinnings, then it is vital to recognize that the reactions may not be limited to discrete national movements which will each seek neat departures from EU community, but could involve exponentially increasing dissolution: fragmentation could feed off fragmentation, as ethnic enclaves break off from the larger unities of which they are a part. [And here the geographical concept of territory as multidimensional, potentially bearing micro- and macro- aspects will be vital to my analysis.]

One reason for a likely increase in ethnonational fragmentation is that ethnic identities offer readily available vehicles to advance particular economic agendas. If we look behind the ethnic exceptionalist rhetoric in such movements as Scottish Independence, the Syriza nationalist revolt, or any of a number of Euro-Skeptic nationalist policy agendas, we can see some common themes—a desire for better corporate rates, less (or really more accurately, more advantageous) regulation, and more local concentration of wealth.

Much ethnonationalist energy, in other words, looks a lot like cover for corporate streamlining or the formation of tax-shelters.

While Scotland may be the most obvious case of post-Brexit fragmentation that comes to mind, Catalonia offers a key example of separatist ethnonationalism that has fed off the instability generated by waves of localist critiques of globalism. 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 (and such appeals create cyclical instability, since 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). The Catalonia revolt, while it can of course invoke ethnic and linguistic elements, looks, with its emphasis on preventing local wealth from flowing out of its region to what are perceived as needier portions of Spain, looks more like one of many micro-territorial examples of self-interested urban secession movements (I, myself, am originally from Los Angeles—specifically, the San Fernando Valley portion, which perennially seeks to secede from the city, claiming that “its” tax dollars too often go “over the hill” to fund “city” programs—and they always lose, since secession votes by law require all Angeleno citizens. That urban background taught me to be quite cynical about how readily regional pride can serve merely as a tactic for improving tax rates—but that, of course, was without any plausible fear of the kind of actual violent secessionism, that can come about when macroterritorial, ethnonationalist loyalties are invoked.

With numerous ethnicities and singular regions existing throughout Europe, the potential number of potentially dangerous separatist movements is simply staggering. Indeed, considering that many modern nation-states only consolidated relatively recently (Germany and Italy being the clearest examples, having only unified into 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 even further into ethnic areas— into Silesian and Moravian zones. Examples—especially if we look closely at the notoriously fractious Balkans—could be multiplied.

The most intense separatist movements triggered by Brexit may, for Britons, be very close to home. 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 increasingly likely that Scottish voters will choose to depart the United Kingdom. However, Scottish nationalism has proven to be intensely unstable; it seems to wane, for example, relative to oil prices, and was only just given a new lease of life due to the Brexit vote. It has always seemed to me to be a contradiction that a seemingly separatist, proudly independent would be Scottish nation-state would cites nationalism as a reason to remove itself form its federal union with the rest of Britain—only to reattach itself to a European Union in which it will, surely, again find itself a minority voice—but nationalist fervor has a way of making individuals forget about logical consistencies (or profit motives). All that business about their votes not altering UK-wide election outcomes will ring quite hollow if Scotland rushes to make itself 1/28th of a post-Brexit EU.

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 Scots and their English-led Biritish counterparts to keep the UK united and then for that same 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. Moreover, the UK is such a crucial component in European security planning that it could hardly be unattractive for Europe to let bygones be bygones and allow the UK back into the fold. 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—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. Nationalism can help to keep players focused on communal self-interest.

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—and here I recommend all to read R. R. Davies’ magisterial work on The First English Empire). 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”—could well see itself dissolving into multiple movements, if not states. Who knows how far it could go?

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. 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. As along as self-interested rationales are there, regional exception can always be invoked to manufacture new ethnonational formations—much as Britain or America became new national forms, so might we imagine a range of new identities forged out of a European Union that has itself, it seems to me, always been ultimately a self-interested compact designed to allow individual nations to maintain the maximal illusion of national sovereignty while producing a single market community large and well managed enough to compete with the United States and China. My guess is that, unlike in the case of Britain and the United States, post-Brexit ethnonational formation will follow a path of fragmentation rather than consolidation—smaller communities driven by the small-mindedness of strategic self-interest.


Author: Randy P. Schiff

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

One thought on “The Possibility of Post-Brexit Ethnonational Fragmentation across Europe (final draft; 04/10/17)

  1. Pingback: Thoughts during Spain’s Possible Fragmentation: Catalonia, Ethnonationalism, & Populist Anti-Globalism (October 1, 2017) | Terri-Stories

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