Cataluña through a systems lens

Cataluña through a systems lens

European School of Governance, position paper # 36 by Thomas Lehr.

There is a widespread consensus in Europe with respect to Cataluña’s autonomy claim: Most reactions reject the initiative as a selfish, populist movement that operates in a legal no-man‘s land. But how about the Catalonians just rising up against something that in their eyes is no longer an efficient mechanism? The common understanding of the notion of hierarchy stands in the way of the original purpose of hierarchy: the higher levels serving the lower ones.

The Cataluña autonomy demand has a long history and is not only founded in economic terms, which can be illustrated by the fact that Cataluña is smaller than for instance Bavaria but contributes three times as much to the treasury. There are also cultural reasons like the oppression of Catalan language and culture as well as a political dimension with Spain having dealt quite differently with autonomy demands from other regions. During this long history the Spanish state has not been reactive until the pressure got as high as it is now.

Outside of Spain the reject of the autonomy demand is most probably due to the expected EU-level consequences of secession. Europe and the EU is currently challenged by a lot of external pressures, like migration, increased and geo-political tensions, as well as internal issues, most prominently the Brexit absorbing much of the Unions capacities and attention, but also rising nationalism and populist movements in Europe and the Vizegrad expressing the increased self-confidence of the Eastern European member states. Understandably, no one wants this type of trouble so we let the Spaniards deal with it. The EU being ruled by the powerful European Council is – understandably – not expected to put into question the territorial integrity of Spain. As a result the EU is considering the matter as a purely Spanish one and more or less directly threats Cataluña by asserting that secession from Spain automatically entails an exclusion from the EU – as if there was no European Citizenship and no means to get involved as a mediator.

From a systems perspective, Cataluña wants to cut the ties to its „mother system“, the state of Spain. The question to ask is whether the Cataluña would want to do so if the overall system consisting of the region and all of its sub-systems, the state of Spain and the EU would produce satisfactory results in the perspective of the Cataluña? Probably not. If so, it is probably worth looking at the underlying reasons for the autonomy demand and widening the perspective to the other European regions with similar tendencies.

In hierarchical systems relationships within a subsystem are closer and stronger than those between subsystems. Hierarchies emerge as an answer to the growth of a system and increasing complexity within and outside of the system. Hierarchies increase system stability and resilience and optimize the information flows within, and thus efficiency of, the overall system. And most important, hierarchical systems evolve bottom up with the purpose of the upper layers being to serve the purposes of the lower layer. This is a fundamental difference to our understanding of hierarchy: in systems theory hierarchy is a „power with“ concept in a rather participatory and inclusive sense while our framing of hierarchy is rather military-driven „power over“ concept. In other words: the reason for existence of the upper hierarchical levels is to accomplish certain functions for the lower level structures – the upper levels serves the lower.

From this perspective the European Regions have developed the hierarchy level of the nation state as answer to the situation and challenges at the time. The need for stability and security (defence, police), reliability (jurisdiction), economic activity (currency, jurisdiction) could be served more efficiently at a higher hierarchical level than within a single region. Despite the links within regions being even common elements like the language and certain cultural aspects were closer between the regions of the nation state compared to the ones to regions belonging to other nation states. While Nation states in Europe have been the logical answer to conditions at the time of their foundation, a new hierarchical structure emerged that seemed to provide better answers to both, challenges ahead, challenges ahead (the worlds divide into blocks becoming apparent) and lessons from the past (WW 1 and 2): The European Union and its antecedents.

In contrast to the Europe, the nation states of the MENA region mostly imposed by the British and the French in the Sykes-Pikot Treaty, never have been an efficient answer to the challenges of the region. After a long period of despotism and tyranny in most of the concerned states we are currently witnessing the downfall of the regional order as well as the nation states established by Sykes and Picot. Social systems such as regions, states, villages, communities are not stable but constantly evolving and – if the opportunity arises – rejecting dysfunctional hierarchical levels.

When hierarchies break down they usually split along their subsystem boundaries. Is this what we currently observe in Cataluña, Scotland, Tirol, Wallonia, Flanders, Venetia or Bavaria? How strong are the links between regions and nation states compared to those between regions and Europe respectively the European Union? Is the current hierarchical setup still the most efficient one? Does the upper level of hierarchy – the Spanish state – really serve the purpose of its subsystem Cataluña to a satisfactory level? Are the links between regions and nation state still stronger than those to Europe in a globalized environment with a plethora of global challenges from climate change to migration, new forms of terrorism, geostrategic conflicts, globalized companies and financial markets as well as the AI/IOT/digital revolution? What are the specific challenges that can only be dealt with at the level of the nation state? The Cataluña seem to think that the current setup is not the most efficient answer to today’s challenges, and other regions will probably join them. We can either try to contain these movements by „power-over“ hierarchy – which has never turned out to be a sustainable solution, as the root cause of the underlying problems is not addressed properly. Social systems are simply too dynamic to contain inefficiencies in the long run. Or we could engage in the search for more efficient answers. How could a more efficient setup look like? Models have been proposed notably with Ulrike Guérots European Republic offering an overall system approach without the nation states. And in what respect would a European Republic serve the regions better than currently the nation states do?

Questions like these are a hint for a more constructive role the EU could take with respect to the events in Cataluña and the other European regions asking for more autonomy. The problem will not go away by simply ignoring it. Nor will it go away by the currently exercised „power-over“ hierarchy understanding of the Spanish state and the European Council. We have extensively tried this. Looking at it through a systems lens and applying a „power with“ hierarchical concept could provide a rationale along which a discussion on the future of Europe and the European Union could be organized. Systems theory will not provide the operative answer how to deal with the Cataluña crisis. But looking through the holistic lens of a systems thinker can unearth valuable indications for the future development of the European Union and the development new answers to todays challenges which are fundamentally different from the ones at the time of the EU‘s first foundations.

This ball is of course not exclusively in the field of the Spanish government. The European Union should take a moderating role. It’s naive to expect the European Council to lead such a discussion. The European Parliament on the other hand is more than well placed to start a process lead by a clear message to the regions demanding more autonomy: „We’ve heard you. Let’s sit together and discuss how to constructively use the momentum to think about a model for a state-of-the-art setup of Europe, the Union and its relations to the outside world. “

A new perspective on Europe and its position towards the increasing number of regions that require more autonomy could emerge from the Cataluña crisis. In such a perspective the EU could transform into a systemically efficient upper hierarchical level that serves its lower levels – for instance European Regions – while at the same time leaving maximum cultural, economical and political autonomy to these lower levels. We need to seriously discuss whether in today’s globalized contexts the nation states continue to be a systemically efficient hierarchical layer. And we may learn how much more is to Emmanuel Macron’s idea of “l’Europe qui protège”. It would be a Europe that protects and serves.