BERLIN – Europe finally appears to have moved past its multi-year economic crisis, but it remains unsettled. For every reason for optimism, there always seems to be a new cause for concern.
In June 2016, a slim majority of British voters chose nostalgia for the nineteenth-century past over whatever promise the twenty-first century might have held. So they decided to jump off a cliff in the name of “sovereignty.” There is much evidence to suggest that a hard landing awaits the United Kingdom. A cynic might point out that it will take a properly functioning “sovereignty” to cushion the impact.
In Spain, the government of the autonomous region of Catalonia is now demanding sovereignty, too. But the current Spanish government is not prosecuting, imprisoning, torturing, and executing the people of Catalonia, as Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s dictatorship once did. Spain is a stable democracy and a member of the European Union, the eurozone, and NATO. For decades now, it has maintained the rule of law in accordance with a democratic constitution that was negotiated by all parties and regions, including Catalonia.
On October 1, the Catalan government held an independence referendum in which less than half – some estimates say a third – of the region’s population participated. By the standards of the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the vote could never be accepted as “free and fair.” In addition to being illegal under the Spanish constitution, the referendum did not even have a voting register to determine who was entitled to participate. Catalonia’s “alternative” referendum invited a clampdown from Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government, which intervened to shut down polling stations and prevent people from casting ballots. This proved to be a political folly of the highest order, because images of the police swinging truncheons at unarmed Catalan protesters conferred a spurious legitimacy on the secessionists. No democracy can win in this kind of conflict. And in the case of Spain, the crackdown conjured up images of the country’s 1936-1939 civil war – its deepest historical trauma to this day. Were Catalonia actually to achieve independence, it would have to find a way forward without Spain or the EU. Spain, with the support of many other member states that worry about their own secessionist movements, would block any Catalan bid for EU or eurozone membership. And without membership in the European single market, Catalonia would face the grim prospect of rapid transformation from an economic powerhouse into an isolated and poor country. But independence for Catalonia would pose a fundamental problem for Europe, too. For starters, no one wants a repeat of the breakup of Yugoslavia, for obvious reasons. But, more to the point, the EU cannot countenance the disintegration of member states, because these states comprise the very foundation upon which it rests.
The EU is an association of nation-states, not regions. Although regions can play an important role within the EU, they cannot stand in as an alternative to member states. If Catalonia were to set a precedent of secession, encouraging other regions to follow suit, the EU would be thrown into a deep, existential crisis. In fact, one could argue that nothing less than the EU’s future is at stake in Catalonia today.
Moreover, the original purpose of the EU was to overcome nation-states’ deficiencies by means of integration – the opposite of secession. It was meant to transcend the state system that had proved so disastrous in the first half of the twentieth century.
Consider Northern Ireland, which has turned out to be a perfect example of how integration within the EU can overcome national borders, bridge historical divides, and ensure peace and stability. Incidentally, the same could be said for Catalonia, which after all owes most of its economic success to Spain’s accession to the EU in 1986. It would be historically absurd for the EU’s member states to enter a phase of secession and disintegration in the twenty-first century. The sheer size of other global players – not least China, India, and the United States – has only made strong intercommunity relations and deeper European integration even more necessary.
One can only hope that reason will prevail, particularly in Barcelona, but also in Madrid. A democratic, intact Spain is too important to be jeopardized by disputes over the allocation of tax revenues among the country’s regions. There is no alternative but for both sides to abandon the trenches they have dug for themselves, come out to negotiate, and find a mutually satisfactory solution that accords with the Spanish constitution, democratic principles, and the rule of law.
The experiences of Spain’s friends and allies could be helpful here. Germany, unlike Spain, is organized as a federation. Yet even in Germany, nothing is as cumbersome and difficult as the never-ending negotiations over fiscal transfers between the federal government and individual states – which is to say, between richer and poorer regions. But an agreement is always eventually reached, and it holds until another dispute arises, at which points negotiations begin anew. To be sure, money is important. But it is not as important as Europeans’ shared commitment to liberty, democracy, and the rule of law. Europe’s prosperity depends on peace and stability, and peace and stability in Europe depend, first and foremost, on whether Europeans will fight for these values.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2017