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Where to Draw the Line?

Turn left out of Charlton Athletic Football Ground, walk 100 yards past redbrick terraced housing, and you’ll find yourself outside 67 Church Lane, the mottled front of which is stamped with a blue commemorative plaque. Aron Ettore Schmitz is the man honoured here. Born in 1861 to an Italian mother and German father in the Adriatic seaport of Trieste (then the fourth largest city in the Austrian Empire), Aron was 42 years old by the time he lodged here in the Borough of Greenwich. Curious, then, that on its upper crest the memorial should declare itself a marker of English Heritage.

Ettore Schmitz is better known by Italo Svevo (Italian Swabian), the alias under which he wrote his novels – including, most famously, The Confessions of Zeno (1923). Since Swabia – once a duchy of the Frankish Empire, now mostly engulfed by modern-day Bavaria – denotes a region of Southwest Germany, Schmitz’s pen name hints at his dual heritage. It functions also, perhaps, as a wry nod to the malleability of national borders in general. Indeed, thanks to the redrawing of maps in the wake of the First World War, Ettore Schmitz was born an Austrian, was the son of a German father, and died in 1928 as an Italian. He has since become something of a mascot for hybrid national identity. Naturally, he is a man that comes to mind today, as a swell of nationalist ferment arcs its way across the world.

Few international onlookers were shocked when the people of Kurdistan voted for national independence in a referendum held on 25 September, or when the Catalonians did the same only 11 days later. The margins of victory, however, were little short of astonishing, with at least 90% of those who cast their ballot in each region voting in favour of secession. And yet, even in the wake of such an overwhelming mandate, national independence for both Catalonia and Kurdistan remain visions unlikely to be realised. Under Article 2 of the Spanish Constitution, which guarantees the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’, Prime Minister Rajoy vouched in September that he was poised to quash calls for independence from any of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. From what we have seen in the weeks following the illegal referendum, the Spanish government has done everything in its power to make good on that claim. In an act of naked state aggression seldom seen in the Western Europe of recent years, over 150 regional officials had their titles stripped and offices raided by Spain’s Guardia Civil, sending Catalan President Carles Puigdemont fleeing in exile to Belgium, chased by the threat of 30 years in prison. The response of Haider al-Abadi’s Iraqi government to the Kurdish independence campaign has been even swifter and more severe. Dozens of people were left dead as a combined Iraqi paramilitary force descended on disputed territory occupied by the Kurds, following which Masoud Barzani, once recalcitrant President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was quick to bend to the authority of Baghdad, announcing on 29 October that he would step down from his role. His resignation comes only a month after the referendum, and leaves the region more splintered and volatile than before.

As we watch these political dominoes cascade, hindsight is liable to charm us into ascribing a false inevitability to it all. But there is little doubt that the independence referenda of Catalonia and Kurdistan were fated from the outset to backfire, though perhaps not as spectacularly as we have seen. Neither bid for independence was ever likely to garner popular international support. The Catalan campaign depended on membership of the EU as an independent nation for its economic and political success – applications for which require the unanimous approval of the European Council, effectively granting Spain vetoing power. That the Catalan people live a largely peaceful existence doesn’t help their case either: historically, a call for independence not bolstered by a legitimate record of human rights abuses is unlikely to gain traction within the international community. Likewise, the Iraqi government has, in its brief and precarious history, been unwavering in its publically vehement recrimination of Kurdish independence, and the referendum, which proposed further division in an already fragmented part of the world, was met with global censure (al-Abadi welcomed earlier in the year what he called a ‘renewed United States rejection’ of Kurdish independence from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson). In the absence of popular UN support, both campaigns were destined to fall flat on their faces. Ultimately, as we have seen, Spain’s and Iraq’s internationally recognised rights to territorial integrity hold precedence over the sacrosanct-when- convenient principle of self-determination.

