Pulling Together or Pulling Apart?

Perspectives on Nationhood, Identity, and Belonging in Europe

by Susana Belenguer (Volume editor) Nicola Brady (Volume editor)
©2019 Edited Collection XIV, 442 Pages
Open Access
Series: Nationalisms across the Globe, Volume 21


In the aftermath of the twentieth century’s raging warfare, attempts were made to create an environment in which new relationships between European nations could be built around a common identity. Yet, in the twenty-first century, identity conflicts are gaining a new intensity in parts of the continent. In the analysis of some sub-state nationalist parties, the prospect of European Union membership reduces the economic and political risks of secession. Meanwhile, to the east, any moves towards expansion of EU membership are viewed by Russia not as a peace project but as acts of aggression. This volume assembles a series of comparative and single-area case studies drawn from different academic disciplines. While interrogating the history of identity conflict in the European context, an essential component of efforts to reduce such conflicts in the future, the authors bring an array of methodological approaches to analyses of the many intersecting political, cultural and economic factors that influence the formation of nationhood and identity, and the resurgence of nationalism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Tables
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • The Basque Country within Spain and Europe: Basque Nationalist Party Proposals during the Spanish Transition to Democracy (1975–1980)
  • Nationalism and Identity: An Interview with Professor Xosé M. Núñez Seixas71
  • Enlargement from Within? Secession and EU Membership
  • Flagging the Nation in the Basque Country: The Flag War
  • Al tyempo del kuechko dulse: History, Language and Identity in Enrique Saporta y Beja’s Account of Jewish Life in Salonika
  • Patria and Citizenship: Miguel Primo de Rivera, Caciques and Military Delegados, 1923–1924
  • Becoming Catalan: Narrative Cultivation of Self among Catalan Nationalists
  • Russian Geopolitical Thinking and the Ukrainian Crisis: Neo-Imperialist Aspirations or Merely a Survival Strategy?
  • Contested Unionism along the Irish Border at the Time of Partition
  • Rebuilding Bridges: Nations and State in Present-Day Spain
  • Separatism in the New Millennium: Looking Back to See Forward
  • The Pro-Independence Movement in Catalonia: Impact on the International Agenda and Media Pluralism
  • Romania: The Challenges of Contested Identities
  • The Constitutional Crossroads in Spain
  • Ethical Nationalism: Social Citizenship in Multi-National States
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index


The editors, Susana Bayó Belenguer and Nicola Brady, have put together a penetrating and stimulating collection of studies on the subject of nationhood and identity on Europe’s multi-ethnic peripheries, with the main focus on the case of Spain. How Spain has addressed and is addressing the challenges of diversity are explored from a variety of disciplines, including politics, history, law, international relations, sociology, anthropology, media studies, and even literature. The scope and methodology of chapters vary even more widely, from a broad-ranging interview with Professor Xosé M. Núñez Seixas on the subject of nationalism to the analysis of an account of Jewish life in Salonika in the language of Judeo-Spanish.

A theme that runs through the volume and which is implicit even in the chapters with a particular historical focus is that Spain’s pluri-national constitution remains a work in progress, as is evident in the analysis of both the Basque and Catalan cases. The larger emphasis on Catalan nationalism reflects changing contemporary priorities, with the waning of violence in the Basque Country. Still relevant to both cases is the issue of national identification: to what extent do people in these regions identify as both Basque and Spanish or as both Catalan and Spanish? Or is there a trend to identify exclusively with one or the other? This issue has been addressed in line with an innovative methodology that Luis Moreno developed as far back as 1986. He designed a self-identification scale that asked respondents what weight they gave to different national identities. For example, did they feel more Basque than Spanish or vice-versa? Or did they attach equal importance to both identities? The Moreno question continues to be asked in many different countries and to yield significant results that chart changes in sentiment over time. The rise of the politics of identity, as well as that of status, has meant that for many voters, these issues have become more salient than the bread and butter concerns that previously dominated their political preferences.

←xi | xii→

A corollary is that from a policy perspective, the accommodation of different identities looms large in the governance of European states. In states in which ethnic minorities within a country are associated with particular regions in which they constitute a majority of the population, the granting of regional autonomy is an obvious step. However, it is rarely the end of the matter, as arguments between the region and the centre over the exercise of their respective powers are likely to remain a source of friction, even under the most carefully designed constitutions. Further, dissatisfaction over the terms of autonomy and demands for their radical modification short of full independence may generate practically as much heat as the original push for autonomy and in the process increase support for secession. As a number of chapters in this volume underline, this is precisely what has happened in Spain.

