Power Dynamics

Destabilising Europe

Guardia Civil clash with voters

What's going on in Catalonia?

I seldom comment on unfolding events before I can establish some basic facts and investigate all the forces at play. I woke up this morning to a twitter stream showing violent clashes between the Spanish Guardia Civil and unarmed Catalan citizens attempting to vote in the region's independence referendum. I think Mariano Rajoy's central government have not only seriously misjudged the public mood in Catalonia, but their heavy-handed and morally indefensible actions will backfire massively. Recent polls suggested only 40% supported full independence, but now that percentage must be much higher. Despite a recent influx of newcomers from the Middle East and North Africa, Spaniards from other regions form by far the largest minority and many Catalans are descendants of earlier waves of migration from Spain's poorer regions. While the Catalan language was suppressed under Franco, since the late 1980s it's been the main language of instruction in state schools. Indeed parents have to explicitly request Castillian Spanish medium instruction. Yet Spanish is still the most widely spoken home language (According to Wikipedia 47.5% speak Spanish as their main tongue versus 44.3% for Catalan). Catalonia is undoubtedly Spain's richest region with its highest per capita income. As a result it subsidises poorer regions such as Andalucia and Extremadura and some estimate to the tune of €16 billion a year.

Back in the mid 1990s I witnessed the rise of the Northern League (Lega Nord) in Italy. Their leader, Umberto Bossi, ranted and railed against Southern Italians. For a few years it seemed the North, known as Padania, may very well have severed ties with Italy's boot. I lived in provincial Veneto where most residents still spoke the local dialect, Veneto, which many considered a language in its own right. Veneto has as much claim to independence from Italy as Catalonia does from Spain. The Venetian Republic lasted until 1796 before being split into two regions under Austrian rule. Italy did not unite until 1871. By contrast Catalonia has been in a union with Castille since Ferdinand II of Aragon married Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1469. However, the governments and legal system did not merge until the aftermath of the War of Succession in 1714, just 7 years after Scotland joined the United Kingdom. The Kingdom of Aragon covered a much larger territory comprising modern communities of Valencia, Aragon and the Balearic Islands as well as Sardinia, Sicily, Naples and briefly Athens. All fascinating stuff, but why would the Catalans want to secede from Spain now if most real economic power lies with multinationals and the EU?

Some may prefer to jump on bandwagons and support the side that appears to have popular momentum behind it. If you supported the rebels in Kosovo, Libya or Syria, you may be surprised to learn US and UK agencies and proxies armed and funded them all. Our media told us pretty much who the good and bad guys were. The problem here is that no country, region or ethnic group today lives in a bubble, except for a few isolated tribes. Self-determination may be a fine ideal in theory, but in practice smaller countries without substantial natural resources have to bow to the diktat of large corporations and superstates. The only apparent exceptions are city states with highly educated citizens like Singapore that serve as financial hubs.

In 2014 I had mixed feelings towards Scottish Independence. In an ideal world I'd have a loose federation of countries and regions within the British Isles. The UK has three main downsides. Most of its population lives in England, its economic activity is concentrated in the South East and it has a thorny imperial legacy. To me Scottish independence would have made sense in the 1970s if the country could have invested its oil wealth in a new high tech economy, while supporting its traditional farming and fishing communities. Alas today's SNP proposes independence within the EU, which essentially means transferring decision-making powers from London to Brussels. Worse still, Scotland exports more than 4 times more to the rest of the UK than it does to the EU27 (the EU post-Brexit). For me the strongest argument in favour of Scottish Independence was the SNP's opposition to Trident nuclear missiles and some aspects of US-led military adventurism. Honestly, with falling proceeds from North Oil the Scottish economy is a basket case, heavily reliant on subsidies from central government and on trade with England.

Catalonia, by contrast, can just as easily trade with France and other European countries as it can with the rest of Iberia. A rump Spain would lose more than a separate Catalonia. However, there's more to life than short-term economic expediency and other problems are looming on the horizon for Catalans. In a world of independent nation states, it would be fairly easy solve the Catalan question. Catalonia could become an independent country for most matters just like Portugal, but join an Iberian Federation to cooperate on strategic infrastructure, environemntal and security issues. Sadly we live in an asymetric world dominated by supranational entities. Only 6 weeks ago, Islamic terrorists killed 13 civilians and injured 130 in Barcelona's renowned La Rambla district. Catalonia has the third highest concentration of Muslims in Western Europe, an estimated 6% of the population and growing through immigration and higher fertility rate. The vast majority are first or second generation immigrants. Paradoxically Catalonia was only briefly part of al-Andalus, the Arabic name given to Iberia under Muslim rule.

While many Catalans are not happy about subsidising their brothers and sisters in Southern Spain, their politicians are fully signed up to the EU project and favour large-scale migration from North Africa and elsewhere. The current President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, heads the Catalan European Democratic Party, which belongs to the same ultra-federalist ALDE group as EU evangelist Guy Verhofstadt. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group wants to see a pan-European army, a unified fiscal regime and continent-wide harmonisation of most other domains of governance such as welfare, healthcare and even education. In an era of open borders, Catalan independence would be a pyrrhic victory. No sooner would they gain greater fiscal autonomy from the rest of Iberia, than they would end up subsidising the rest of Europe while accommodating larger transient communities of North Africans and Middle Easterners. They may well have to speak less Spanish, but more Arabic and Pidgin English. An independent Catalonia within a volatile European Union would not be more Catalan, only less Spanish.

However, the attitude of other European leaders may seem rather puzzling. Yesterday, Emanuel Macron urged Catalonians to support Spanish Unity, a rather odd position for a Frenchman committed to a federal Europe and mass migration. The BBC initiallly presented both sides of the debate. This rather reminds me of the beginning of the Yugoslav civil wars in the early 1990s when the BBC World Service would air many voices in favour of Yugoslav unity. Let's not forget in both world wars, many Slovenians, Croats, Bosnians and Kosovars had sided with the occupying Axis powers against the Allies. Yet by the mid 1990s the main US, UK and other Western European media outlets had overwhelming anti-Serb bias. Today, the Spanish government is portrayed as neo-Fancoist and certainly the antics of its Guardia Civil have done little to dispel that reputation. The real question has to be why the Spanish government thinks it can get away with such violent intimidation in an era of live video streaming ? They have either mishandled the situation in acts of extreme incompetence or they have been led to believe they have the full weight of the international community behind them as remarks from the UK's Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, might suggest.

Technically the Catalan referendum contravenes the 1978 Spanish constitution that does not allow any region to secede without the explcit consent of all Spaniards. It would be like having a UK-wide referendum on Scottish independence. More intriguingly, recent opinion polls have shown support for Catalan independence is only around 40%. If Spain had simply allowed a Catalonia-only independence referendum, with a free and fair debate on both sides, it could well have won as so many Catalonians have relatives in other parts of Iberia. As it is their actions may yield the very outcome that will damage ordinary Spaniards most, separation, the empowerment of the EU and demise of viable nation states.

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