by John J. Metzler
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
UNITED NATIONS – A dangerous and potentially riveting political fault line stretches from Spain across Europe to Ukraine as smoldering separatist movements have gained new strength and standing.
From Catalonia in Spain to the eastern regions of Ukraine with Corsica in between, the nationalist rift runs through the European Union to Russia. Deep cultural and linguistic divides are prevalent. Equally the political populism which triggered Britain’s BREXIT vote to leave the European Union has fueled separatist sentiments.
But like Spain’s Basque regions, Catalonia already has autonomy within the central government in Madrid. Culturally and linguistically Catalonia’s moves are rooted in centuries of a proud identity and reflect a reality that the small northeast region of 7.5 million people centered in Barcelona remains of hub of prosperity. Yet despite its wealth, Catalonia remains the most indebted autonomous region in Spain.
On October 1st, Catalonia held a independence referendum in which the regional government claimed an epic victory; while 90 percent of voters backed independence, only 43 percent of those eligible even cast a ballot! The vote moreover was illegal under the Spanish constitution.
Yet the brash referendum move by the left wing regional government in Barcelona, while also igniting a constitutional crisis, deliberately gave the false impression of a Catalan David facing down a Spanish Goliath in the central government in Madrid.
The Spanish daily ABC asserted editorially that Catalans had been brainwashed by a ‘radicalized and intransigent minority.”
All was set for the next act by the region’s pugnacious president Charles Puigdemont; a full declaration of independence! Happily at least for the moment reality intervened.
Massive popular marches across Spain and in Barcelona itself, rallied to Spanish unity. El Pais, the national newspaper headlined, “Historic Manifestations against Separatism and for the Constitution.”
Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy launched a political counteroffensive underscoring that the regional government had acted outside the Law and the Constitution. He warned that “Catalonia is a battle for Europe.” Soon even the Socialists and the leftist mayor of Barcelona opposed independence.
Catalonia’s delirium soon turned to disappointment when Puigdemont pulled back from the brink and delayed his planned formal call for independence. Whether the populists reverse this stand is open to question as many far Left elements in the regions have turned the issue from pro Catalan independence to anti-Spain sentiment.
“A romantic framing of foreign crises where self-determination is involved is a common trap. The imagery of ‘oppressors” vs ‘freedom fighters’ is appealing and, to their credit, the leaders of Catalonia have been successful in promoting their agenda abroad in just such terms …
Combined with the soft power appeal of cosmopolitan Barcelona, there is much confusion abroad on the nature of the current crisis in Catalonia, and myths and stereotypes abound,”according to Spanish political observer Francisco de Borja Lasheras of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Madrid.
Britain’s Spectator magazine opined, “So the illegal referendum in Catalonia last week was a long-meditated revenge by the left and an attempted coup d’état. It affected the rights not only of all Catalans, but of all Spaniards.”
Moreover what of the European Union angle? An independent Catalonia would be outside the European Union much as would an independent Scotland. The idea that after unilaterally breaking with Madrid, an independent Catalonia would automatically be admitted into the EU with its trade and political benefits is simply nonsense.
During this giddy but worrying episode, neighboring France was particularly critical of the Catalan independence gambit. Why? The Mediterranean island of Corsica (birthplace of Napoleon ), has long been a hotbed of militant separatism. The French government knows that a spark from nearby Spain can easily revive the smoldering Corsican debate.
Moreover Ukraine which equally has a cultural/ethnic fault line in the eastern regions, has endured violent manipulation by Russia over the past few years.
Though some of the nationalist cultural aspirations are valid, they threaten the wider European Union not to mention established democratic nation states such as Spain.
Lessons of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s not to mind the bloody Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s where Catalonia had become an epicenter of the conflict, serve as somber signposts to the often ultimate consequence of untamed separatism.
Many of these issues are rooted in an affair of the heart more than of the mind; in other words what would be the viability of an unrecognized Catalan micro state the size of Belgium?
Catalans must open dialogue within Spain to sort out the widening rifts before they become entrenched divisions. As Mariano Rajoy asserted, “It is urgent to put an end to the situation that Catalonia is living.”
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China.