Wednesday 21 November 2018

Dan O'Brien: Europe's now immovable map risks heightening emotions of nationalism

The Catalan crisis is likely to come to a head this week, and one way or the other, there will consequences for the entire continent, writes Dan O'Brien

A Catalan separatist flag hangs from a balcony in Barcelona, Spain October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera
A Catalan separatist flag hangs from a balcony in Barcelona, Spain October 11, 2017. REUTERS/Susana Vera
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

I moved from Rome to Madrid in the 1990s. I didn't expect a huge change - Italy and Spain are both big southern European countries with Latin cultures and languages. Along with many other similarities, both have well-known rivalries between their two biggest, similar-sized cities.

But what quickly becomes clear to anyone who spends time in the two countries is that while the Milanese may resent the politicking of less economically dynamic Rome, and the Romans bridle at the aloofness of the Lombards, there is an altogether darker dynamic in the relationship between Madrid and the Catalans. Two-way resentments and suspicions are much more deeply held. Among those Catalans - around half of the population - who feel more Catalan than Spanish, disaffection is particularly deep.

All of this is playing out now in the most serious constitutional crisis in a western European country in decades. Matters will come to a head in the coming days - Madrid has given the Catalan regional government until tomorrow morning to clarify its position on a less-than-clear declaration of independence announced last week.

If a unilateral declaration of independence is confirmed, the full weight of the Spanish state will move to take control of the apparatus of regional government. With tensions so high and divisions between stayers and leavers so deep in Catalonia, there are fears that the situation could become violent, as it did two weeks ago when Spanish police used disproportionate force in an attempt to stop the holding of an unconstitutional independence referendum. Such situations can easily spin out of control.

The crisis raises many questions about nationalism, self-determination, sovereignty and statehood, and not just in Iberia, but across Europe and further afield.

Let's start with an observation on the reaction to the crisis in Ireland, and compare it to the reaction to Brexit. While most Irish people, and most commentators, think Brexit is a bad idea, there is also a widespread disdain for those in Britain who support it. Despite many of the motives behind the drive for Catalan separation from Spain being identical to those driving supporters of British separation from the EU, there is far more sympathy for the former than the latter.

In truth, both aspirations are perfectly legitimate. There is nothing wrong with a citizen of a given place believing that only fellow citizens should make the laws of that place. Although this 'pure' view of sovereignty is not one that I share, it is important that those who believe that sharing sovereignty ultimately gives citizens more control do not dismiss different views as necessarily small-minded or bigoted. Not all pro-Brexiteers are narrow-minded little Englanders. After all, a majority in Wales voted out, as did 38pc of Scots. More widely, the citizens of Iceland, Norway and Switzerland have all decided not to join the EU. Their decisions do not make them nations of reactionary nationalists.

Nor is there anything illegitimate in the view that taxes raised in a nation and/or a state should not leave it. Many advocates of Catalan independence are as resentful of the transfer of money to poorer Spanish regions, via the budget of the central government in Madrid, as advocates of Brexit are about paying into the Brussels budget.

And their gripe is much bigger. While the UK's net contribution to the EU budget has worked out at more than €100 per person per year, Catalans' net transfers to Madrid are around 10 times greater.

Another big similarity between advocates of Brexit and Catalan independence is that both deny or downplay the economic downsides of divorce.

If Catalans would save more cash directly by seceding than Britons will by Brexiting, they would also pay a much higher price in lost economic activity. In net terms, the cost to Catalans would be huge, in the short to medium term at least.

One reason for that is the euro. As successive Greek governments have found when they came to the brink of leaving the euro, the cost of breaking away from a currency union in today's highly (and overly) financialised world are huge. Having to create a new currency overnight would cause chaos. These considerations have already caused one of the big Catalan banking groups to relocate its official headquarters out of the region.

Another big cost of breaking up is the trade destruction effect. Putting up tariff and customs barriers adds to the cost of trade. Higher costs inevitably means less trade. These matters have been much discussed here and across the water since the Brexit vote. They have not featured much in Catalonia, despite being more important.

Because Britain, with a population of 65 million people, has a big enough market to produce most of what it consumes, it is relatively closed to international trade. Catalonia, with a population of just seven million, is more similar to Ireland, which trades a great deal. Catalan independence thus threatens the region's economy more than Brexit does Britain's.

It is for that reason that none of the advocates of Catalan secession argue for leaving the EU as well as Spain.

They want to stay in the European single market, which would mean no customs posts on the border with Spain (or France) and free access to the entire European market. At the same time, they want to end their huge payments to poorer regions of the country of which they have long formed a part.

This is cake-and-it-eat secession says Madrid. It insists that Catalonia's membership of the EU and the euro would end automatically if it became a separate sovereign state. Madrid has the law, and the rest of the EU on its side.

Late last week the head of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, was anything but supportive of Catalan independence. He said that it is already difficult to make the EU work with today's 28 members. If even just some of the 98 recognised regions within the bloc were to become independent, he argued that the whole system would become unworkable.

While this is correct in many rational, practical and technocratic ways, it is also tantamount to saying that the map of Europe, which has changed constantly throughout history, is now frozen forever. Its corollary is that desires for self-determination, which are more driven by feeling than reason, must be abandoned by peoples and nations in Europe who have not already achieved statehood.

Imposing such rigidity could be dangerous in the long term. It can, and has, been argued that the reason western Europe has been mostly peaceful for more than seven decades is because most of its nations achieved statehood in the first half of the 20th century.

The same has been said of the Balkans more recently. Yugoslavia broke up very bloodily in the 1990s but the region has been largely peaceful since its constituent parts became sovereign states.

If nations - existing or emerging - no longer have a path to self-determination due to the EU, the result could be an intensification of reactionary nationalism.

It would be a tragic irony if a process conceived as a means of bringing the peoples of Europe together peacefully ended up doing the opposite.

Sunday Independent

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