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Reframing Sovereignty? Sub-State National Societies and Contemporary Challenges to the Nation-State

  • Stephen Tierney


Over the past 30 years, sub-state national societies in a number of developed liberal democracies—particularly Quebec, Catalonia, and Scotland within Canada, Spain, and the United Kingdom respectively—have both reasserted their national distinctiveness and demanded recognition of it in constitutional terms.1 This re-emergence of sub-state national sentiment within industrially advanced States, and the struggle for constitutional change which has accompanied it, are considered by many observers to be strangely incongruous at a time of economic and cultural ‘globalization’ where the power of the nation- State itself seems to be waning.2 Why do sub-state nations, the common refrain asks, seek statehood when the very concept of State sovereignty is losing its meaning? This article will argue, however, that the rise of sub-state nationalism even at a time when the resilience of State sovereignty is itself coming into question, is in fact not as paradoxical as it might at first appear, at least insofar as this process is taking place within developed democracies.3 It will be contended that the elaborate constitutional programmes which are now beingadvanced by sub-state nationalist movements for the reform of their respective host States are inmany respects informed by, and reflective of, wider transformations in the patterns of State sovereignty.



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1 This phenomenon has been termed by some ‘neo-nationalism’: Keating, MPlurinational Democracy: Stateless Nations in a Post-Sovereignty Era (OUP Oxford 2001);McRoberts, KMisconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity (OUP Toronto 1997) 55;McCrone, DNeo-Nationalism in Stateless Nations’ (2001) Scottish Affairs 313;Nairn, TThe Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (New Left Books London 1977).

2 For Franck, Thomas the phenomenon of neo-nationalism has been termed ‘post-modern neotribalism’:Franck, TFairness in International Law and Institutions (OUP Oxford 1995) 140–1;and for Ignatieff, Michael, it is ‘the narcissism of minor differences’: ‘The Narcissism of Minor Differences’ in Beiner, R (ed) Theorizing Nationalism (State University of New York Press Albany 1999) 91102.

3 This study is restricted to a specific set of liberal democracies and the author makes no claim as to whether or not this analysis might be applied more generally to other cases of sub-state nationalism.

4 Loughlin, MThe Idea of Public Law (OUP Oxford 2003) 82.

5 ibid 70.

6 The term ‘late sovereignty’ suggests that the age of State sovereignty, even within the European Union, is far from over.Walker, NLate Sovereignty in the European Union’ European Forum Discussion Paper (EUI Florence Robert Schuman Centre 2001). This term is a more accurate description of our age than the often-used and over-stated mantra: ‘post-sovereignty’.

7 Keating, MNations Against the State—The New Politics of Nationalism in Quebec, Catalonia and Scotland (2nd ednPalgrave London 2001) 275.

8 This process of ‘externalization’ takes place whether the aim is statehood, as in the Scottish National Party's ‘independence in Europe’ strategy (Happold, MIndependence in or out of Europe? An Independent Scotland and the European Union’ (2000) 49 ICLQ 1534) or increased autonomy within the State which will also involve enhanced powers of ‘paradiplomacy’, as is to be found in the mainstream Catalan nationalism of the Convergencia i Unio:‘Catalonians rattle Madrid with bid for sovereign power’ Nash, EThe Independent 26 Mar 2003.

9 Heywood, PSpanish regionalism, a Case Study’ Working Documents in the Study of European Governance, No 2 (CSEG Nottingham 2000) at 12;Börzel, TAFrom competitive regionalism to co-operative federalism: the Europeanization of the Spanish state of the autonomies’ (2000) 30 Publius 17–142 at 21;Salmon, TC ‘Oxymorons: The Scottish Parliament, the European Union and International Relations?’ in Salmon, TC and Keating, M (eds) The Dynamics of Decentralization: Canadian Federalism and British Devolution (McGill/Queens University Press Montreal/London 2001) 6384;Harel, LThe International Relations of the National Assembly of Quebec’ (2003) 26 Canadian Parliamentary Review 47.