The inclusion of other cases of multi-national and bi-national states gives further weight to the comparative approach to the analysis of these issues, with chapters on Russia and the Ukrainian crisis, Ulster Unionism during the partition of Ireland, sub-state nationalism in Scotland and Flanders, Romania’s relations with its kin-state of Moldova, and separatism as a phenomenon across Europe. One chapter compares the cases of Scotland and Catalonia, examining in forensic detail their prospects of achieving independence within Europe. Hitherto, the European Union has been unwilling to accept the legitimacy of secession within any member state, but has been ready to accept as members, states that emerged as a result of the collapse of communism and the break-up of states in Eastern Europe, i.e. that involved secession outside of the European Union. Whether the European Union would be ready to accept Scotland as a member after Brexit remains a fascinating question, as does the attitude of the Spanish government to such a possibility.

Even while broadly discouraging the flow of refugees from outside of Europe, the European Union has played a generally constructive role in the promotion of the accommodation of diversity within Europe. That is one reason why Brussels has been a target of populists of a nativist bent. But, as the editors point out, the European project has by no means eliminated ethnic fault lines, nor should populism and the reaction against ←xii | xiii→immigration and multi-culturalism simply be seen as manifestations of nationalism, even majoritarian nationalism. The multiple angles from which these issues are addressed in this volume provide a valuable addition to our understanding of the processes of both integration and disintegration.

Adrian Guelke

Susana Bayó Belenguer and Nicola Brady


Our present world is simultaneously moving towards the opposing dystopias of hyper centralisation and endless fragmentation.

— Francis Fukuyama (2018)

This publication has its origins in a multi-disciplinary conference of the same name hosted by the Department of Hispanic Studies in Trinity College, Dublin University, which, at a time when many Western democracies are being pulled apart by identity politics, brought together academics from around the world to explore themes of nationhood and belonging. In addressing multiple issues within identity formation, this volume assembles comparative and single-area case studies from different academic disciplines which enable an holistic view of the evolution of identity-based conflict in Europe, and situate contemporary challenges in their historical context.

It is appropriate therefore to set the scene by outlining the conceptual and contextual notions that underlie its themes, looking at what is understood by terms like ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’ in the search for socio-political identity. And as our setting is Europe, it also seems apt to consider briefly the problems of an embattled EU at a time when Brexit is spearheading a general rising of dissent among its members.

The Resilience of Nationalism as a Sociopolitical Force

Experts recognize that, in divisive power, nationalism in the present western world has come to occupy the place once held by faiths, both prompting ←1 | 2→a visceral adherence and defying rational conceptualizations. As Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr noted: ‘Nationalism remains […] the most vital political emotion in the world – far more vital than social ideologies such as communism or fascism or even democracy’ (1998: 53). Years earlier, in the aftermath of the First World War, Carlton Hayes had made much the same point, asking ‘why apostles of nationalism are characterised by a missionary zeal that is fiery and why its multitudinous disciples are possessed of a love that is consuming’ and linking the question to the assertion that ‘it is the latest and nearest approach to a world-religion’ (1926: 6).

Nationalisms and their associated phenomena have continued to defy precise definition because they possess perhaps too many dimensions, too many facets, too many subjectivities to pin down.1 But, although whatever we may measure and quantify of the brain contributes only marginally to an understanding of what our thoughts are ‘made of’, we continue to observe that which is as yet definitionally out of reach. In much the same way we may note that common to all our understandings of identity, of nationalism and of nation are (equally indefinable) emotions, beliefs and desires that continue to confound debate. Spain’s internal divides provide a clear example, as perfectly sound arguments from one region are refuted by perfectly valid arguments from another, while all concerned are aware that debate is futile without a common understanding of what is meant by ‘nation’.

