Who’s Afraid of a National Minority?

The threat of an independent Scotland has unleashed fears that have little to do with economics and much to do with identity.

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Pro-independence campaigners pose wearing traditional Highland dress in Edinburgh, Scotland, ahead of Thursday's referendum.Credit: AFP

Whatever the results of the referendum in Scotland, it is clear that the issue of ethno-nationalism is gaining momentum. All eyes this week are on Scotland and the independence referendum – the Catalans and the Basques in Spain, the Flems in Belgium and the Quebecois in Canada.

During the past two decades, the European Union has sought to herald the end of national citizenship and to promote multi-cultural liberalism that suits the new spirit of modern, post-national citizenship. However, it turns out that the spirit of nationalism is growing not only in Eastern Europe, but also in the developed West. The question arises, why specifically now is ethno-regional nationalism gaining momentum? And how is it connected to multiculturalism?

It is the EU itself, which involuntarily encouraged two complex trends that feed each other. The more the strength of individual EU member countries declines, the more the appetite for authority and power grows among the ethnic groups that make up those countries. Even in Italy, the racist Northern League (Lega Nord) tried to enlist the votes of the northern citizens of Italy against the centralization of the Italian government.

The reasons the ethnic-nationalist groups want to separate from their mother countries are many, ranging from economics to identity. What has not been widely discussed is the reason why so many people are afraid of the phenomenon — or, more specifically, the issue of the ideologies that accompany it.

The Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka, among the most prominent spokesmen of multiculturalism, argues that the modern liberal state must respond to two important challenges: safeguarding the identity of immigrants and safeguarding the identity of national minorities. What he did not realize is that the identities of national minorities can become the backbone of new nationalism, which to some extent becomes a nightmare for the identities of the immigrants.

One does not have to delve very deeply to understand that religious minorities or various foreign communities prefer large countries with a relatively blurred identity over small nation states with well-developed identities. It is much easier to be a Jewish or Muslim Belgian than to be a Flemish Jew. This distinction does not mean that an independent Scotland or Catalonia will harm foreigners – there are no signs of this.

And yet the EU looks dubiously on these processes and does not encourage separatist phenomena that are connected to dismantling existing countries into ethnic-regional identities. The reason for the doubts is neither economical nor political: Scotland, Catalonia and the Basque region can excel economically and fit well into the EU, and their political leadership is democratic and liberal. But the fear of identity politics exists especially in light of the fact that in recent years the politics of identity has gained momentum in Europe following the Muslim immigration.

The debate about the integration of the Muslim minority in the European countries has focused all the attention and concealed the fact that ethno-nationalism is developing under the radar. Is this a big problem? That depends on who you ask. Many liberals in the EU are afraid that despite the fact that Catalonian or Scottish nationalism are democratic and liberal, in any clash between liberalism and nationalism, liberalism will pay the price.

It seems that there are many in Israel who would be happy to adopt this assumption.

The writer is a senior lecturer in comparative politics at Tel Aviv University, researching nationalism and the radical right, and was part of a group of experts who brought about the cessation of violence in the Basque region in Spain.

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