10 Latouche, D ‘“Quebec, See Canada”: Quebec Nationalism in the New Global Age’ in Gagnon, A-G (ed) Quebec: State and Society (2nd ednNelson Canada Scarborough 1993);Requejo, F ‘La acomodación ‘federal’ de la plurinacionalidad. Democracia liberal y federalismo plural en España’, in Fossas, E and Requejo, F (eds) Asimetría federal y estado plurinacional. El debate sobre la acomodación de la diversidad en Canadá, Bélgica y España (Trotta Madrid 1999) 303–44.Requejo, F ‘Political Liberalism in Multinational States: the legitimacy of plural and asymmetrical federalism’ in Gagnon, A, Taylor, C, and Tully, J (eds) Multinational Democracies (CUP Cambridge 2001) 110–32 at 127.

11 A central contention of the article is that sub-state nationalism and separatism are not synonyms.

12 It should be noted from the beginning that any presentation of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 as the defining moment in the birth of the modern nation-State is of course simplistic and largely inaccurate, but insofar as the term ‘Westphalia’ has passed into common juridical parlance to encapsulate untrammelled State power, it continues to serve as a useful caricature.

13 Walker, NThe Idea of Constitutional Pluralism’ (2002) 65 Modern Law Review 317–59 at 347.

14 Gagnon, AQuebec: The Emergence of a Region-State?’ (2001) Scottish Affairs 1427 at 21.

15 Keating, MNations Against the State (n 7) 46.

16 Beitz, CR ‘Cosmopolitan Liberalism and the States System’ in Brown, C (ed) Political Restructuring in Europe. Ethical Perspectives (Routledge London 1994);Waldron, J ‘Minority Cultures and the Cosmopolitan Alternative’ in Kymlicka, W (ed) The Rights of Minority Cultures (OUP Oxford 1995) 93119;Held, D et al. (eds) Global Transformations (Polity Press Cambridge 1999);Moore, M ‘Globalization, Cosmopolitanism, and Minority Nationalism’ in Keating, M and McGarry, J (eds) Minority Nationalism and the Changing International Order (OUP Oxford 2001) 4460.

17 Habermas, J and Pensky, MThe Postnational Constellation: Political Essays (Polity Press Cambridge 2001) 60.

18 Weiler, JThe EU, the WTO, and the NAFTA: Towards a Common Law of International Trade? (Academy of European Law, EUI Florence/OUP Oxford 2000);Cass, DZ ‘The ‘Constitutionalization’ of International Trade Law: Judicial Norm-Generation as the Engine of Constitutional Development in International Trade’ (2001) 12 EJIL 3975 at 42;Habermas, JThe European Nation-State and the Pressures of Globalization’ (1999) New Left Review 4659 at 49.

19 Marks, SThe Riddle of all Constitutions: International Law, Democracy, and the Critique of Ideology (OUP Oxford 2000) 76.

20 Hardt, M and Negri, AEmpire (Harvard University Press Cambridge MA 2000) xii (emphasis in original).

21 McCrone, DNeo-Nationalism in Stateless Nations’ (2001) Scottish Affairs 313;Held, DFarewell to the Nation-StateMarxism Today (12 1988) 1217.

22 Christodoulidis, ELaw and Reflexive Politics (Kluwer Dordrecht 1998);MacCormick, NQuestioning Sovereignty: Law, State and Nation in the European Commonwealth (OUP Oxford 1999);Weiler, JThe Constitution of Europe: ‘Do the new clothes have an emperor?’ and other essays on European integration (CUP Cambridge 1999).

23 Ladeur, KHTowards a Legal Theory of Supranationality: The Viability of the Network Concept’ (1997) 3 European Law Journal 3354;Tully, JStrange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an Age of Diversity (CUP Cambridge 1995);Curtin, DMPostnational Democracy (Universiteit Utrecht 1997);and Chalmers, DPostnationalism and the Quest for Constitutional Substitutes27 (2000) Journal of Law and Society 178217.

24 Gellner, EThought and Change (Weidenfeld & Nicholson London 1964) 169;Deutsch, KNationalism and Social Communication: An Enquiry into the Foundations of Nationality (MIT Press Cambridge 1966);Hobsbawm, EJNations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (CUP Cambridge 1990);Anderson, BImagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso London 1991);Weber, MGeneral Economic History (Collier Books New York 1966);Breuilly, JNationalism and the State (2nd ednMUP Manchester 1993).

