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As Nationalists Win, Separatism Gets A Boost

As the center turns belligerent and dismissive of minorities, the edges reconsider their place in the world.

Posted on December 21, 2017, at 4:19 p.m. ET

Riccardo Pareggiani / AFP / Getty Images

The nationalist resurgence across the globe threatens to erode democratic laws and shared beliefs. But there’s another side to the shift that could also reshape our world: the resurgence of separatist movements, whose support is fueled by the rising popularity of intolerant nationalist politics.

We can see this playing out across the world, but it’s at its most potent in Europe. Across the EU, as the far-right garners strength — and approving nods from “America first” allies in the US — separatist movements that have long rallied for independent nations grow stronger. As the center turns belligerent and dismissive of minorities, the edges reconsider their places in the world.

I saw this first-hand last week, as an estimated 45,000 Catalans protested in Brussels, calling for EU intervention in the ongoing dispute over Catalonia’s independence from Spain. While the situation in Catalonia is unique, the split between culture and country is a theme throughout the world. It seems certain to deepen as nationalist politics remain ascendant.

In the UK, the push for Scottish independence lost momentum after a 2014 referendum favored remaining in the union. But after the Brexit vote, when tides of British nationalism spurred Britain to leave the EU, Scottish separatists seized the moment to drum up support for a second poll.

Complicating the issue, in both Spain and the UK, is the opportunistic involvement of outside parties that are more interested in weakening democracies than they are in regional autonomy. Months after the Brexit vote, Sputnik, an online outlet of the Russian propaganda arm RT, set up shop in Edinburgh. During the Catalan independence referendum, articles from both RT and Sputnik flooded Spanish social media discussions of the topic, propelled by a swarm of bot accounts, according to analysis by Javier Lesaca at George Washington University.

Even in the United States, the nationalist tendencies of the Trump administration — and the nationally dominant Republican party — assist in the fraying of national unity. Responding to Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, local governments have openly defied his orders, protecting the undocumented and declaring themselves “sanctuaries” from federal policy.

Regional politics were also at play in the Republican tax overhaul, which has been designed to hit Democratic strongholds like New York and California. Passage of the tax plan depended on a Republican senate majority and a Republican president, both of which, Democrats often remind themselves, were won thanks to the geographic distribution of voters, not an absolute majority of votes.

This representation problem is likely to get worse: By 2040, according to one estimate, 70% of Americans will live in just 15 states, and be represented by just 30 of the country’s 100 senators. While separatist politics is a marginal force in the US, the combination of regional divisions and rising nationalist sentiment will be a potent source of political strife for years to come.

Spain shows where these unhealed rifts can lead. In Spain's case, it's worth remembering that the fascists won the Spanish Civil War, and their leader ruled as an authoritarian until his death in 1975.

Today, three decades after Franco's demise and the country’s transition to democracy, Spain is recovering from one of Europe’s worst economic crises. It has many on the right looking back on Franco’s dictatorship as a time of stability, strength and rising prosperity: a past that could make Spain great again.

But for those on the wrong side of Franco’s authoritarianism — including many Catalans — his rule was a time of mass murders and cultural neutralization. History is often repeated in its simplest form, and Madrid’s violent response to the Catalonian independence referendum held this October has brought back ugly memories, and fueled separatist sentiments.

“Before, no I did not want to split,” one Catalan protester told me. “But now, it is the only way. They hate us in Spain.”

Propaganda in the press worsens the division. Publicly funded broadcast channel TVE has an executive board chosen by the Spanish Parliament, and was criticized by many, including its own reporters, for its biased coverage of the Catalan referendum. In Barcelona, the Catalonian capital, TV3 is part of a corporation whose executive board is chosen by the Catalan Parliament — and which gave an equally nuance-free pro-independence perspective.

Spain isn’t alone in its fractured media, of course. President Trump has declared most of the American press “fake news,” elevating Fox News to an unofficial form of state television. In Poland, the nationalist Law and Justice Party has sought to turn the country’s public broadcaster into a partisan mouthpiece.

The winners of the nationalist wave, as we have seen so far, are extremists, autocrats, and power-hungry politicians — and each give fuel to the separatists looking to break away from them. The losers in all this could be the nation states that have shaped the modern world.

Jennifer Lutz is an essayist and travel writer.

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