The success of separatist parties in September’s regional elections in Catalonia sent jitters throughout Europe, as many wondered whether other independent-minded regions around the continent would follow its lead. However, Brussels’ response – essentially remaining silent – deprived the separatist movement of a casus belli, allowing it to degenerate into infighting. If the drive for Catalonia’s independence succeeds, it could spell significant trouble for the European Union, but some natural limitations make that unlikely to happen.
In 2014, the vociferous rise in Euroscepticism seemed as dangerous for the future of the European Union as the Greek crisis. But while Eurosceptic legislators were elected to the European Parliament in large numbers, they have been barely noticeable. In particular, the Eurosceptics failed to put forth new ideas for dealing with the public finance crises in key EU countries. They have not offered consistent strategies to reform the euro area or to enhance growth and employment, nor have they done anything to reduce or contain the power of the EU bureaucracy. This suggests that by keeping a low profile, the EU apparatus easily won the confrontation with its internal critics.
The EU authorities have once again chosen to respond quietly to the latest challenge – the victory of Catalonia’s separatist parties in elections to the regional parliament on September 27. Brussels is clearly betting that the Catalans will eventually reach a compromise with Madrid, giving them some kind of autonomy without forming a new country. Catalonia might continue to be problematic, but EU leaders are clearly hoping the problem remains local and Spanish.
However, if the separatist leaders insist on full independence and the region’s parliament follows their lead – their coalition controls 72 out of the 135 seats – then things could get more complicated. Other European regions might follow Catalonia’s example and the institutional architecture of the European Union could be called into question.
In the first, most probable scenario, the leader of the separatist coalition, Mr Raul Romeva, would find it difficult to follow the 18-month timeline for secession that he promised just after his electoral victory. Mr Romeva’s list of promises is long and includes the drafting of a new constitution for Catalonia, which would then be put to a referendum.
It is by no means certain that Mr Romeva’s deadline will be met, or that the drafting of the constitution will unfold smoothly. Tensions within the two-party winning coalition have already emerged. The first reason for this is that the smaller party (the Popular Unity Candidacy, or CUP) wants to appear as the leading force of the entire movement, an attitude which the majority partner (Together for Yes), which itself is a coalition, finds preposterous – since it is six times larger. Secondly, drafting a constitution is a much more complicated process than declaring independence, requiring specific answers to many vexing questions, and there is little agreement on what those answers should be.
If Catalan independence leaders allow their movement to lose steam and get bogged down in internal squabbling, then a low-profile compromise with Madrid is all but inevitable. Brussels would of course rejoice, since a Catalan flop would surely take the air out of similar movements throughout the continent and possibly encourage further centralisation.
A second, more radical scenario would see the Catalan independence movement gain momentum. In this case, a decisive referendum would take place and its outcome could be convincing enough to make secession inevitable, regardless of how Madrid reacts. Such an outcome would shake Spain, which would lose its richest region and main contributor to the national budget. The country’s relatively fast pace of economic growth (3.1 per cent in the second quarter of 2015) would slow down, and the quality of Spanish public debt, which is already far from stellar, would suffer a major blow.
A victory for Catalan independence would certainly inject new energy into the slumbering separatist movements elsewhere in Europe, possibly forcing at least some Eurosceptic parties to incorporate a strategic option – secession – which they have neglected of late.
For example, Italy’s Northern League party built its reputation in the 1990s by working for the independence of northern Italy from the rest of the country. Nowadays, its leaders have backed down from this breakaway programme; their aim is to replace regional governments with macro-regions, which has even led them to campaign in southern Italy in hopes of expanding their electoral base. The Northern League’s new hobby horse is attacking the euro and EU bureaucracy. What will happen if the Catalan example shows that independence is indeed feasible, and that the electorate prefers independence within the EU and the eurozone, rather than a national government led by populist leaders?
Success for Catalan independence would also pose a dilemma for France’s National Front, whose Eurosceptic leader Marine Le Pen looks set to win one third of the vote in the 2017 presidential elections. At issue would be the best strategy to reduce Eurocrats’ power. The traditional French approach puts power politics first in a head-on confrontation of national interests. Using the threat of secession to force a renegotiation of EU treaties is currently the favoured strategy in the United Kingdom. The Catalan separatists seem to be proposing what economists call institutional competition, in which the new state uses its superior economy, institutions and infrastructure to outcompete its neighbours.
Many Scots would surely celebrate if Catalonia broke away from Spain. In particular, the Scottish National Party would take advantage of the referendum on EU membership that Prime Minister David Cameron has promised and ask for a new vote on independence. Other political groups are warming to the idea, including the Scottish Labour Party, which may yet reconsider its pro-union position.
While Catalonia’s election results are certainly important for the future of Spain, their real significance will only become apparent in a few months. That is when we will see whether the steps taken in Barcelona are sweeping enough to affect the entire EU and local politics in a number of countries. It will be especially important to watch EU member states where Euroscepticism, regional autonomy and even secession are issues being exploited by populist politicians to build support.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that independence movements in EU countries will make much progress over the next 18 months. This prediction rests on two lines of reasoning.
Firstly, the various parties and movements fighting for Catalan independence lack charismatic leaders with prestige, credibility and solid programmes. Catalan President Artur Mas’s party (the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia) is currently under investigation for alleged corruption. The independence coalition has only the vaguest ideas on economic policy and has scarcely bothered to disguise its willingness to negotiate with Madrid, which many perceive as a sign of weakness.
Mr Romeva’s own CV is thin apart from his stint in the European Parliament, which may not be considered an asset. It is far from clear whether the majority of Catalans want to be led into uncharted waters by a man whose main international experience was to serve as an Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) observer in Bosnia and Herzegovina two decades ago. A vote of protest against Madrid should not be interpreted as a vote of confidence for Mr Mas and Mr Romeva.
Secondly, the next few months will be marked by increasing geopolitical tensions. For years, Western Europe has followed the lead of the United States on most global issues, even as European voters grow uneasy about the ancillary role Brussels is playing. It is true that a large part of the European public would like to steer clear of international trouble spots and pursue some kind of isolationist dream, perhaps with a dash of opportunism. But probably even more Europeans believe that a more assertive position is needed. Diminutive new countries would be at a disadvantage in this more threatening global environment – especially if they lack cohesion and leaders with global vision, resolve and experience.
Under today’s conditions, the only European region that might win its independence without wreaking serious havoc is Scotland. Flanders is a somewhat distant second. In both cases, recent history suggests this is not a favourable moment to break away. In times of economic and political turmoil, people look for stability; they avoid rash moves and hazy solutions.
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