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Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The rise of regional nationalism – The menace of Catalonia’s independence movement

While Greece might break-up form the Euro-Zone, there is another break-up candidate in the news – although not in monetary terms. Yesterday, around 1.5 million people were participating at a Catalan independence rally in Barcelona. The date for this rally was deliberately chosen: on 11 September 1714, Catalan troops were defeated by the Spanish Bourbon King Philip V. after the city of Barcelona has been sieged for 14 months. With this defeat, Catalonia lost its independent administration and was integrated into the Spanish Kingdom. Today, Catalans celebrate this day as their national public holiday – the so called “Diada”.

This rally is, however, nothing new. The Catalan independence movement was on a constant political agenda for the past decades, especially after the transition period after the death of former Spanish Caudillo Francisco Franco y Bahamonde in 1975. With an own language, an own history, an own identity, and own political parties, Catalonia has been pushed its autonomy ambitions to the public for nearly 40 years, rejuvenating it after more than 30 years of suppression under the Franco regime.

Unlike the Basque independence move, however, the Catalan efforts so far remained relatively free of violence and terrorism. While the Basque terrorist organization ETA (“Euskadi ta Askatasuna” = Basque Homeland and Freedom) and its smaller affiliated underground groups did not lead to an overall enforcement of Basque independence in Basque public, the violence free Catalan movement did increase over the past few years.

The public support for independence has been even increasing in the view of the deteriorating Spanish economic crisis. Although highly indebted itself (with a deficit of 42 billion Euros even the most indebted of all regions), Catalonia is still the economical strongest of the 17 autonomous regions in Spain. As such, Catalonia also pays the highest amounts of tax revenues to the central state’s budget. You can already imagine what the problem is: the Spanish central states subsidises the poorer regions rather than reinvesting government expenditures to Catalonia. Having a feeling that the central government in Madrid is wasting Catalan taxes the separatism movement is gaining more and more supporters. A recent poll indicates that now 51% of the 7 million Catalan people prefer independence and the re-establishing of a sovereign Catalan nation.

The Christian conservative Catalan party CiU (“Convergéncia I Unió” = Convergence and Union) and Catalan Prime Minister Artur Mas do more and more feel left out by the central government in Madrid. This is not only related to terms of identity, or a mere taxation question; it is also a new rising opposition tendency against Spanish centralism per se. In fact, Catalans regard themselves not only as an autonomous region (like the 16 other Spanish regions on an outside the Iberian Peninsula), but above all as a European nation. One of the demands for Catalan independence is also an immediate EU membership. This was one of the slogans chanted on yesterday’s rally: “Catalunya, Nou Estat d’Europa” (Catalonia, new European State) – European flags waving alongside with the red and yellow striped Catalan flag – while Spanish and French flags have been burned in public.

The problem is: even if Catalonia succeeds to achieve independence in the future, it cannot become an EU member overnight. There are no provisions in the EU treaties about a European region becoming independent or even providing the chance for a quick membership. As a result, in case of independence, Catalonia would be treated as any potential accession candidate and would have to go through the entire membership accession procedure. We all know the time consuming processes necessary to go through the accession requirements, and this is going to take years. We know that from the last accession waves in 2004 and 2007, and Croatia has been experiencing this for the past years as well – so will the other accession candidates.

Catalonia was hit by the real estate crisis in the same way as any other Mediterranean Spanish region, especially alongside the holiday resorts of the Costa Brava or the Costa Dorada. Althouhg tempting, Independence will neither lead to an immediate economic relief, nor even to a consolidation of the Catalan budget. On the contrary, independence would even make things worse. An independent Catalonia will stop receiving funds from the central government, and it will even cut itself off from EU regional funds. Independence might have an ideological, cultural, or even national support. In economic terms, however, it will have devastating consequences. Catalan politics, public, and independence supporters will have to consider all impacts of a break-up from Spain.

The Spanish constitution forbids its autonomous regions to classify themselves as nations. That is in fact a provision already violated by Catalonia in 2006 when it added the term of a “self-defined nation” to its constitution. Being keen to restore its independence after the – what it calls – “violent accession” by Philip V. in 1714, the independence movement and the more than one million supporters are simply blinded by the economic disaster and assuming that a political and economic break-up from Spain would provide an easy and efficient solution for the Catalan economy. The simple matter of fact is that it will not be the case. The Catalan policy makers and the Catalan people are very well advised to re-evaluate their independence calls, and take a closer look to the economic consequences. Although being just as seriously affected by the crisis as any other Spanish region, their history and their own boasted so called nationalism are no reasonable arguments for more than their current autonomous status within the Spanish nation. It is simple as that: Spain cannot do it without Catalonia; neither can Catalonia do it by itself.

This Catalan rally is also a signal to the Basques’ own separatism tendencies. The regional elections in the Basque Country will be held on 21 October 2012, and analysts already anticipate a notable vote increase for the Basque national party PNV (“Partido Nacionalista Vasco”). But even the ETA affiliated radical nationalist and separatist “Bildu” party (= Gather) might get some votes from the far right nationalists and underground separatism activists.

Separatist movements have been a Spanish problem for decades, and they are currently gaining. The central government in Madrid is seriously concerned about the mood in Catalonia and it knows very well that they could hardly do anything about, if the crisis gets more out of hand. Just before the rally on Tuesday, 82 year old Jordi Pujol, who was the Catalan Prime Minister for more than 30 years, had visited Scotland to observe the Scottish independence progress.  A symbolic act though, probably even an emerging union of separatist regional movements across Europe.

The tragedy is that increasing regionalism and separatism becomes a main threat for central national integrity, as well as for overall European unity. But it is no useful solution for the far bigger European crisis at the present time at all.

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