Five Europes at play in the ongoing Catalan crisis

The saga of Carles Puigdemont’s exile illustrates just how divided Europe really is

It has become a rallying cry to say that the Catalan crisis – Spain’s jailing of separatist leaders, the flight into exile of some of them who moved fast enough, the recent arrest of exiled president Carles Puigdemont in Germany – is a European problem. But supporters of these jailed or exiled leaders have been generally appalled to see the indifference of the EU; nobody in Brussels seems to want to say anything of substance about either the overly-politicised Spanish judiciary or the quick-to-brutalise Spanish police forces.

But there is another way in which this is an undeniably, unmissably European problem. It shows us just how many Europes there really are in that not-quite-federation that is the EU. Let’s just follow the path of that arrested president, Carles Puigdemont:

1. The Europe of Small Countries. Puigdemont was arrested after giving a talk to Finnish lawmakers. Finland isn't a physically small place, but in terms of its cultural or economic power it is clearly a "small country". Helsinki is a bustling metropolis but you'd be hard pressed to find another Finnish city like it. The Finnish language is far from endangered but it's not much spoken anywhere else, except as a minority tongue in a few other states (Sweden, Norway, Russia). And the language was much weaker when Finland became independent from Russia, which was just over 100 years ago. That sense of being a "young republic" is very much part of the Finnish self-image. This is, for some Catalan separatists, what Catalonia is struggling to become. We could just as well call it "the Irish model".

2. The Europe of Big Powers. This is who arrested Puigdemont. On his way home from the Finnish meeting and driving just across the Danish border, the president in exile found that Spanish security services had tipped off the German police, who stopped his car and took him into custody. Many inside the Catalan movement are justifiably worried that the German judiciary is going to identify way more with its "peer", that is to say another big, historically significant nation-state, than it would with a small sub-state entity seeking to join that club.


3. The Europe of Centre-Right Ethnic Movements. This is who sheltered Puigdemont in exile. I refer there to Belgium's Flemish majority, some of whose leaders seem to identify with the Catalan movement. Belgium's Dutch-speaking Flemings make up about 60 per cent of the population, but there is a strong sense of historical grievance against the French-speaking Walloons, who some see as dominant.

There is a very real Flemish nationalist movement in Belgium, represented mostly by political parties on the right (such as the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie or New Flemish Alliance). Puigdemont speaks excellent French, but when Spanish authorities tried to have him extradited when he first fled to Belgium, he elected to have all proceedings heard in Dutch. It is impossible to read that as anything other than a nod to the Flemish nationalists who have tried to make him (and other members of his cabinet) feel welcome.

4. The Europe of Centre-Left Separatists. Puigdemont's centre-right party changes names a lot; it is currently known as Junts per Catalunya, although just since 2015 it or its allied groups have also been known as Convergència i Unió, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català or PDeCAT, and Junts pel Sí ("Together for the Yes", which was actually a multi-party coalition).

This question of "which Europe" is the key question facing the Catalan movement

Their main rival in the nationalist movement has been around since 1931: Esquerra Republicana, or the Republican Left. This is a social-democratic party founded just before the Spanish Civil War; they formed the first devolved Catalan government in the 1930s. In post-Franco Catalonia’s electoral politics they’ve been mostly second-placers, but remain strong. Their leader, Oriol Junqueras, was Puigdemont’s vice-president (before being sent to a Spanish jail on charges of sedition, rebellion and misuse of public finds). Their junior member Roger Torrent is currently speaker of the Catalan parliament. They are much closer in their politics to the Scottish Nationalist Party.

Clara Ponsatí, who is currently fighting extradition from Scotland, was a member of Puigdemont’s electoral coalition Junts pel Sí, but was definitely on the left side of that (as a younger woman she was involved with left-wing parties). The current reality of Catalan separatism may be seeming more and more Flemish, but its heritage, along with a substantial minority of its grassroots, is much more Scottish in spirit.

5. The Europe of Exiles. There is another left party in Catalan politics, a far-left party, descended from the anarchists of the Civil War. It's small but it always seems to get just enough seats in the Catalan parliament to play kingmaker, and to exert serious pressure on instinctively moderate politicians like Puigdemont to act more rashly (to, say, declare independence unilaterally). That is the Candidatura d'Unitat Popular, known as the CUP. One of their most vocal members, Anna Gabriel, also speaks very good French; she's currently in exile in Geneva, where she is resisting extradition back to Spain. This is a little different than the exiles in (3) or (4). She didn't come to Switzerland because she identifies with, say, Switzerland's remaining Jura separatists. She came there for the same reason that so many small-nation exiles have fled to European metropoles like Paris, London, or that erstwhile home of the UN: they are cosmopolitan refuges from the narrowness of big powers. She provides the link to exiles like those who fled the Bolshevik invasion of the short-lived Democratic Republic of Georgia (1918-1921; happy centenary!) and set up a government in exile in Paris, with a strong outpost in Geneva.

This question of “which Europe” is the key question facing the Catalan movement. A strong majority of that movement (although probably a narrow minority of Catalonia overall) clearly wants to be a “young republic”; wants to be Ireland or Finland. A tiny minority dreams of being a big power, led by the economic powerhouse of Barcelona; the actions of the Germans are reminding them of how that crowd really sees things. A worrying number of Catalan leaders seem to see themselves as Flemish: nationalist in a conservative, inward-looking way. A scrappy minority of those leaders clearly see themselves and the heritage of their movement as Scottish: nationalist in a progressive, civic rather than ethnic kind of way. The real threat is that those wild-eyed idealists of the CUP may turn out to be the one who got it right: that the future of Catalan independence is going to be defined by loss, exile, and cosmopolitan idealism.

CUP deputies famously dress like students even when sitting in the Catalan parliament, known as the Generalitat. In public forums I’ve seen Esquerra’s deputies treat them with the affection older kids show to younger siblings; those of PDeCAT (or whatever they’re calling themselves this week) sometime show them the kind of impatience that parents show children. What an irony it would be if those (mostly) young T-shirt wearers turned out to be the ones with the clearest grasp of the reality of the situation.

Jerry White is Canada Research Chair in European Studies at Dalhousie University