A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Spanish Flu


No party to the Catalan crisis looks good right now. But by failing to mediate in this newest outbreak of nationalism, the EU stands to lose its soul.

© REUTERS/Albert Gea

It began like an Asterix and Obelix story. In 2009 a tiny village – not Gallic, but Catalan – rose up against the central authority, in this case Madrid.

In the Catalan Arenys de Munt community, a network of pipes drains the water that flows under the Rambla and its sycamore trees. However, the pipes cannot handle the massive amount of rain the region experiences in the fall, and the Rambla is often flooded, with the magnificent sycamore trees in danger of drowning. The community of barely 9,000 inhabitants has long debated what to do to address the situation.

In December 2009, as autumn threatened to submerge the community once again, a new idea was proposed: rather than Arenys de Munt, Madrid would be responsible for the problem in the future. After all, the financial means to renovate the piping was only lacking, according to then-Mayor Carles Morà, because “we send much more money to Madrid than we get back.” The mayor called for a referendum to determine whether the community would manage its own affairs in the future, and a significant part of the population enthusiastically supported the proposal – independence seemed at the time to be the town’s philosopher’s stone, an alchemical miracle that would address economic problems and ensure lasting financial stability.

The referendum took place on September 13, 2009. Only 41 percent of eligible voters decided to take part, with 96 percent of those voting for independence. In other words, only 39 percent of eligible voters voted to separate from Madrid. However, the fight for independence continued. In 2013, the community cut its ties to the central state and declared itself the “free and sovereign territory of Catalonia.”

That might sound a little overblown, even unintentionally funny. But Catalonia was not satisfied with symbolic gestures. Other cities and villages followed the Arenys de Munt community, and eventually the whole Catalan regional government under Carles Puigdemont declared its intention to break free from the Spanish state. Though Catalonia’s efforts to achieve more autonomy, even full state sovereignty, have a long history, European publics and elites were caught entirely by surprise by what seemed like a sudden outbreak of nationalism – especially because the Catalan conflict feels so out of place in the current tableaux of European crises.

Secession and nationalism have a bad reputation: they are atavistic, backward, and xenophobic. That applies just as much to the separatists in the Donetsk as it does to the rebellious governments in Poland and Hungary, and to the Lega Nord in Italy, a party that works aggressively to safeguard the wealth of its own region against the country’s poorer southern regions. Just recently, more than 90 percent of voters in Veneto and Lombardy voted in (non-binding) referenda for significantly more autonomy, above all in financial matters. This separatism is at its core aggressive, angry, and anti-cosmopolitan.

For quite a while, Catalan nationalism did not seem like a threat to Europe; like the Scottish independence movement, it seemed friendly, cosmopolitan, and explicitly pro-European. In short, it seemed like there was nothing to worry about. So when the Catalans intentionally plunged Spain into a veritable state crisis it came as a shock.

Centuries’-Old Problems

Nations are still just “imagined communities,” in the words of political scientist Benedict Anderson. And today, by invoking imagined ancient traditions, a wave of nationalism aimed at the breakup of the EU is gaining steam. Enlightened contemporary thinkers consider this use of the past illegitimate; they maintain that the conflicts of the present must be solved in the present. However, they miss the fallacy in the word “past:” once a thing has happened, it can never really pass. The conflict in Catalonia today is just the latest manifestation of the centuries’-old problem of the Iberian Peninsula.

Long before there was a Spain ruled from Madrid, Catalonia was a significant power in its own right. From 1137 on Catalonia led a community of states that would become one of the leading powers of the Mediterranean through its dynastic connections, a power that even issued its own currency. As a trading state it was externally oriented, self-confident, and open to the world. When the power of the Castilians later expanded outwards from the center, bringing with it a strictly enforced state unity and the Castellano language, there was resistance along the entire periphery of the peninsula, though only Portugal managed to return to independent statehood in 1640.

In the Basque country, this resistance was and still is ethnically motivated, which is one reason that it has turned hostile and xenophobic – and why in the second half of the 20th century it committed acts of barbaric atrocity. For the Catalans, however, secession was never a goal to be won at any price. Furthermore, their sense of self was never based on ethnicity, but rather on their nation’s culture: they wanted their right to self-governance back.

