One of the best things about my quixotic attempt to cover everything is the way different geographies and times inform my coverage of other places. It’s probably the amount of time I spend looking at 19th century history, and the modern Middle East, that allows me to look at modern Europe in ways that others don’t. It’s not just the EU that makes 21st century Europe a more peaceful place than those other places, but it’s a huge, huge part of it. People are letting that aspect of EU stability fade away, unlamented, and almost unnoticed.
Another issue this video highlights is the reductiveness of the standard view of Europe. My alarmism about the stability of Europe looks ridiculous if you focus on Germany, or France, or even the UK, where the issue of separatism is handled quite politely. But those countries were rarely the main problem with Europe. It was always petty revolutions and squabbles of the smaller countries that made Europe such a dangerous place. If you look for the consequences of the EU’s current weakness in the EU’s core countries you won’t see much, but if you look East, or Southwest, as we do in today’s video, the developing problems become obvious.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. In the last video I warned that time may be running out for the European Union. The failure of the EU would have grave implications for Spain and the issue of Catalan independence. In the context of a strong and healthy EU Catalan independence is a serious issue, that merits careful consideration and confident cost benefit analysis. In the context of a fading EU it becomes downright frightening.
Let me explain. The survival and vigor of Catalan independence is often explained by the fact that the Catalans have Barcelona. There are plenty of European nationalities that didnt have vibrant world class cities that are barely memories today. There is something to that.
But there is also something about the history of Spain that makes independence movements more powerful. The confident modern democratic Spain we know today has only really existed in the context of the European Union and its predecessor the European Economic Community.
Spain has one of the grandest histories imaginable. At one point it ruled an empire stretching across the planet. But that empire was more medieval than modern. Spain at its height was about loyalty to a monarch rather than a shared idea of nationalism. The rules governing each region were not uniform, and the Catalan region had its own evolving set of governing institutions that would sometimes work with the king and sometimes against him.
We don’t generally appreciate the extent to which nationalist super states like France, Germany and the United Kingdom were created forcibly in the 1900s. In many cases this involved the active crushing of local languages and cultures that didn’t have literate elites and cities like Barcelona to protect them.GOOGLE OCCITAN GOOGLE CORNISH
This forging of these united nationalisms required levels of industrialization and literacy, and centralized states that weren’t really available before the 19th century.
Spain couldn’t use those tools because by the 19th Century Spain was a mess. The titan with the planet spanning empire of the 1500s and 1600s was long gone. It opened the 1800s occupied by France. After they kicked out Napoleon they spent another decade or so losing all their mainland American colonies at great expense.
Needless to say none of this covered the central government in Madrid with glory. It continued to exist of course, and had some good decades here and there, but it also fought a series of civil wars between 1833 and 1876. These wars were about systems of government, but they were also about the privileges of Catalonia and other regions as well.
So Spain got the industrialization and the literacy boost, in the cities at least, but it never really got the centralization. Some people gravitated towards ideas of Spanish nationalism, similar to contemporary ideas of Frenchness or Britishness, but others gravitated towards regional identities. Some gravitated towards both.
This 19th Century Confusion led to a lot of 20th century horror. The Spanish Civil War, a prelude to World War 2 involved regional aspirations as well. Franco, the fascist dictator that won that civil war crushed those aspirations for 40 years.
When democracy finally returned to Spain in the late 1970s it was always going to include some sort of recognition for Spain’s different regional nationalities. One of the strands behind the Spanish drive for democracy was the desire to join the European Economic Community, which happened in 1986. I think it is fair to claim that the prize of a customs union with Europe made Catalan leaders less likely to press for Full independence. Catalonia is one of Spain’s richest regions and free trade across that border was pretty appealing.
Spain granted a degree of autonomy to Catalonia in 1979, which was expanded in 2006. These statutes are the reason Catalonia legally has a parliament and a president whose name I am not even going to attempt to pronounce. During the 1990s and the early 2010s developments like this were a fascinating topic. The EU was bringing greater uniformity, but also seemed to allow for greater autonomy for regions like Scotland and Catalonia. The fact that this autonomy was attained in a peaceful orderly fashion was historically unprecedented, and that’s a benefit that the EU provided.
The flip side of course, is that we probably wouldn’t be seeing what we are seeing now in Catalonia, without the past ten years of EU failure. The unified currency made recovery from the financial crisis more difficult.
Spain was one of the hardest hit countries with a 9 percent drop in GDP and a recession that lasted a full five years. Things finally began to turn around in 2014, but by this point some parties in the Catalonian parliament were fed up. As one of the richer regions they were sick of supporting the central government and not getting much in return.
So they decided to have a referendum on independence in October of 2017. The Spanish government did not like that, tried to block the referendum legally and physically, and dissolved Catalonia’s government after their parliament declared independence on October 27th 2017.
Now it’s important to emphasize that just how much support independence has in Catalonia itself is unclear. Yes the referendum results were overwhelmingly for independence, and the parliament approved it, but the population that voted may not have been representative, and the parliamentary majority was very slim.
The results of the elections for the new Catalan parliament elected in December were similarly ambiguous. The largest single party elected was anti Independence. BUT the pro independence parties all together control more seats. BUT the vote that elected that majority is well under a majority of the voters. It’s going to remain a big mess for the months and years to come.
Up until now things have remained relatively peaceful. Catalonia’s small tradition of revolutionary terrorism has not restarted. The consensus seems to be that it is Spain that has overreacted and used too much violence in its response to the referendum. It is clear to me that Spain has moderated its response to avoid EU condemnation. So far no one has been killed. But how long is that going to last?
The EU has been a calming factor throughout this dispute. On the one hand they are willing to provide refuge for Catalonia’s fugitive president in Brussels. But on the other hand they have made it very clear that an independent Catalonia would not be welcomed in the EU.
EU failure may have contributed to this issue, but it is also an EU success that it has not yet spiralled into violence. Talking about fighting in Catalonia may seem alarmist, but it is only EU influence that makes the idea of violence over autonomy issues seem strange. Look at Iraq, or Turkey, or Burma, or Spain itself less than a century ago. If the EU fades away, Europe will lose its immunity to its own history. In Catalonia and everywhere else.
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