Definitions are elusive also because, as Ernest Renan (1882) long ago realized, nationalism and nation are often compounds of the worst and best aspirations of communities, who call upon an ‘imagined’ past in support of demands for a future that will cater for present ambitions of ‘national’ identity. It is clear that to belong (however understood) and specifically, for the purposes of our present concern, to belong to a place, to a definable space, remains among the most powerful needs of human beings, and thus nationalism has the potential to arouse in us what Schlesinger identifies as ‘[t];he hostility of one tribe for another’ (1998: 12). This oldest of tribal instincts, still engendering among even the most advanced societies a drive to exclude from belonging, and the urge to cast out whatever is perceived as not belonging, is implicit in what Alain Touraine maintained: ‘Society ←2 | 3→is not merely a system of norms or a system of domination: it is a system of social relations, of debates and conflicts, of political initiatives and claims, of ideologies and alienation’ (1977: 30). Identity, that inherent heart of belonging, whatever its subjective and objective components, is realized as a social phenomenon, with the person finding expression only in terms of a society, and society having meaning only in terms of the person. Thus the ability of nationalism to (re)surface and adapt to the times depends substantially on its offering a perennially utopian vision of one’s roots, of one’s tribal identity within a recognizable community of kindred people. In the words of Anthony D. Smith: ‘Just as “the nation” is felt and willed and acted out, as well as imagined, so do many of the members of today’s nations feel that their own interests, needs and welfare are bound up with the welfare and destiny of “their” nation’ (2009: 14).2

But understandings of precisely what is meant by their nation may be as many and as varied as the members, and – just as significantly – the non-members, of it. In 1913 Joseph Stalin defined the nation along the lines of a community of language, territory, economic life and psychological make-up.3 Not too differently, but from a non-Marxist perspective, Ernest Gellner (1983), asserting that without nationalism there would not exist ←3 | 4→the nation, gave two down-to-earth exemplifications of what constitutes a nation:

Two men are of the same nation if and only if they share the same culture, where culture in turn means a system of ideas and signs and associations and ways of behaving and communicating.


A mere category of persons (say, occupants of a given territory, or speakers of a given language, for example) becomes a nation if and when the members of the category firmly recognize certain mutual rights and duties to each other in virtue of their shared membership of it. It is their recognition of each other as fellows of this kind which turns them into a nation, and not the other shared attributes, whatever they might be, which separate that category from non-members. (Gellner 1983: 6, 7)4

But whereas in the past a shared culture and ethnicity (however indefinable or smudged by history) over a sufficient period of time might have made it relatively easy to identify, and to identify with, one’s fellow nationals, Europe is increasingly experiencing an era not unlike that of the later Roman Empire in the West (itself long hybrid), when movements of people, many of them motivated by threats from other groupings, obliged overwhelming hegemonic shifts in a remix of cultures and communities that would take centuries to resolve into what we today understand as ‘Europe’. Similarly, today from a different direction, a new wave of migration is beginning to force a reconsideration of what constitutes a national identity, and to oblige a recognition of challenges to the traditional state (see, for example, Guibernau and Rex, 2010, ‘Introduction’).

And to muddy even further the already murky waters, Benedict Anderson, in taking a conceptual approach, suggested that the nation

is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign […] The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them […] has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations […] It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm […] Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always ←4 | 5→conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings. (Anderson 1983: 49–50)

Hayes had similarly equated nationalism with ‘an emotional loyalty to the idea or the fact of the national state, a loyalty so intensely emotional that it motivates all sorts of people and causes them to subordinate all other human loyalties to national loyalty’ (1926: 3). And present-day nationalisms have familiar echoes of a past which tore Europe apart in wars between ‘nations’ whose claim to that title might be no more than the possession of frontiers established by a ruling dynasty, or whose political elite were prepared to have millions of people slaughtered over territorial hegemonies disguised as ideological value disputes and ‘home’ defence. On all sides, a common call to arms was bolstered by appeal to the solidarity of a people, motivated then as now by what Victor Orbán has recently put in these terms: ‘This is our homeland, our life, and since we don’t have another one, we will fight for it until the very end and we will never give it up’.5

As historian Xosé M. Núñez Seixas (2012: 14) has noted, questions about nationalism might be asked about regionalism and regional identity (local or sub-national identities), and a better understanding of both might be arrived at by considering to what extent regionalisms are ‘complementary’ or ‘opposed’ to national identities and what differentiates them from nations, nationalism and ‘separatism’.6 He has claimed that regionalism and nationalism share common traits, that regionalist aspirations ←5 | 6→‘generally precede or even accompany sub-state nationalisms.’ It is widely perceived that these aspirations may turn into claims when a confluence of economic and socio-political circumstances coincides with emotional reactions to what is considered disregard for a collective regional identity by the nation-state;7 these reactions may include what Wendy Brown (1995) identified as a sense of ‘woundedness’, the basis for aggressive individual and collective affirmation of identity. Present-day Europe is struggling with and currently failing to find coherent solutions to the many disparate definitions, feelings, aspirations and expectations that clamour for expression, both within a context of EU unity and opposed to it.

