Colm McCarthy: Upsurge in regional xenophobia leaves Europe facing state of flux
Spain and Brussels have little choice but to resist the push for Catalan independence, writes Colm McCarthy
When empires, the prisons of nations, collapse, their suppressed constituents invariably set up shop as new independent states. So it was with the collapse of the Soviet Union almost 30 years ago and with the demise of the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires at the end of World War I.
There are now 193 sovereign states in membership of the United Nations, three times the number as recently as the mid-1950s, reflecting the (largely peaceful) dissolution of the French and British empires and some far more violent episodes in recent times.
The break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s cost 150,000 lives and displaced four million, making it easy to understand the European Union's preference for leaving national frontiers where they sit and its resistance to the campaign for Catalan independence.
Borders are not always re-drawn, creating new states, on a voluntary and agreed basis: parts of Ukraine have been forcibly re-attached to mother Russia subsequent to an initially amicable separation. The divorce of Slovakia from the federal state of Czechoslovakia in 1993 is one of the few recent examples of a frictionless divide.
When the secession of a region from an established nation-state is resisted by that state, as is the case in Spain, the record is not reassuring. East Africa has produced two instant failed states in recent times, in Eritrea and South Sudan, both the product of long and violent conflicts with the larger states of which they were part. The two new states are major sources of refugees as their citizens flee their hard-won independence.
There is much instinctive sympathy in Ireland for the Catalan cause, as there is with the campaign for Scottish independence. But the two cases are very different: the British government agreed to an independence referendum in Scotland and promised to facilitate separation if Scottish voters chose that option. As it happens, they chose to stay with the United Kingdom but there would have been no conflict had the vote gone differently.
Spain, in contrast, has little choice but to resist the Catalan independence movement for the very good reason that Spain contains several more Catalonias. The Basque terrorist campaign has finally been abandoned after four decades of violence but the political demand has not gone away and would be emboldened by success in Catalonia. There are strong autonomist tendencies elsewhere in Spain and capitulation to Catalan demands would threaten the survival of the Spanish state.
There is one distinct similarity between the cases of Scotland and Catalonia. Neither is a colonial possession, repressed by an occupying power: both enjoy equal rights with the other regions comprising the larger state. Indeed, some regions of Spain, including Catalonia, already enjoy devolved powers going beyond what has been granted to Scotland.
Catalonia is not Kosovo. So on what basis should independence be accorded to regions of larger states which demand it for reasons which have no basis in repression or the denial of elementary rights?
This seems to be the dilemma for the European Union: any encouragement for Catalonia, as well as risking the break-up of Spain, would embolden imitators in other large European states, none of which is as relaxed about secession as the United Kingdom seems to be about Scotland.
There are secessionist parties and movements in more European countries than you might think. In France, both Brittany and Corsica have long-established pro-independence parties; in Italy, several of the wealthier northern regions have regularly voted for secessionists and the island of Sardinia has a break-away movement. Belgium has gone through constitutional contortions to keep the Dutch- and French-speaking regions on board. Even in Germany, an opinion poll in July found that one-third of Bavarians now regard Freistaat Bayern as a political option and not just a football chant.
Unlike the United Kingdom, all of the threatened states will fight to hold together and continue to pool sovereignty through the EU, to which membership will not be extended to secessionists except by agreement of the state from which they seek to depart.
There is something rather parochial about this recent upsurge of what might be called regional xenophobia in Europe. Everyone wants to detach from the neighbouring mother-state rather than from foreigners in general. Every one of the wannabe new states has expressed a desire to join the European Union.
National rivalries, extending to hatreds, in Europe tend to involve neighbouring states in the main. Norway and Sweden, Finland and Russia, Turkey and Greece have, pairwise, mutual grievances, Danes remain circumspect about Germany and all for understandable historical reasons. British exceptionalism is demonstrated, not just by the willingness to kiss goodbye to Scotland after 300 years of union but also by the Brexit decision. Many on the Tory right exhibit a kind of equal-opportunity xenophobia, a uniform disdain for aliens, Scots included, almost refreshing in its lack of discrimination.
A particular weakness in the case made for Catalonia is the complaint (true on the figures) that Catalonia is a net contributor to the Spanish central budget. So are the other prosperous regions, including the Basque Country and Madrid.
In a modern European democracy with progressive taxes and a social safety net, funds will always flow, through the automatic workings of the redistributive state, from richer to poorer regions, and Spain has plenty of the latter, including Extremadura and much of Andalusia.
So what if the richer districts pay some extra tax to the benefit of the less fortunate? In Italy the secessionist movements in Lombardy, Venice and elsewhere are similarly motivated by calculations about taxes and spending.
The members of Dublin City Council planning to fly the Catalan flag over City Hall might like to consider the politics of a fiscal secession of Dublin from the Republic of Ireland, or of London from Britain or of Paris from France. If Barcelona gets its money back, why not Dublin and any other selfish city region?
The expansion in the number of nation states in recent decades has been accompanied, and not only in Europe, by a willingness to pool sovereignty in regional institutions that fall short of new federal states. The European Union is the most prominent sovereignty-pooling arrangement of this type and its future will be greatly influenced by the success or failure of regional secessionist movements, as well as by the departure of the United Kingdom.
EU members are sovereign states which have chosen to forsake aspects of sovereignty in exchange for trading and security benefits - almost all of the newly independent countries in eastern and southern Europe which struck out for independence in the 1990s promptly surrendered some of it again through joining both the EU and Nato, realising that small states cannot enjoy untrammelled sovereignty.
The EU may never admit Catalonia to membership, although it may well admit an independent Scotland, should the next Scottish referendum choose that option. Regions of European states may not, in the doctrine enshrined in these examples, secede without the agreement of the state they wish to leave, and the regions of Spain do not enjoy such permission.
There is scope for compromise once the current impasse has played out, including a restoration of devolved powers, withdrawn in 2011, to Catalonia.