25 Gellner, ENations and Nationalism (Blackwell Oxford 1983);Reinhard, W (ed) Power Elites and State Building (Clarendon Press Oxford 1996);Rae, HState Identities and the Homogenisation of Peoples (CUP Cambridge 2002).

26 Holmes, SPassions and Constraints: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (Chicago ILChicago University Press 1995) xi;Resina, JRPost-national Spain? Post-Spanish Spain?8 Nations and Nationalism (2002) 377–96 at 381.

27 McCrone, DThe Sociology of Nationalism: Tomorrow's Ancestors (Routledge London 1998) 11;Smith, ADNationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism (Routledge London/New York 1998) 1116.

28 MacPherson, JMIs Blood Thicker Than Water?: Crises of Nationalism in the Modern World (Vintage Books Toronto 1998).

29 Hobsbawm, (n 24) 192.

30 Ignatieff, MThe Warrior's Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (Metropolitan Books New York 1998);MacPherson, (n 28) 25–6.

31 Loughlin, The Idea of Public Law (n 4) 73.

32 Krasner, SDSovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (OUP Oxford 1999).

33 Paterson, LAutonomy of Modern Scotland (EdinburghUniversity Press 1994).See also Mitchell, JDBConstitutional Law (2nd ednGreen Edinburgh 1968) 209, and Walker who notes how historically Scotland has been able to use the unitary State to its advantage.Walker, N ‘Constitutionalism in a New Key’ in De Burca, G and Scott, J (eds) The EU and the WTO: Legal and Constitutional Aspects (Hart Publishing Oxford 2001) 112.

34 Fossas, E ‘Asymmetry and Plurinationality in Spain’, Working Paper 167 Institut de Ciéncies Politiques i Socials (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona 1999) 6;and Heywood, ‘Spanish regionalism, a Case Study’ (n 9) 6.

35 Moreno, LThe Federalization of Spain (Frank Cass London 2001) 31;Heywood, PThe Government and Politics of Spain (MacMillan London 1995) 162;Colomer, JM ‘The Spanish “state of the autonomies”: non-institutional federalism’ in Heywood, P (ed) Politics and Policy in Democratic Spain (Frank Cass London 1999) 4052;Börzel, T AStates and Regions in the European Union. Institutional Adaptation in Germany and Spain (CUP Cambridge 2002).

36 Michelmann, H and Soldatos, P (eds) Federalism and International Relations: The Role of Sub-units (Clarendon Press Oxford 1990);Aldecoa, F and Keating, M (eds) Paradiplomacy in Action (Frank Cass London 1999);Laitin, D ‘National Identities in the Emerging European State’ in Keating, M and McGarry, J (eds) Minority Nationalism and the Changing International Order (OUP Oxford 2001) 84113;Mitchell, J and Cavanagh, MContext and Contingency: Constitutional Nationalists and Europe’ in M Keating and J McGarry (eds) op cit 246–63.

37 Leslie, PM ‘Asymmetry: Rejected, Conceded, Imposed’ in Leslie Seidle, F (ed) Seeking a New Canadian Partnership: Asymmetrical and Confederal Options (Institute for Research on Public Policy Montreal 1994) 3769 at 40.

38 Supra-state organizations such as the EU certainly challenge the constitutional competence as well as the capacity of Member States—Case 6/64, Costa v ENEL [1964] ECR 1141.

39 Aldecoa, F and Keating, M ‘Introduction’ in Aldecoa, F and Keating, M (eds) Paradiplomacy in Action. The Foreign Relations of Subnational Governments (Frank Cass London 1999) 116 at 7.

40 Loughlin, The Idea of Public Law (n 4) 94–5.See also Loughlin, Sword and Scales (Hart Publishing Oxford 1999) 145;Brubaker, RNationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (CUP Cambridge 1996);and Mann, MNation-states in Europe and other continents: diversifying, developing, not dying’ (1993) 122 Daedalus 115–40 at 118.

