Complex Nations, Challenges and Opportunities Conference: Exploring Strategies for Empowerment in a Changing World

News / 22.4.16

On 18 and 19 April 2016, Centre Maurits Coppieters, University of Minho, University of Santiago de Compostela, CICP Research Centre in Political Science, Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia and ANTE Group convened a conference entitled “Complex Nations and Europe: New Challenges, New Opportunities“, which took place in Braga and Santiago de Compostela, respectively. With a high level of student and faculty participation, the two-part conference was a fruitful and in-depth exchange between researchers and practitioners on the question of constitutional, territorial and cross-border political solutions for stateless nations in Europe.

The conference was opened with remarks from the President of EEG University of Minho, Manuel Rocha Armada, President of Centre Maurits Coppieters, Xabier Macias and the Director of CICP, Sílvia Camões. As the conference promised to explore how stateless nations can cope with internal and external challenges in a changing political context, Mr Macias introduced the topics of discussion by stating that “the old struggle of stateless peoples within European states has come to the fore once more, becoming one of the most promising examples for the much needed democratic revitalization of the continent and for Europe’s escape from the current economic-institutional crisis”.

Dr John Loughlin and Dr Alan Sandry opened the first panel by discussing “complexities and inconsistencies” inherent to the political system of the United Kingdom, the meaning of national sovereignty, nationalisms and even ‘Brexit’ in a globalised, interdependent world: what institutional and constitutional options are available should the electorate vote “yes [to leave]” and how can we creatively rethink political institutions should the results of the referendum yield a “yes” to stay.

Dr Ruben Lois started by asking the audience, what is “Spain”? To answer this, Lois ventured through the history of the Iberian Penninsula and explained how a pluri-national population ended up submerged by “the myth of national unity”. Dr Anwen Elias then focused on the case of Catalonia and critically analyzed whether Catalonian distinctiveness be accommodated within Spain. She then traced how growing dissatisfaction, shifting party dynamics, mass mobilization of civil society and cultural elites has led to a society-wide realization that “Catalonia could do better”.

Dr Malcom Harvey looked at whether Scottish nationalism is contradictory to a pro-European, pro-integration stance. He explained that the EU could be seen as an ally for nationalist parties seeking to challenge the state, since nationalist parties exert pressure from below and the EU from above. According to Harvey, this creates a system of multi-level governance and re-scaling. Dr Elin Royles built upon the presentations of previous speakers and focused on the case Wales. She also addressed the negative impact of leaving the EU and presented examples of positive national-building strategies in Wales, such as cultural para-diplomatic activity.

Josu Juaristi Abaunz and Isidre Sala continued the debate pointing out the democratic deficit in Spain and advocating for the right to decide through referendums as a democratic tool, fostered by an active civil society at the level of citizens. Juaristi concluded that this “is in our hands”. The last speaker of the first day, Luis Moreno also provided a historical account and showed polling figures from his research on how individuals have self-identified their national belonging across time, but advocated for the “accommodation of diversity and unity in a multi-level European Union”, sparking a heated debate among panelists and the audience.

Day 2 was inaugurated by José Pereira Farina, Vice-rector for Communication and Coordination of the University of Santiago de Compostela, Xosé Lago, Secretary of the GNP-EGTC, and Alan Sandry, Coppieters Vice-President, in the beautiful Paraninfo room at the Faculty of Geography and History. To kick-start the event, two lectures were scheduled to introduce the students in the audience to the concepts of cross-border cooperation (CBC), territorial strategies and urban planning.

According to Martin Guillermo, border regions tend to be considered peripheral, scarcely populated and rural, far from the center of power with less infrastructure, access to public services and fewer opportunities for mobility. However, if they are considered as cross-border regions working together with their neighbors, they can transform into new centers, he noted. The second lecture was presented by Dr Claire Colomb on devolution, spacial planning and territorial politics in contested European states of Catalonia, Scotland and Flanders.

Dr Ramon Maiz focused specifically on paradiplomacy. He outlined the main political tasks of paradiplomacy and representational bodies in international arenas, including: to defend and promote the civic, economic, political, cultural rights and interests of a nation; territorial mobilization; national-building; and accommodation in a multi-national federalist system. Dr Sandrina Antunes continued by outlining the evolution of paradiplomacy when used as a political device in Europe to promote representation in international relations, in particular the Scottish and the Flemish case. How do they perceive Europe? How do they use Europe for territorial purposes?

The last panel provided perspectives of practitioners and politicians. Mikel Anton, Director of European Affairs from the Basque Government, Joaquin A. Palacin, General Director for Spatial Planning from the Government of Aragon, Rafael Gimenez-Capdevila, from the General Directorate for Foreign Affairs of the Government of Catalonia, and Uxito Benitez in charge for Mobility and CBC from the Pontevedra Council, shared their views on overcoming boundaries through spatial planning and territorial cooperation.

One takeaway from the conference is that even in Europe many state borders have been artificially created. Experts debated whether a ‘Europe of peoples’ is achievable as a true demos overcoming boundaries, especially as cultures are becoming more important in our everyday lives. Throughout the two-day conference, speakers agreed on and continually emphasized the importance of empowerment, learning as societies, the building of stronger links with cross-border partners and para-diplomacy for stateless nations demanding political change.