In the Spanish War of Succession at the beginning of the 18th century the majority of the Catalans found themselves on the losing side. The victorious Philipp V marched into Barcelona on September 11, 1714, and with one stroke did away with all the remaining institutions of Catalan self-governance. It was an event that was etched deeply into Catalan national memory: September 11 is an ecstatically celebrated national holiday, the Diada Nacional de Catalunya. As is often the case with history, the day of their greatest defeat has become a day for new beginnings.

After the end of an eight-year-long dictatorship under General Prima de Rivera, Catalonia’s hour struck in 1931. Spain had become a republic, and Catalonia got its full self-determination back. The entirety of its institutions of governance, the Generalitat de Catalunya, was recreated. But it lasted only a moment: When Francisco Franco and his Falange won the civil war in 1939, all rights to autonomy were eliminated in Catalonia, which had – like many other regions – fought for the Republic until the bitter end. Until Franco’s death in 1975, the Catalan language remained forbidden.

Even today, when many Catalans think of Madrid, the capital of a democratic state, they think back to Franco. Franco’s excessive push for Spanish unity has given it an ugly reputation – especially in Catalonia, it stands for Madrid’s attempts to play the center of the country against the rest, and the suppression of Spain’s diversity.

Ruling from on High

As soon as the dictator was dead, cries arose from all over the country for more autonomy. As though from nowhere, the September 11, 1977 Diada saw more than 1.5 million participants demonstrating, one of the largest demonstrations in Spanish history. That certainly made an impression: a process of regionalization was introduced, which seemed to be the only way to avoid violence. Catalan was allowed once more, there was suddenly Catalan TV, and the Teatro Lliure, the first theater in Catalan, opened in Barcelona. When King Juan Carlos visited Catalonia and spoke a sentence in Catalan during a public speech, the excitement was enormous. Everything seemed to be turning out well.

But when discussions switched from software to hardware – that is, from the language and culture to politics and the economy – things became more difficult. The government in Madrid slowed things down wherever it could, dragging its feet for years in talks over a statute governing the region’s autonomy. The Catalan draft read simply: “Catalonia is a nation.” In the final draft, however, an agonizingly awkward formulation was used to dodge the difficult questions: “Catalonia, as a nationality, exercises its self-governance as an autonomous community in agreement with the constitution and the present statute, which presents its fundamental identity norms.”

Madrid was simply not ready to transform the senate into some kind of body for regional representation. That would have bound the centrifugal forces of the autonomy movements back to the central state. Instead, Madrid dealt with the autonomous communities in an almost feudal way. It allowed them different levels of autonomy – in the case of Catalonia, for example, it allowed the creation of a Catalan police force and made moves, albeit limited ones, on the question of more tax autonomy for the region. Catalonia became autonomous in several areas. The process was not a dialogue, but rather a declaration from on high. At its core, the central government was only ready to present the autonomous communities with a sort of chaperoned self-governance.

Now the stubbornness on both sides has allowed the situation to escalate to a point that was only recently unthinkable in a democratic Europe. Without showing the slightest interest in the appearance of legitimacy, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has stuck to a legalistic position, constantly returning to the provisions of the Spanish constitution. In one interview, he said, “The only plan that we have is to make sure that the future Catalan government abides by the law. (…) Everyone can have their own political opinion, whatever that might be. But everyone must respect the law, otherwise we live in the Wild West.” His party, the Partido Popular, can trace its roots back to the Franco regime; for this reason alone, he would have been better off behaving less dictatorially.

In a situation of such high tension, when the government is nearly at the point of using force to assert its authority, references to the letter of the law cannot suffice alone. The Spanish government needs to behave in a way that builds a relationship with the opposition; brinkmanship will only guarantee that the conflict is prolonged.

Revolutionary Folly

But Madrid’s stubbornness in no way justifies the behavior of the Catalan nationalists. The region, especially Barcelona, is prospering, and the money it transfers to the central government is hardly leaving it impoverished. It has already achieved cultural and linguistic autonomy, and further steps toward self-determination will be difficult to achieve with an unfriendly central government. Spain has also given the region more weight in the EU – the EU documents concerning Catalonia are now translated into Catalan in Brussels, and in questions concerning their interests, Catalonia and the Basque Country can take part in the EU’s Council of Ministers meetings. The EU promotes the Catalan cultural scene, and one of the few EU Commission representatives sits in Barcelona. In several European capitals, including Berlin, Catalonia has its own representative, who the Catalans hope to someday turn into a full ambassador.

