The example of Catalonia should show that there seems to be a tendency to split that prevents states getting too big. Not only has there been a referendum even though the central government tried to prevent it, but now there has been a declaration of independence. The fleeing of the head of the dismissed Catalan government to Belgium, Carles Puigdemont, indicates that the Catalan government had not really considered a contested succession, and had hoped that the pressure of public opinion would be enough to force the central government in Madrid to concede independence.

The Spanish state proved more resistant, and after failing to stop the referendum, has dismissed the Catalan government and ordered fresh elections. It has made no commitment about independence, but the separatists, led by Puigdemont, have announced that they will be contesting. The separatists came to office in January 2016, and have been very swift about holding a referendum.

Catalonia’s historical reasons for independence date back to the creation of Spain by the marriage of Isabel of Castile, and Ferdinand of Aragon, and their successful prosecution of the Reconquista, through which the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula expelled the Muslims, first conquering their kingdoms, and then converting them. There was then the persecution of these conversos, through the Inquisition, and finally by the expulsion of all of Arab descent in 1603. The Spanish state was created by the welding of these lands with Castile and Leon. Portugal, which looked westward and southward, was united dynastically to the Spanish throne between 1580 and 1660, but re-established the separate existence which Catalonia seeks. Aragon Maintained separate institutions until the Bourbon dynasty took the Spanish throne in 1713, when in 1716, Aragon became a Castilian province.

Catalonia does not really seek the old-fashioned and untrammeled independence of the post-Westphalian state. It would wish to remain within the European Union, for a start, and thus within NATO. Indeed, the attitude of other European states, and of the EU, which was generally supportive of the Madrid government, was disappointing for the Catalan separatists, though it could hardly be seen as unexpected. Catalan separatism may thus be seen within the context of Scottish separatism, where a narrow majority for ‘no’ in a referendum prevented Scotland from leaving the United Kingdom. The separatist party, the Scottish Nationalist Party, was in office, and its victory had provided the platform for the referendum. The later all-UK ‘Brexit’ referendum resulted in the UK deciding to leave the EU. The defeat of that referendum in Scotland led to calls for another referendum on independence, though so far that has not happened.

There is thus the possibility that this may thus be a phenomenon driven by the surrender of sovereignty by the Westphalian state. It should not be forgotten that surrenders by regions of sovereignty was followed by participation in empire. The Scottish merger into the UK, again after the same monarch came to the throne in both countries, was sweetened by allowing Scottish merchants to participate in the trade of the British Empire. Aragon was also the junior partner of Castile in its empire, which remained very extensive even after the Americas were lost.

Another parallel is with the Quebec separatist movement. Unlike Scotland or Catalonia, Quebec was conquered by Britain from France. Yet there too a separatist party, the Parti Quebecois, became involved in provincial politics, and apart from ruling in the province, was responsible for two referenda, in 1980 and 1995, both of which were defeated, the second time with a ‘no’ vote of only 50.58 percent. Yet the PQ has not opted for another referendum in the last 22 years, partly because there has been some movement to placate opinion in Quebec, such as making Canada a more bilingual country, giving French a more prominent place not just in Quebec, but in the whole country, particularly in the federal government.

Catalonia has also witnessed such moves, which led to Catalonia achieving a leadership role during the post-World War I of the Spanish Republican movement, which was one of the sides in the Spanish Civil War. Catalonia had by then developed into an industrial powerhouse, and a centre of the world’s anarchist movement. Combined with strong trade unions, the anarcho-syndicalism of Catalonia had a worldwide appeal, though it never developed into an alternative to communism, which was flourishing in Russia at this time. The Catalans were so prominent during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, that George Orwell named his famous memoir Homage To Catalonia. It was a stronghold of the Republic, and the separatist movement not only brings back memories of Leon but also of the Civil War. Quebec may not be as vital industrially to Canada, but its separatists also look to a greater economic grouping, to the NAFTA, though US President Donald Trump’s announced readiness to pull out makes it even less reliable than the EU as a pillar to depend on.

One of the lessons of the Catalan movement is that any concession will lead to a separatist demand. It should be noted that separatism seems to be a function of federalism created in the name of local government. Quebec has always been a distinct entity within Canada, but increased devolution for Scotland has meant the strengthening of the SNP. The same applies to Catalonia. And there are clear signs that increased autonomy for separatists will lead to increased independence, to the extent that there will be demands for national symbols, like currency, a military, a flag, an anthem and sports teams.

An earlier obtaining of independence, about which there has been comment that it was the first act of decolonization, was that of Ireland. That too had a historical origin, but was complicated by the Protestant-Catholic divide; with six of the nine countries of Ulster, majority Protestant, refusing to secede. Unlike the UK of 1919, Spain has shed even the remnants of its colonial empire. It must be remembered that Ireland is within the EU.

The lesson for Pakistan and India has to be that borders are not sacred. The post-1945 world, which is also a post-UN world, has emphasized the sanctity of borders, but the Catalan movement should not disguise the fact that many states have got regional problems. If Catalonia does win independence, there are other regions of Spain itself, such as Galicia, which have regionalist movements, which could easily go separatist. Other European countries face such challenges, like Italy (where Sicily and the North have movements recently gaining prominence). In Pakistan, each province has got a minority which could ask for a province, while there are two in Punjab. India also teems with regionalist and even separatist movements, perhaps the most important being that of Kashmir.

As the Catalan example shows, while nationalism means a principle of association among human beings, it also provides a means of separation. Because it is a construct, nationalism might well not be really meaningful as a bond, because there has to be a prior bond. Like that of other nationalisms, Catalan nationalism may find that it is not enough.