41 McCrone, D ‘Neo-Nationalism in Stateless Nations’ (n 21) 11.

42 Once again international law remains a powerful force in the defence of State power. For example, out of respect for the principle of territorial integrity, the international community refuses to recognize Kosovo as an independent State even though it is in any meaningful sense a politico-territorial unit entirely separate from the influence of Serbia-Montenegro.

43 Gagnon, A ‘Quebec: The Emergence of a Region-State?’ (n 14) 24.

44 Hirst, P and Thompson, GGlobalization in Question (Polity Cambridge 1996) 190–4.

45 Keating, M ‘Managing the Multinational State: Constitutional Settlement in the United Kingdom’ in Salmon, TC and Keating, M (eds) The Dynamics of Decentralisation (n 9) 2145 at 23;McCrone, DThe Sociology of Nationalism (n 27) 182;Saleé, D ‘La Mondialisation et la construction de I'identité au Québec’ in Elbaz, M, Fortin, A, and Laforest, G (eds) Les Frontiéres de I'identité: Modernité et postmodernisme au Quebéc (Les Presses de l'Université de Laval Sainte-Foy 1996).

46 See respectively: SNP Election Manifesto, Apr 2003;Declaració de Barcelona (Convergencia i Unio Barcelona 1998) 1;Young, RAThe Struggle for Quebec: From Referendum to Referendum? (McGill-Queen's University Press Montreal/London 1999) 14.

47 Keating, MNations Against the State (n 7) 264.

48 McCrone, D ‘Neo-Nationalism in Stateless Nations’ (n 21) 11.

49 Walker, ‘The Idea of Constitutional Pluralism’ (n 13) 345 (emphasis in original).

50 Simpson, GGreat Powers and Outlaw States: Unequal Sovereigns in the International Legal Order (CUP Cambridge 2004).

51 The use of the term ‘monistic’ here denotes a unitary construction of the internal sovereignty of the State, centred around a singular conception of the demos; it is not used in the technical legal sense to describe the domestic legal order's external relationship to international law.

52 McRoberts, KCatalonia: Nation Building without a State (OUP Toronto 2001) 68.On the general realignment of sub-state nationalism in the context of Europe, see Jeffrey, CSub-National Mobilization and European Integration38 (2000) Journal of Common Market Studies (2000) 124.

53 Young, RAThe Struggle for Quebec: From Referendum to Referendum? (n 46) 24.

54 Simeon, R ‘Recent Trends in Federalism and Intergovernmental Relations in Canada: Lessons for the United Kingdom?’ in Salmon, TC and Keating, M (eds) The Dynamics of Decentralization (n 9) 51;Seymour, MQuebec and Canada at the crossroads: a nation within a nation6 (2000) Nations and Nationalism 227–56 at 245–7and Newman, WJThe Quebec Secession Reference: The Rule of Law and the Position of the Attorney General of Canada (York University Press Canada 1999) 12.

55 The term ‘nationalist’ is used in a broad sense here to include non-secessionist nationalist parties such as the Scottish Labour Party; the Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Convergencia i Unio in Catalonia.

56 Although the success of these ventures by Catalonia, Quebec, and Scotland have hitherto been very mixed. Balcells, ACatalan Nationalism: Past and Present (MacMillan London 1995) 197.

57 Rokkan, S and Urwin, D ‘Introduction: Centres and Peripheries in Western Europe’ in Rokkan, S and Urwin, D (eds) The Politics of Territorial Identity: Studies in European Regionalism (Sage London 1982) 117 at 11;O'Neill, MGreat Britain’ (2000) 53 Parliamentary Affairs 6995;Romney, PGetting it Wrong: How Canadians Forgot Their Past and Imperilled Confederation (TorontoUniversity Press 1999);Resina, JRPost-national Spain? Post-Spanish Spain?8 (2002) Nations and Nationalism 377–96.

58 Young, (n 46) 41.

59 Bond, R and Rosie, MNational Identities in Post-Devolution Scotland’ Institute of Governance paper (Institute of Governance, University of Edinburgh 2002);McCrone, D and Paterson, LThe Conundrum of Scottish Independence’ (2002) Scottish Affairs 3556.