In the face of such bleak prospects, why pursue the status of nationhood so intently? Besides, Catalonia and Kurdistan have long enjoyed relative autonomy, both in welfare and education – not to mention the fact that each region is self-policed (the KRG even controls its own 200,000-strong Peshmerga Military). As is so often the case in these campaigns, each region’s separatist leader has appealed to historical arguments, championing a unique ancestry shared by their people – all of which has been met, one suspects, with much eye-rolling in Madrid and Baghdad. Speaking before members of the EU at Brussels in January this year, Puigdemont extolled the ‘strong and clear-cut identity, culture and language’ of his people; he reminded his audience that he was the 130th president of a region ‘that has had its own institutions for centuries’. Catalonia does indeed boast a thousand year long record as a distinct political unit, although the region has played a more active role in the history of Spain than Puigdemont let on, including its enthusiastic signing of the Constitution of 1812 at Cádiz, which established Spanish national sovereignty for the first time. His reference to the common linguistic bond his people share is similarly moot, to a certain degree. In July, journalist Oliver Griffin pointed out the irony that the Senyera Estalada, or ‘starred flag’ of Catalonia may well hang from Barcelona balconies overlaid with the words ‘Independencia es Dignidad’ (Independence is Dignity), but the message is typically written in Spanish, not Catalan. On the other hand, Irish novelist Colm Tóibín, who lived for a time in Barcelona, recently suggested that Catalan functions as an almost universal private language in the region – spoken in marketplaces, households, and on street corners, if not on more official channels. The secessionist stance of Barzani similarly hinges on the shared cultural ancestry of the Kurdish people, who, in the wake of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, were sundered by borders that divided the newly formed states of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. Their subsequent history as a significant ethnic minority has seen repeated repression and persecution, including the massacre of over 100,000 Kurds in the Anfal genocide (1986- 9) – a deeply painful history that has served only to strengthen a sense of Kurdish unity. Unquestionably, then, in Kurdistan, just as in Catalonia, there is great disillusionment among the people when they look toward their national government, as the referenda have shown.

It’s hard to tell what Ettore Schmitz, with his many divided national loyalties, would have made of all this. Writing about himself in his Profilo Autobiografico (1929), couched in the third person, in the later years of his life, he reminisced about his time spent at 67 Church Lane, and mused on what made England, ‘the land of great adventures’, so ‘strong’ as a country:

All in all it seemed to him that in the land of great adventures adventure was more than anywhere else rejected. Everybody in the suburb worked quietly away at his job as a more or less busy member of his own class but disinclined towards rebellion or adventure. And he believed that he had discovered that the strength of a country was mostly due to elements of this kind and that the exploits of a Lord Clive, or a Rhodes or a Nelson could not produce such great wealth were adventure not an exception in the life of the nation, a graft upon its ancient trunk, ennobling its workaday, quiet, orderly activity.

Catalan and Kurdish adventure certainly does not seem to have woven much strength into the national fabric of Spain and Iraq. How soon the people will return to their ‘workaday, quiet, orderly activity’ under the watchful eyes of Madrid and Baghdad is not yet clear. All we can assume is that the political hangover does not promise to be a pleasant one, for Catalans and Kurds alike.

The fundamental implication of Schmitz’s observations is that the robustness of a nation is sustained by the daily commitment of its population – that a sense of national belonging and unity is created, not inherited. In this view, he has much in common with cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah, who has drawn on Schmitz’s story in the past. Appiah’s stated aim as a public intellectual is to ‘take minds and hearts formed over the long millennia of living in local troops and equip them with ideas and institutions that will allow us to live together as the global tribe we have become’ (Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, 2007). His personal philosophy is sensible, if a little cautious: what he calls a conversational Cosmopolitanism. The loyalties we hold to the people with whom we share common geographic or cultural ground are to be respected, he suggests, but we shouldn’t regard notions of mutual faith or nationality so highly as to neglect the moral obligations we owe to all humans across the world. At the very least, he proposes, we ought to engage in dialogue across borders, be they physical or metaphorical. To this end, Schmitz makes for a handy ally.

Speaking in his BBC Reith Lectures series on ‘Mistaken Identities’ last year, Appiah found in Schmitz’s story an example of how Romantic notions of nationhood are often little but helpful fictions. The Triestine’s mixed cultural inheritance and shifting political circumstances serve to remind us, Appiah argued, that vaunted national histories are usually more fractured than we care to admit. It would be limiting, therefore, to gauge the legitimacy of a national movement only by the distinct and concrete pre-existing shared ancestry it espouses – you would have a hard time trying to convince Ettore Schmitz today of the authentic Italian heritage of Trieste, now adorned with red, white and green tribands. It might also be wise, following Appiah’s argument on a broader scale, to soften perceptions of difference between nations, and engage more openly in the inescapable interconnectedness of the world we live in.