The Integration of Nations in the European Union

Though it is well recognized that the establishment of the European Union was, at its core, a peace project, unity is today also troubled to the east as any moves towards expansion of its membership are viewed by Russia as acts of aggression. It matters little that the EU was founded only on visions of peace as a continent wounded from two world wars and reeling from the horrors of the Holocaust sought to create a new foundation on which all could unite around a common European identity. Alliances of any sort are of concern to those not within them and Russia, naturally sensitive to any transfer of allegiance on its borders, is not alone in wariness of the European bloc. In a world of endless competition, it also matters little that, in the words of Walter Hallstein, the first president of the European Commission:

This community is not due to military power or political pressure, but owes its existence to a creative act. It is based on sound legal standards and its institutions are subject to legal control. For the first time, the rule of law takes the place of power and its manipulation of the equilibrium of forces, of hegemonic aspiration and ←6 | 7→of the game of alliances […] In the relations between Member States, violence and political pressure will be replaced by the preeminence of the law. (Quoted in Danwitz 2018: 4)

It was hoped that as the strategic importance of the supranational context increased in political, social and economic terms, the significance of ethnic, cultural and national differences would diminish, with minority identities finding accommodation in sub-state arrangements.

This hope has begun to look increasingly forlorn as in the twenty-first century these differences – far from being subsumed within an overarching ‘European’ identity – are gaining a new intensity in parts of the continent as unities (including some not owed to the European Union but rather forged over centuries) begin to fracture under the weight of localized perceptions of identity. Europe sees itself at ever-greater risk of splitting apart as in the analysis of some sub-state nationalist parties the prospect of European Union membership reduces the economic and political risks that secession would otherwise bring them.

To the internal conflicts of Europe we may add an enforced participation in other threats that are sweeping the world. As Francis Fukuyama has argued: ‘Identity politics has become a master concept that explains much of what is going on in global affairs’ (2018b: 92) and ‘[d];emocratic societies are fracturing into segments’ (2018b: 93). This threat is focused less on national and ethnic identity alone as on gender, sexuality and social class. It is almost as though globalization, far from being an antidote to the narrow tribalism of nationalism, is itself the generator of another kind of multiculturalism, and one not envisaged by its antinationalist proponents. Where once it was possible to conceive of ethnocultural congruence as the essential core of multiculturalism, of internationalism, the rise of identity politics has added yet another component to intraculturalism.

Alongside such unity destabilizers, Jan-Werner Müller cautions against over-simplifications that equate the recent rise in populism with a straightforward resurgence of nationalism: what we are seeing is the instrumentalization of nationalism by populist leaders who ‘seek out and thrive on conflict; their political business model is permanent culture war. In a way they reduce all political questions to questions ←7 | 8→of belonging. Whoever disagrees with them is labelled an “enemy of the people”’ (2019: 36). Perhaps few recent world events illustrate the emotive power of Müller’s innocent word ‘belonging’ or of the divisive potential of independence aspirations better than the British people’s experience of Brexit.

If these contentions were not of themselves sufficient to erode the EU, Cézar Baena and Michael Neubert claim that mistrust of ‘elites’ and ‘the establishment’ lies at the heart of many of the societal divisions witnessed across Europe today:

In some countries, anti-establishment movements are in power: Lega and the Five Star Movement in Italy, Law and Justice in Poland, the Freedom Party in Austria, Fidesz in Hungary. These movements share a critique of the EU bureaucracy and its attempts to regulate markets, impose rules on economic and technological development, and establish quotas for migrants. Often called populists, they seek to dismantle the EU bureaucracy and take power back to the people (i.e. the nation state or smaller units of decision-making). Brexit and the gilets jaunes movement in France have emerged within this context. (Baena and Neubert 2019: n.p.)