60 McCrone, ‘Neo-Nationalism in Stateless Nations’ (n 21) 9.

61 De Rafael, GHAn empirical survey of social structure and nationalistic identification in Spain in the 1990s’ (1998) 4 Nations and Nationalism 3559,and Roller, EThe March 2000 General Election in Spain’ (2001) 36 Government and Opposition 209–29 at 218.

62 Moreno, L ‘Ethnoterritorial concurrence in multinational societies: the Spanish comunidades autonomas’ in Gagnon, A, Taylor, C, and Tully, J (eds) Multinational Democracies (CUP Cambridge 2001) 201–21 at 201.

63 Eg during the 1995 referendum campaign, Canada threatened to veto any attempt by an independent Quebec to join NAFTA. See comments by Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Marcel Massé quoted in The Globe and Mail 10 Dec 1994

64 This argument draws upon the power of institutions as set out by the ‘new institutionalist’ school of political science. Peters, BGInstitutional Theory in Political Science: The ‘New Institutionalism (Continuum London 1999).

65 Meadwell, HThe Future of Quebec’ (2001) Scottish Affairs 5464 at 56.

66 Eg one way in which the legislative power of the devolved Scottish Parliament is limited is that it may not legislate incompatibly with either EC law or ‘Convention rights’ per the European Convention on Human Rights—(Scotland Act 1998, s 29(2)(d)). Debate on Scotland's future constitutional options will of necessity be framed within these strictures, which also represent the reality for any governmental authority within Europe today.Himsworth, C ‘Rights Versus Devolution’ in Campbell, T, Ewing, K, and Tomkins, A (eds) Sceptical Essays on Human Rights (OUP Oxford 2001);Tierney, SConstitutionalising the Role of the Judge: Scotland and the New Order’ (2001) 5 Edinburgh Law Review 4972.

67 Requejo, F ‘Democratic Legitimacy and National Pluralism’ in Requejo, (ed) Democracy and National Pluralism (Routledge London 2001) 157–77.

68 Carens, JHCulture, Citizenship and Community (OUP Oxford 2000).

69 Buchanan, ASecession: The Morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec (Westview Press Boulder, CO 1991) 10.

70 Catalan arguments for asymmetry within Spain are discussed by: Moreno, LThe Federalization of Spain (Frank Cass London 2001);Requejo, F ‘Federalism and the Quality of Democracy in Plurinational Contexts: Present Shortcomings and Possible Improvements’ Workshop Paper, ECPR Joint Sessions of Workshops (ECPR Grenoble 2001);and Villadangos, ES ‘The coexistence between one state and several nationalities and regions: The Spanish Case’ Workshop Paper, ECPR Workshop 23 (ECPR Mannheim 1999). For similar discussions re Canada, see:Leslie, PM (n 37);Resnick, P ‘Toward a Multinational Federalism: Asymmetrical and Confederal Alternatives’ in F Leslie Seidle (n 37) 71–94;and McRoberts, KCanada and the multinational state’ (2001) 34 Canadian Journal of Political Science 683714.

71 Various experiments in this regard were attempted during the final years of the Austro-Hungarian empire, see Plasseraud, Y ‘How To Solve Cultural Identity Problems: Choose your own nation’ Le Monde Diplomatique (2000). Such a right of veto has been a firm demand made by Quebec since patriation of the constitution from the UK through the Constitution Act 1982.McRoberts, KMisconceiving Canada: The Struggle for National Unity (OUP Toronto 1997) 1617;Oliver, PCanada, Quebec and Constitutional Amendment’ (1999) 49 University of Toronto Law Journal 519610 at 534, and 544 nn 106–7.

72 Each of these demands appears in the Barcelona Declaration and in other proposals made by Catalan nationalist parties. Declaració de Barcelona (n 46); Roller (n 61) 211.

* School of Law, University of Edinburgh.

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Reframing Sovereignty? Sub-State National Societies and Contemporary Challenges to the Nation-State

  • Stephen Tierney


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