Taking a Closer Look at State Partition

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Stefano Bianchini talks about the recent referendums and why we should give more attention to State partition.

Crimea, Brexit, and the referendums in Catalonia and Scotland are giving new popularity to the controversial right of self-determination and potential State partitions in Europe.

I was, however, surprised to observe that this question, that actually marks the European history since the 19th century, is not under a regular scrutiny of European public opinion, nor consistently studied by the academic literature. Even more, policymakers underestimate the issue, assuming that no destructive events may happen. I remember very well this behavior on the eve of the Yugoslav tragedy, when rarely concerned voices were warning about the potential implications of the Yugoslav partition. But it seems that there are no lessons learned from that experience. Can Catalonia be the next?

Indeed, the public interest about this topic remains contingent on events only when these “unexpectedly” happen over time. So quickly they inflame broader thoughts how quickly they turn off. Furthermore, their interpretation often suffers from biases. Among those, one can mention the widespread belief that State partition is a peculiarity of the “traditionally” unstable Eastern Europe or of the “Balkan troublemakers”. Rarely the category of State partition is applied to understand Western cases, like Ireland, Sweden, or – potentially – the United Kingdom or Spain. The recent reaction of the European Commission to the Catalan frightening escalation is adamant in this regard: cynically (or incompetently?) the EU officials downgraded the question to an internal matter of a member state, minimizing the fact that an independent Catalonia would change, at least, both the EU geopolitical framework and the Eurozone space.

On the contrary, and not surprisingly, State partition is the focus of many Indian studies, either in India or in Great Britain and US. Asian or South-East Asian journals often publish articles on this subject. Patently, the trauma of the British Indian partition has generated a vivid debate, which is affecting different generations of scholars, culturally, politically and psychologically.

Nothing similar, instead, seems to have occurred in Europe so far, although it was within this Continent that competing ideas of nationalism, claims for “people’s freedoms”, and policies of national self-determination were generated since the Enlightenment and later spread worldwide. In a couple of centuries the European culture produced opposite visions of Nation-State building, overlapping cartographies, faced the demands of a plurality of minorities (in addition to the pre-existing religious minorities), and alternative ideals of what the “people’s freedom” should be.

Furthermore, the memory of these dynamics is often blurred; sometimes, even distorted or manipulated. The constructed official narratives of the nation-states, spread among the population through education, monuments, public celebrations, topography, and mass media contribute significantly to modify the public perception of the past and its knowledge.

By contrast, globalization, the space-time compression, the advancement in IT communication together with the project of EU integration (particularly the common currency, the Schengen agreement and the Erasmus mobility) have intensified the intercultural, nomadic and métis components of the European societies, threatening key national principles such as the national-cultural homogenization; the primacy of one standardized language; the appeals to blood and soil; the role of the “traditional” heterosexual family and the bourgeois ideas of respectability; the predominance of patriarchism and hierarchical gender relations; and the old Westphalian principle “one State, one Religion and a fixed population”.

These considerations intrigued me for more than a decade. The growing polarization between nation state resistance and the impact of globalization cannot be underestimated any longer. Their impact in our everyday life is undeniable. A multiple divide marks our European societies concerning mobile (or nomadic) and sedentary populations; urban and rural environments; elder and young generations; the proximity of great cities ( thanks to the high speed trains or low cost flights) and the increasing remoteness of urban centers and provincial towns. These are just few examples. However, they well explain how new, cultural fractures are affecting the local and the global, the regional and the national, the national and the European dimensions. State partitions are, to a large extent, the outcome of these unsettled dynamics which are increasing the fluidity of the existing social links, while paving the way for the establishment of new, still unpredictable, solid bodies (as Zygmunt Bauman perfectly illustrated). As a result, my curiosity was attracted by the variety of forms of social, territorial, economic, and cultural divide that multiplied in Europe since the end of the 18th century.

Although partitions may occur for a variety of reasons (from Power Politics to religion or ideology), undeniably the modern claim to State partitions was (and still is) to a large extent determined by nationalism, the emphasis on territory, blood, and ethnic homogeneity. Most recently, this perspective has taken an additional, multilevel form by threatening the stability of both the EU and some member states simultaneously. The global economic crisis, the asylum seekers emergency, and a contested plurality of nationalist programs play a crucial role under these circumstances. Nationalist behaviors and contents critically differ, according to historical periods, local perceptions, the intellectual participation in the construction of identities, Power interests, and external factors. Nevertheless, this is a crucial, historical legacy that the Europeans are expected to face right now, even if most of them reacts like the ostriches, who put their heads under the ground.

By contrast, the attractiveness of partitions and claims to independence remain powerful within the cultural framework determined by the resistance of the national form of the State (whatever this means: the existing ones, or those which demand recognition though partitions) against either globalization or the process of European integration. The latter, in particular, is suffering from a long decline since a great economic and financial crisis has affected the potential expressed by a successful period of reforms in the 1990s when mobility, common currency and enlargement eastward were implemented consistently.

For all these reasons I think that “State partition” as social, political, and historical category deserves a special scrutiny, not only as a subject for academic studies, but also as a tangible phenomenon whose implementation generates crucial implications in terms of everyday life, sense of security, geopolitical (de)stabilization, popular fears, democratic development with the risk of strengthening xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic cleansing, and violence. The issue is so vividly enshrined in the social dynamics of our time to require a solid understanding of origins and developments of State partition processes and their links not only with national ideas, but also with the nature of democracy. In fact, any time when State partition matters, a question arises: should democracy be assured by the respect of the Constitutional legality or by the will of a majority of people living in one specific territory, region, or district? And what about the will of the other citizens? The question is still unsettled and the Spanish case is currently representing a litmus test whose implications will unpredictably affect our societal future.


Stefano Bianchini, University of Bologna, Italy


Bianchini Liquid

Liquid Nationalism and State Partitions in Europe is available now.

Read the Introduction: Geopolitical liquidities and nationalist trajectories: fluid boundaries and state reshaping in nineteenth-century Europe on Elgaronline.

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  1. Taking a Closer Look at State Partition | World Peace Forum - October 28, 2017

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