The disuniting states of Europe
Tomorrow the people of Catalonia are likely to vote for a party that promotes independence from Spain. It’s not the only separatist campaign in Europe
Rumours of the imminent break-up of the EU’s nation states are greatly exaggerated. None of the candidates for independence on this map has more than a 50 per cent chance of achieving statehood in the immediate future. Most have much less.
Yet there is no doubt that something is shifting in the EU’s geopolitics. For Irish people there is something breathtaking in the calm way Scotland may now be walking away from the same connection with Britain that we had to break in bloody conflict. It’s a prospect that, incidentally, raises new identity issues for Northern Ireland.
And in Spain the long-overdue decision by Basque pro-independence radicals to abandon terrorism has been rewarded by substantial electoral advances.
But the biggest surprise is in Catalonia. In tomorrow’s autonomous elections there a people renowned for canny common sense will almost certainly take a leap towards the completely uncharted adventure of a referendum on independence.
We can see broadly similar trends elsewhere. It can hardly be an accident that this is happening at a moment when the whole EU is up in a heap, with the financial crisis revealing frightening deficits in our political systems.
Should the prospect of new states emerging add to our anxieties? Or should we accept it as a salutary attempt to bring our political institutions more into line with deeply felt identities? The answer, I believe, is that we should look at each case on its merits and be very cautious about swallowing purist arguments from any side.
We should be sceptical when Spain talks about “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” in its constitution. The nation state is a human invention and not an eternal and essential reality. What humans have joined together, humans may indeed put asunder – as long as they do it democratically.
But we should also be sceptical when Basques, Catalans or any other peoples talk about their own “national rights”, as if they were essential and absolute, and abandon solidarity with less fortunate regions.
A troubling common factor in some of the current “breakaway” regions is that they are among the most prosperous parts of their existing states. This is true of Catalonia, the Basque Country, Padania and Flanders.
These regions often stereotype their respective southern neighbour – Andalusia, Calabria, Wallonia – as lazy and irresponsible.
Ironically, in doing so they mirror the attitude of the elite EU nation states – Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, for example – which complain that their hard-earned wealth is being squandered by the Mediterranean countries and by Ireland.
It is reasonable for rich regions to insist that poor ones also pull their weight. But these complaints are often also a cover for failures at home. In the German case there is a refusal to acknowledge that their own banks played recklessly in our casino institutions. In Catalonia the nationalist government inflated a property bubble that caused many of its people’s woes.