On Oct. 13, 1765, the writer James Boswell arrived in Corsica to meet the nationalist hero Pasquale Paoli. The trip was remarkable in part because the island — home to a wild people fighting one another when not fighting off foreign conquerors — had never before been explored by someone from England. It was no less remarkable because Boswell, though a resident of London, was not English, but rather a Scot, whose conservative Tory politics mixed with romantic nostalgia for his own nation’s lost independence.
As Boswell later explained in his account of his visit with Paoli, he wanted “to find what was to be seen no where else, a people actually fighting for liberty.”
Two hundred and fifty years later, a growing welter of political movements in Britain, France, Spain and other European countries see themselves as the inheritors of the same ideals that drove Boswell and Paoli. While Europe’s eastern borders are being tested by the refugee crisis, the borders of western European states are being challenged within by native separatist movements. The two forces, rather like the collision of tectonic plates, threaten to undermine both the traditional nation states of Europe and the European Union supra-state.
The most recent tremor shook Europe a few weeks ago, when an alliance of conservative and progressive parties seeking to secede from Spain won the regional elections in Catalonia. But the rumble of secessionism reaches well beyond Spain.
Just north of the Pyrenees, French politicians and pundits are preparing for regional elections in December. Much of the conversation, inevitably, has been about the future of the far-right National Front Party, headed by Marine Le Pen, who has yoked her party’s electoral fortunes to the threats posed to France’s sovereignty, from both Brussels bureaucrats and the refugees. When not decrying France’s “submission” to the European Union, Ms. Le Pen is busy comparing the refugees to the “barbarian invasions of the fourth century.”
Ms. Le Pen’s xenophobic tirades threaten the French republican ideal — but so do native political movements. Along with independence or autonomist parties in Brittany and the Basque Country, there is also the flurry of electoral activity among the Corsicans. In the regional elections of 2010, Corsica’s nationalist parties, once a marginalized and murderous fringe that now forswears violence, won 25 percent of the vote. (The National Front, on the other hand, scraped by with less than 5 percent.) The leader of one pro-independence party, Jean-Guy Talamoni, claimed at the annual party congress earlier this month that a majority of Corsicans, galvanized by the examples of Scotland and Catalonia, now desired independence.
France’s continued economic difficulties, and the general disenchantment with traditional political parties, will only feed autonomist support in Corsica. More than 20,000 fans of the team in Bastia, the capital of Corsica and its second-largest city, recently traveled to Paris and chanted “On n’est pas français” — “We aren’t French” — during a match against Paris Saint-Germain (the Corsicans lost).
Even the renowned historian Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie, despite his scorn for Corsica’s many independence parties, concedes they may well have a future: “Just as Algeria’s independence was both absurd and inevitable, that of Corsica is no less absurd but, who knows, perhaps also inevitable.”
Increasingly active are other separatist parties in France — the rise of the Bonnets Rouges movement in Brittany is especially notable — while the separatist drives of the Flemish and Walloon populations have turned neighboring Belgium into the world’s most benign failed state. Across the Continent there are dozens of similar movements, many of which have allied under the banner of the European Free Alliance.
Inevitably, the politics of these separatist movements differ; in the cases of Catalonia and Scotland they tend toward the left, while in Corsica they instead bend right.
No less inevitably, their national contexts also differ. Concentrating power in Paris over the centuries, France is allergic to the federalist model of Spain, and is, quite literally, constitutionally incapable of imagining the sort of negotiations that would take place between London and Edinburgh to dissolve the Act of Union. And while economically prosperous Scotland and Catalonia want to control their wealth and resources, the less prosperous Corsica wishes to prevent continued land purchases by well-to-do mainlanders.
But despite their differences, the cases of Corsica, Catalonia and Scotland pose a common challenge not just to their respective nations, but also to a certain idea of Europe.
It is doubtful that the European Union would respond any more coherently to a separatist crisis than it has to the refugee crisis. Brussels has refused to say whether a state born from a separatist seed would accede automatically to union membership or instead need to go through the lengthy and laborious application process of other states.
Yet, while Brussels has artfully maintained confusion over this issue, it has itself long cultivated regionalist claims by providing a forum where regions engage in so-called para-diplomacy, showcasing their cultures and economies to member states and regions. As a result, all of these movements have linked, both paradoxically and unsurprisingly, their own goal of statehood to the ideal of an integrated Europe.
Boswell was so enraptured by his Corsican adventure that he not only wrote a book about it, but appeared at the Stratford-upon-Avon Jubilee dressed as a Corsican rebel: kerchief tied around his neck, pistol strapped to his waist and musket slung over his shoulder.
“I was as much a favourite as I could desire,” he told friends.
The Corsicans have since dropped the guns and knotted ties around their necks. It may soon be the time for them, along with Catalonia and Boswell’s native Scotland, to repeat his success, but this time on the stage of history.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston and the author, most recently, of Boswell’s Enlightenment.