As Appiah pointed out, and as Schmitz’s life shows, once countries are shaped, they are easily reshaped; their borders, institutions and loyalties are, and always have been, pliant. Accordingly, and in Puigdemont and Barzani’s favour, that which is true of Kurdistan and Catalonia in this sense is also true of the larger countries in which they sit. The unifying myths of Iraqi and Spanish nationhood are just as historically precarious as those of their rebellious internal regions. Naturally, cultural difference within regions is almost always just as pronounced as that between them. ‘Should we build a wall around North Wales to prevent further dilution of the Welsh language?’, journalist Daniel Trilling sardonically asks. The nation state is just one in a series of ambiguous concentric circles of allegiance. A country might share a common ancestry, but so too, Appiah noted in his lecture, does ‘a family, to take the idea at its narrowest, and the whole species, at its widest’. As a species that has evolved to live and cooperate in small bands typically comprising no more than 50 individuals, which has since restructured itself into groups numbering in the millions, it is natural that our political lives have come to be plagued by a central tension.

This tension, between the competing centripetal and centrifugal impulses of identification and separation, regularly brings into question the validity of our borders. So it comes as little surprise that choosing where to draw the line – both metaphorically, on the spectrum that lies between isolationism and transnationalism, and cartographically – involves accommodating for varying levels of these opposing forces.

Ostensibly reflecting this tension, both Kurdistan and Catalonia, whilst seeking to shake loose the shackles of their respective national governments, simultaneously reached out to wider international bodies: in attempting to sever one bond, each sought to forge another in its void. Throughout his campaign Barzani emphasised that Kurdistan is staunchly committed to participating in its international responsibilities, always eager to remind international audiences of his people’s willingness to accommodate those who have been internally displaced from a number of Middle- Eastern nations. In that same speech Puigdemont gave in Brussels, the Catalan leader stressed that despite its secessionist intentions ‘Catalonia as a whole is deeply involved in participating in the European project’. He even suggested that ‘the Catalan proposal for a referendum follows a firmly Europeanist inspiration’. (Following the failure of its constituent countries to come to the aid of the Catalan people, his reverence for the EU has soured.)

It might seem paradoxical to resist one broad political sphere in the name of independence, only to attempt to wriggle into another. But there is, I think, at a governmental level at least, a fairly simple and cynical rationale at play – one that has less to do with the difficulties of negotiating forces of identification and separation than it does with each region’s desire to carve out the most attractive economic deal for itself. For decades now, politics in Catalonia has been shaped by the perception that Catalan taxes are used largely to support ailing regions like Andalusia, instead of subsidising Catalonia’s own public services. This resentment isn’t misplaced: data published by the Spanish government in 2015 showed that Catalonia paid €85 billion more in taxes than Madrid pumped back into the region. Likewise, an independent Kurdistan would be able to take control of its own exports, reaping full reward from the use of its considerable crude reserves (which it has already been doing illegally since 2014, much to the outrage of the federal government). This might also explain why outlines for Kurdish independence propose enforcing borders that extend beyond the land shared by the Kurdish people to include some of Iraq’s most abundant oilfields. Undoubtedly, a sense of common ancestry plays a crucial role in stirring nationalist sentiments among the populations of Catalonia and Kurdistan, but it is economic incentives that account for much of the secessionist inclinations of the two regions.

That both Kurdish and Catalan calls for independence are based not just on Romantic notions of nationhood but also on economic considerations makes clear why the campaigns have involved such urgent appeals to other international bodies in the place of their respective federal governments, and why each region is so desperate for the seemingly gratuitous status of nationhood in the first place. Membership of the EU allows for continued use of the euro, and for tax-free trade between members. Membership of the UN brings with it the prize of being an officially recognised sovereign state, which in turn secures access to the World Bank and the IMF, as well as ensuring the protection of international law – all the necessary prerequisites for large-scale global trade.

Not only do Catalans and Kurds aspire to live independently as the distinct national people they believe themselves to be; they feel like they are getting a raw deal, and simply want out. Schmitz, too, was loath to tolerate what he perceived as the oppressive authority of national government. Late in life, when he was pressured by the Italian state to adopt an Italian surname, he refused. ‘I’ve got two names already; why do I need a third?’ he griped. As Appiah remarked in his lecture, ‘His enthusiasm for Italian-ness had its limits’. Having established a home in London, Schmitz was able to walk away.

With an unforgiving Baghdad tightening its vindictive grip, few Kurds are likely to share the same fortune. The future for Catalans, too, remains indefinitely tethered to the yoke of Madrid. And yet, in the latter region at least, not all resolve has been sapped. Tweeting in the wake of his dismissal from public office, ex-Catalan minister Josep Rull ended his message with the cryptic hashtag ‘Seguim’, or we continue. The embers of defiant spirit, it seems, still glow.


Hugo studies English at Magdalen College and drinks at least six litres of fizzy water a day.


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