Yet all this seems to have erupted from faultlines thought to be no longer active beneath the construction project of European unity. By the 1990s, nationalism had seemed to be a spent force, overcome by policies of globalization, and with any fears of a kind of featureless multicultural identity – the sort that would make Barcelona indistinguishable from Berlin – allayed by notions of federalism. Hence the ease with which it was possible to conclude that nationalism was ultimately a dead end, merely another artefact of the creators of ‘us’ and ‘them’ animations.8 Or, alternatively, to dismiss nationalism as little more than popular local reactions to what are perceived as distant elites. It seemed farsighted of Ernest Renan (1882) to have maintained that ‘nations are not something eternal’, that they ‘have their ←8 | 9→beginnings and they will end’ and that ‘[a]; European confederation will very probably replace them’.9 And it did not seem wildly premature of Rousseau to have long since observed that ‘these days, whatever else one may say, there are no longer any Frenchmen, Englishmen, Germans or Spaniards, there are only Europeans’ (quoted in Seth and Kulessa 2017: 132).

But by the new millennium there were already signs of a growing unease over internationalist fervour and, perceptively, Smith (2009: 128–9) challenged the demise of nations, pointing to their staying power, to their ability to continually evolve as socio-cultural communities (‘ethnies’, from the French). Research between 2008 and 2009 showed that loyalty to Europe among EU citizens took third place after the first loyalty to the nation and the second to the region of origin; but, perhaps significantly, when asked about what contributed most to a European identity, 41 per cent selected ‘democratic values’, with far fewer (at 24 per cent each) opting for ‘geography’ and ‘common history’. Overall, the strongest feelings of being European were found in the north of Europe and the weakest with Britain and Greece.10

Whether causal or correlational, perhaps the most unsettling and alarming development has been the rise of nationalism and identity politics in Hungary, Poland, Spain and Austria, a mounting populist anti-migrant feeling in Italy, Sweden and Germany, an insistent anti-European sentiment in, for example, the UK and the appearance of newly formed populist parties of the left and of the right in Austria, France, the Netherlands and Spain. Opposition to the very thought of a politically united Europe is becoming more overt, with Catalan secessionist aspirations offering a ←9 | 10→recent illustration: ‘Así no nos interesa esta Europa’ [So we are not interested in this Europe].11

A factor in the gradual re-emergence of affective nationalism in Europe must be a widely perceived dichotomy between the EU as an ideal and its institutional realization, with both the European Parliament and the European Commission generally viewed unfavourably even by the strongest supporters of a united Europe. For example, Germany, currently showing some 63 per cent support for the EU, manages only 47 per cent for the Parliament and 38 per cent for the Commission; weaker supporters such as England and Greece (48 per cent and 37 per cent respectively in favour of the EU), drop to 35 per cent and 30 per cent for the Parliament, and 32 per cent and 26 per cent for the Commission (Wike et al. 2019).12


XIV, 442
ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2020 (February)
Autonomy, Independence, and Secession Identity and Nationalism in Europe Regionalism and Sub-State Policies
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. XIV, 442 pp., 19 tables

Biographical notes

Susana Belenguer (Volume editor) Nicola Brady (Volume editor)

Dr Susana Bayó Belenguer is a lecturer in the Department of Hispanic Studies, Trinity College, Dublin, where she teaches contemporary Spanish politics and history, and the representation of history in literature and visual media. Her publications have centred on the intellectual and writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and on the Spanish Civil War. She is member of the editorial board of Ediciones Alfar (Spain) and of a Research Network, which is officially recognized by the Spanish Ministry of Education, on the International Brigades. Dr Nicola Brady is a Research Associate with the Department of Hispanic Studies, Trinity College Dublin. Her Ph.D. examined the response of the Catholic Hierarchy to political violence in Northern Ireland (1921-1973) and the Basque Country (1936-1975). She is currently employed as General Secretary to the Irish Council of Churches where her work has a particular focus on the contribution of Christian churches to peace, reconciliation and social justice in Ireland, as well as in a wider European and global context. In 2019 she was awarded an Eisenhower Fellowship to examine the role of churches and faith communities in overcoming political polarization and social exclusion in the United States. She is a Director of Christian Aid Ireland and the Maximilian Kolbe Foundation.


Title: Pulling Together or Pulling Apart?