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Why dismantling the nation-state could be good for European democracy

Separatism, democracy and power relationships in the EU: a brief outline

We can admit, without necessarily conceding, that the dimension of the Nation-state could have been optimal, in the past, to grant a scale apt to foster and support the well-being of citizens. In what we can grossly call the Westphalian era, where States confronted each other formally as ‘peers’, only the possession of some geopolitical power would allow them to withstand the competition or, at worst, the clash with other countries. In other words, without an institutional frame of international governance, small territorial entities, e.g. an independent Sardinia, could possibly end up being even more encroached by powerful neighbours.

This said, one can’t ignore that European integration has changed much of this scenery. Not only in this day and age sub-national subjects are allowed to deal with a new administrative centre, which endows them with financial, but also juridical and partially political resources which are alternatives to those once exclusively supplied by the State; moreover, membership of a greater polity like European Union could allow possible new independent States (like Sardinia, Corsica and other ‘nations without State’) to be not only formally sovereign but also concretely autonomous. This is not about claiming a different national identity, but instead it is about complying with the dismantling features of the integration process towards the nation-state.

Generally speaking, globalization endowed governments with a strong role of gatekeepers in what is usually called ‘two level game’, changing the balance of power between the executive branch and the democratic representation: this is especially clear in the EU. However, this is not to be considered as an innate feature of the integration process, but rather as the national elites’ lucky attempt to maintain hegemony, shaping the European Union as a decisional sphere shielded from an ‘excess of democracy’.

However, for this purpose supranational institutions have been created, whose legitimacy comes only from the Treaties and doesn’t found itself on a direct relationship with European citizens, and equipped with power enough to constrain member States in their domestic and international policies. These institutions, notably European Commission and Court of Justice, not only have become a source of ‘external resources’ for sub-national actors, but above all carry out their tasks dealing directly with them, mostly in the rather narrow space of the redistributive policies, i.e. ‘positive integration’. Thus, many scholars observe that European integration process gives new life and strength to territorial identities, which were formerly soothed or shut down by the more or less forced national identity building. These territories, most of all peripheral ones, are now even able to carry out projects of integration and cooperation with neighbour territories of other States – what is usually called ‘European macro-regions’.

Besides these empirical observations briefly outlined here, rather theoretical and normative observations can be made. First of all, we must reiterate more brightly that the cumbersome role of nation-state, in this context, can only be justified with the clear will of making the EU decisional process more complicated and obscure. In this sense, peripheral territories, who see themselves as ‘different’ from the State they belong to, are all the more disadvantaged, with a decisional centre located in an even higher ‘step’, mediated and possibly even occluded by the nation-state acting as a bottleneck.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that territories like Sardinia, Catalonia or Scotland are actually ‘other’ as opposed to the State who governs them. Nevertheless, we must remark that European integration process has made clear how the partition and organization of political, economical and social life in these wide and heterogeneous territories that we call nation-states (mostly the bigger ones, like Italy, Spain, France, United Kingdom) is plainly gratuitous, mostly being the product of historical processes and often violent conquest and occupation.
Especially where sub-state national identities have managed to survive, this ‘partitioning’ is not even functionally efficient: for example, neighbour islands like Sardinia and Corsica could be better off if they could deal, maybe jointly, with Bruxelles without having to take part in a ‘national’ political process where their specific needs are not deemed important.

Also democracy would benefit from this dismantling of the nation-state. Participation to the EU decisions, indeed, is framed according to national borders and to the institutions who govern them. This framing makes taking part to decisions more slow, obscure if not exclusive; conversely, removing the ‘national step’ could make the decisional process more clear, closer to citizens and open to be shaped freely according to their needs.

In closing, this national-elite structuring of the polity makes political differences express themselves in a territorial rather than political shape. But, like Stefano Bartolini notes, territorial agents, like governments or other vertical institutions are, do not possess the right instruments to deal with and solve the tensions produced by the European integration process, especially on wealth redistribution and generally achieving a compromise between capital and labour.

Thus, the need for a politicization of the European polity is all the more urgent in the background of the present economical and financial crisis: the heavily elitist management of this difficult moment has revealed all the flaws of this institutional form. Politicizing the European Union would mean, in a sense, performing at a regional level those processes who made the State a ‘neutral’ empty box whose content should be decided by citizens with no constraints. Should this mean an end for the nation-state as the paradigmatic form of the organization of political life, we should worry not. Nation-state’s advocates usually point on it as the preferential locus of democratic regimes, but there is obviously not a proof that we could not legitimize political power in other ways.

Thus, the endeavour of building an actually democratic European Union could benefit from separatism whereas it is carried out by rather civic than merely nationalist movements, not being just retrenchments on a smaller scale. An open territorial identification, apt to problem-solving and at the same time strong enough to legitimize institutions and limit transition costs, could in this sense be the ground for an inclusive European space of justice, peace and freedom.

Stefano Bartolini, ‘Tra formazione e trascendenza dei confini’, in Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica, n°2, agosto 2004, pp. 167-196

Stefano Bartolini, Restructuring Europe, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005.

Peter Mair, Jacques Thomassen, Electoral Democracy and Political Representation in the European Union, available here:

Peter Mair, Ruling the void: the hollowing of Western democracy, Verso Books, Londra 2013.

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