by Frank Schnittger
Sat Oct 28th, 2017 at 04:55:07 PM EST
As someone distrustful of extreme nationalism and committed to the European ideal as the best way we have yet found of maintaining peace and prosperity in Europe, I am utterly conflicted by the drive for Catalonian independence.
On the one hand I am committed to the European principle of subsidiarity - that decisions effecting peoples lives should be made with their maximum involvement and as close as possible to their own communities.
I therefore have no problem with negotiations for greater Catalonian autonomy, if Catalonians generally are unhappy with decisions made on their behalf by the central government in Madrid.
But granting Catalonia full sovereignty is an altogether different matter. It implies that Catalonia will have its own army and distinct relationships with the EU and all foreign states. On what basis could it be granted?
The modern system of nation states was born of two world wars, the disintegration of several empires and many more local conflicts. Boundaries were often drawn on fairly arbitrary lines by departing imperial powers with terrible consequences for local populations drawn from different ethnic groupings or religious traditions.
All to often it was the relative strength of different armies which determined their exact location. Some boundaries, when drawn, resulted in the death and dislocation of millions of people, as in the partition of the Indian sub continent into India and Pakistan, and, subsequently, Bangladesh. As we speak, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are being driven from their ancient tribal lands in Myanmar.
Anyone who says this couldn't happen in Europe doesn't know their history. There are huge ethnic tensions with large Russian minorities in the Baltic states and a low intensity war is being fought in Ukraine. Tensions in the Balkans resulted in the disintegration of Yugoslavia with a state of near war between Serbia and Croatia and many deaths around Kosovo.
Even Brexit can be seen as an uprising by English nationalists which may yet result in the disintegration of the UK. Scotland may tire of Westminster rule, and the historic settlement between British and Irish nationalists as codified by the Good Friday Agreement is threatened.
There are many reasons why a region might wish to secede from a larger state - and these often crystallise around differences of ethnicity, religion, language and culture. Often these may hide divergences of economic interests - as when Biafra, which controlled most of Nigerian oil - sought to secede from Nigeria. Many European states have regions that are more prosperous than others and which may see it as being in their own narrow self-interest to secede from their respective states
Memories of the Spanish civil war, and feelings of discrimination ever since, no doubt contribute to the Catalonian sense of grievance. The heavy handed tactics of the Rajoy regime in seeking to repress an unauthorised referendum cannot have helped. But how would Catalonian independence improve matters for many Catalonians and most Spaniards? Is it just a case of local elites seeking to wrest more power from national ones?
There has been a general upsurge of populist and far right nationalist parties throughout most of Europe in response to austerity, immigration, and the regressive redistributive effects of globalisation. Global corporations seem to hold more and more sway over nation states and the bulk of their profits go to the already rich.
The splintering and disintegration of Europe into ever smaller nation states would exacerbate this process by increasing the imbalance of power between global corporates and smaller states vying for investment and jobs for their people. The EU has failed its member states by not being assertive enough in correcting this imbalance.
However, whatever chance the EU has of redressing this imbalance, the smaller states have none, and it is noteworthy that most nationalist movements have no analysis of how they would address this issue. If anything, their solution is to compete ever more aggressively for such investment, beggaring their neighbours even more in the process if necessary.
If Catalonians are unhappy with Madrid rule, they should press for 'an ever deeper Union' at EU level to ensure that the relative importance of Madrid is reduced and their grievances are addressed. Many Catalans point to an alleged hypocrisy between an EU willing to interfere in the budgetary affairs of heavily indebted states and civil rights violations in Poland and Hungary and yet remaining silent on the repression of their attempts at self-determination.
But there is no inconsistency here. It is Spain which is the EU member, and not Catalonia; and it is for Spain to decide its own internal constitutional arrangements. Rightly or wrongly, the EU has been granted powers by the Maastricht Treaty to interfere in the budgetary processes of member states. It has no Treaty powers to direct Spain to grant greater autonomy to Catalonia.
If Spain were to regress into a Francoist autocracy, repressing human rights and democratic norms in contravention of European Treaties, the EU might well have to take action. But we are not there yet, and not by a long way. Let the Catalonian leadership take its grievances to the ECJ if it feels a European Treaty have been infringed.
In the meantime the stability of Europe, no less that the stability of Spain requires that any movement towards greater autonomy or independence in Catalonia can only be achieved by peaceful negotiation and consent. The Catalonian leadership have failed to articulate precisely what grievances Catalonian independence would better address, and precisely how this would be in the best interests of both Catalonians and the rest of Spain.
A negotiation is always a two way process, and your proposed solution has to be able to offer some advantages to your adversaries as well. Shouting "we want, we want, we want" ever louder is not an argument. Just how would the rest of Spain and the EU benefit from Catalonian independence, especially with so many other separatist movements waiting in the wings?
But for Rajoy and for other European leaders the drive for Catalonian independence should also be a warning moment: The EU and its members cannot prosper so long as ordinary people see their incomes and benefits stall by reason of austerity, while they feel threatened by increased competition for jobs and scarce resources from immigrants, and while ruling elites seem ever more in thrall to global capitalism.
It is high time that the persistent problems of corporate tax avoidance and lax banking regulation be addressed. The EU either acts to address the increasing imbalances in welfare between European elites and ordinary citizens or it too will collapse amid a mêlée of competing nationalisms and possible wars.
Catalonians, no more or less than the rest of us, cannot take the benefits of the EU for granted. The EU has to be re-imagined for each successive generation and cannot live off past achievements forever. Brexit will provide a cautionary tale for those who would seek to achieve the benefits of pooled sovereignty without the responsibilities. We do not need another débâcle in Catalonia.