The centrifugal forces are too strong

In this post, I discuss an article with the title: “The Catalan crisis poses a threat to the European order” by Tony Barber, published in the Financial Times, October 6, 2017.

Tony Barber argues that “The nationalists’ push for independence risks opening a Pandora’s box of problems“.

That is an understatement.


Goya’s ‘Duel with Cudgels’, in Madrid’s Prado museum, is an apt image for the struggle between the Spanish government and the Catalan separatists © Prado/Getty

In the article (see below), Tony Barber argues that secession of Catalonia from Spain could trigger a chain reaction in Europe, which could result in the collapse of the European state system.

I have named this process, the process of fragmentation. This process is closely related to the accumulation of tensions and issues in the System and the inability of the current global and European orders to effectively regulate tensions.

The centrifugal forces are too strong, or to be more precise: the integrative forces are too weak.

In Madrid’s Prado museum hangs a painting, Goya’s “Duel with Cudgels”, which depicts two men battering each other with clubs. Each is knee-deep in mud or sand, and neither is certain of prevailing. It is a compelling image for the struggle between Spain’s central authorities and Catalonia’s separatists, a contest that erupted this week into the most serious threat to Spain’s unity since a shortlived Catalan thrust for independence in 1934. Spain’s European allies are filled with unease at the potential breakdown of constitutional order and civic peace in Catalonia. Since its admission into the EU in 1986, 11 years after the dictator Franco’s death, Spain has been a pillar of European unity. Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian politician who co-leads the Greens group in the European Parliament, warns that events in Catalonia “threaten the spirit of European integration, even more than Brexit” — the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

The Catalan crisis is of enormous concern to European governments on multiple levels. The Catalan secessionists’ decision to hold a referendum on independence on October 1, in direct contravention of Spain’s 1978 constitution, was, in EU eyes, an affront to the bedrock principle that Europe is a community of law-based states. Conversely, the Spanish government’s heavy-handed use of force to disrupt the vote shook the EU’s pride in itself as a family of democracies, dedicated to the protection of human and civil rights.

Not to be underestimated are European fears of the geopolitical implications of the unrest in Catalonia. Spain is one of Europe’s oldest states, unified in the late 15th century, some four centuries before Germany and Italy. Despite frequent changes to Europe’s political geography, not least after the two world wars and again after the demise of communism in 1989-91, Spain has stayed intact. Esteban González Pons, who leads the European Parliament delegation of Spain’s ruling centre-right Popular party, says: “If today you let Spain break up with Catalonia, a domino effect will follow across the continent. Instead of a Europe of 27, we will have a non-Europe of mini-states.”

Mr González speaks as an interested party, insofar as his government is unalterably opposed to a Catalan declaration of independence — a step that Carles Puigdemont, the region’s president, suggested on Wednesday was only days away. Yet even if Spanish conservatives exaggerate the danger that Europe’s state system will collapse, no EU government is under illusions about what may ultimately be at stake as a result of the Catalan secessionists’ assault on Spain’s territorial integrity.

Just as the eurozone’s sovereign debt and bank crises came close to unravelling decades of European construction, so the Catalan nationalists’ push for independence — which is not backed by at least half the region’s population — risks opening a Pandora’s box of problems. At a minimum, other European separatist and autonomist movements may take heart from the insurrectionary mood in parts of Catalonia. They may also draw lessons about how to lure a central government into ill-advised police measures that look bad in the eyes of world public opinion.

In extremis, EU governments and mainstream political parties fear that, should Catalan independence ever happen, controversies about national borders, self-determination and minority rights that were once the cause of many a European war will come to haunt the continent again. In recent years, support for outright secession has waned in Belgium’s Flanders and Spain’s Basque Country. But nationalism on the French island of Corsica has scored notable election victories since 2015. In northern Italy, ethnic German regionalist feelings run high in Alto Adige, a province which formed part of the Habsburg empire until 100 years ago and which is known to its German-speaking majority as South Tyrol.

The implications for the UK and Ireland are serious. Brexit is plunging Britain’s constitutional arrangements into uncertainty. Catalan secession would set a morale-boosting example for pro-independence forces in Scotland, who lost a 2014 referendum, and provide fresh arguments for Irish nationalists who support Northern Ireland’s absorption into an all-Irish state. Like Brexit, Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis and the turn to illiberalism in Hungary and Poland, Catalonia may test the EU’s unity, strength and values just when it hopes to capitalise on the self-confidence restored with the election victories of Emmanuel Macron in France and Angela Merkel in Germany. By adding militant separatism to rightwing populism and terrorism on the list of challenges that confront Europe’s democracies, Catalonia may keep alive persistent doubts in Washington, Beijing and Moscow about the EU’s capacity to cope with all its difficulties and press ahead with closer union.

In principle, there is a way out of the impasse: more self-rule for Catalonia, notably in financial matters, combined with an overhaul of Spain’s unwieldy system of 17 autonomous regional governments. Like the UK, Spain is not a true federal state but a country where ad-hoc initiatives have bestowed varying degrees of autonomy on different areas. Greater clarity and fairness in the system would help.

Yet a proposal for more Catalan autonomy would fall short of the aspirations of large numbers of separatists, now heightened to fever pitch, especially on the radical left. Moreover, in the light of this week’s turmoil, it is debatable if Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, and Mr Puigdemont are the right men to cut a deal. One way or another, the dialogue of the deaf must end, or the consequences for Spain and Europe risk being severe.