In light of all this, the secessionist furor seems slightly crazy. Full sovereignty has become an obsession, and those who buy into it cannot be swayed by arguments or facts. It hardly matters that only a minority – albeit a significant one – has taken part in the referenda so far, or that the region’s desire to leave Spain and immediately be admitted to the EU is unlikely to pan out. If one is being charitable to the Catalans, one could say that they are indulging in romantic revolutionary play acting. The separatists are dusting off an ancient, almost mythical conception of a people – and one that historically has often led to violence. Absolutely no one wants to get involved in the difficult work of compromise and real policy-making.

The fact that the Catalan secessionists dream of a peaceful state makes them no less foolish. This nationalism will contribute to the destruction of the political world, whether it wants to or not. Already, all other Catalan political priorities have been displaced by the independence question. But nationhood is not everything, and not even the most important thing. The strong minority pushing for Catalonia to break off from Spain is preventing the region from addressing its larger everyday problems: work, social issues, infrastructure, education, digitalization, and in general the question of how the region can succeed in a changing world.

History has shown us clearly that whenever the nation trumps all other issues – whether for ethnic or cultural reasons – the end is never good. Europe does not need another nation. It is telling that Russia’s disinformation campaigns have been active in Catalonia: Russia hopes that powerful secessionist tendencies in Catalonia will make its own annexation of Crimea look slightly better – and if the Catalan conflict destabilizes a Spain that has just recently emerged from an economic crisis, so much the better for Moscow.

The EU’s Dangerous Discretion

The EU is under incredible pressure. This new wave of nationalism, which sometimes aims to create entirely new states and sometimes aims to renationalize existing states, is hardly helping. Catalonia has shown that nationalist folly can also be peaceful and cosmopolitan. Does that mean that the EU’s existence is being questioned from both the left and the right, from the know-nothings and the elite? Does that threaten the EU’s basic existence?

The EU has decided to come down decisively on the side of the central government in Madrid. As the Spanish constitution does not allow a region to break away, the Commission is correct here – as it is when it points to the “Prodi Doctrine,” which specifies that a breakaway region will not be considered a member of the union until it completes a regular application process. Nevertheless, it was not smart to stick to these stances alone. To ridicule the secessionists, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that the EU comprised 27 member states, not 98, and he has argued that a Catalan state would be too small for membership in the EU. But this is coming from a man who was once prime minister of a state that did not even have 600,000 citizens (i.e. Luxembourg); Catalonia has nearly three times the inhabitants, more than 13 existing EU member states.

The European institutions are not wrong in their fear that support from Brussels for the separatists, even ambivalent support, could trigger secessionist movements all over Europe. Nevertheless, in supporting Madrid unequivocally they have overlooked something important: since its foundation, the European Community has never been a traditional organization in which states alone cooperate towards common goals.

The EU is a community of laws and norms based directly on the rights and responsibilities of individuals. In 1963 the European Court of Justice established that the functions of the common market affected “the community of affiliated individuals directly” because the treaty establishing the European Common Market is “more than an agreement based on the reciprocal duties between the states that are party to the treaty.”

Since the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht there has been the idea of European citizenship: every citizen of the EU is not only a citizen of their own state, but also a direct citizen of the EU. For the EU, the interests of the individual citizens count just as much as the interests of the member states. In this sense, the European Community – a supranational body from its very beginnings – should serve as a preview of new forms of association that are possible. The EU cannot risk losing this element without also losing its substance, its soul, and its historical uniqueness.

Losing Its Soul

And that is exactly what it is doing in the case of Catalonia. In the words of legal scholar Bardo Fassbender, the EU is behaving like an old-school international organization, defending the position of Spain, its member state, without compromise. In doing so, it is hurting itself.

At the moment, the Spanish-Catalan conflict seems intractable, and it is unlikely the autonomist energy will simply dissipate. The EU should become involved without fear of an autonomist chain reaction, and become what is has long been on paper: a mediator with authority that will address both the justified concerns of the Madrid government and the equally justified concerns of the Catalan nationalists. The EU has to take the concerns of its separatist citizens seriously. Here the EU could actually prove it has the authority that its founding treaties have long established. Nationalism could then become the catalyst that pushes European unification a step further.