The European Union has sustained a number of crises over the past decade. The financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 and the resulting recession were the first two blows. This was followed by the debt crisis in the ensuing years. The economic slowdown overwhelmed a number of countries, that had been used to heavy government outlays, that had been funded mostly through deficit spending.
The next issue that strained the fabric of the Union, was the massive surge in migration to Europe from North Africa and the Middle East. This spurt in refugees surged in 2014, and resulted in a tidal wave of migrants in 2015 and 2016. The distribution of these arrivals and the enormous resulting costs of accommodation on individual European nations, has created an extensive political backlash.
A militarily resurgent Russia, first with a war in Georgia in 2008 and a few years later in the Ukraine, put an additional burden on the buckling unity of the Union. The Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the outbreak of a civil war in eastern Ukraine, forced the nations of Europe to confront an increasingly aggressive Russia.
Last year, the European leaders were taken aback with the referendum results in the United Kingdom. Contrary to conventional wisdom and a number of national polls, the electorate voted to take the country out of the European Union (EU). The British government has pledged to move on what has been termed the Brexit, later this year.
As the institutions of Europe struggle with low growth, excessive debt, negative interest rates, restive migrants and new bouts of terrorism the next crisis is already simmering. This one has deep roots in Europe and has led to nearly endless centuries of conflict and war. It is the powerful forces associated with nationalism.
With Europe in ruins following World War II, and the division of the continent by the superpowers of the Soviet Union and the United States, the siren call of nationalism had largely been discredited. The resulting Cold War between the communist East and the democratic West, kept European nationalist movements to a minimum.
As the Cold War ended with the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of both the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, the flames of nationalism were rekindled. Civil wars in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, created a new instability and the arrival of a number of new countries in Europe.
The extension of the EU to the east and southeast, provided a sort of dampening effect on many of these movements. The common laws of the new Europe, provided a framework for the legal protection of minorities in the many nations that comprised the rapidly expanding European Union.
Occasionally independence movements would flare to the point of creating a large enough disturbances, that there would be the appearance of new countries in the 1990’s. Czechia and Slovakia are two examples. So are the former nations of Yugoslavia beginning with Slovenia, Croatia, and extending to Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia.
Others would handled by referendum. The latest of these was the one held in Scotland, in the autumn of 2014. If the vote had been successful there, it might well of led to the breakup of the United Kingdom. Although the ultimate result was close, the effort still failed. However, the issue of sovereignty for Scotland, will not go away any time soon.
Another strong secessionist movement can be found in Spain. One of the richest areas of the country is Catalonia. The region has continued to petition the central government in Madrid, for the right to hold a referendum.
Central authorities have resisted such attempts, correctly assuming the vote unlike in Scotland, might well favor separation. Once that happens, the drive for independence would be inevitable.
In July of 2016, the regional parliament of Catalonia approved an independence referendum for September over objections from authorities in Madrid. The latter argue, that the region has no legal right to full autonomy.
Mariano Rajoy the conservative Prime Minister of Spain, had taken the step to ask the Constitutional Court, to annul the decision permitting the referendum altogether. An earlier court ruling in 2015, had rejected a plebiscite for Catalan independence.
The regional president of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, was determined to hold it regardless. In addition, he won a vote of confidence in the local Parliament. Support for independence stands around 48%, which is lower than it was a few years ago.
In the end, the Rajoy government was successful in derailing the September vote.
Those who favor independence, cite that the economic,political, and cultural grievances that have accumulated over the centuries, cannot be solved by remaining within Spain.
Catalonia had been granted by Spain’s constitution more self-government than exists in any other part of the country, or even Europe for that matter. The 1978 document granted the region control over schools, hospitals, prisons and even the police.
Catalan is known to be the the main language taught in area schools.
Over the decades Catalonia has been able to gain additional concessions to gain more local power and increased revenues for the special status it hold within the country.
The political balance began to shift in 2010. It began with the Constitutional Tribunal modifying the new autonomy law, which recognized the region as a nation within Spain. The statute had also granted additional legal authority to the Catalans which was now rolled back somewhat.
The above law had been approved earlier in Catalonia by referendum and the Spanish parliament in Madrid. The political reaction by local politicians was almost immediate.
The second impetus towards independence had arrived two years earlier. The aforementioned financial crisis, that led to the economic downturn created new tensions between Catalonia and the central government in Madrid.
The situation is made worse by the fact Catalonia pays more to the central government than it gets in return. The list of grievances made by the Catalans include the antiquated regional transports systems, while the capital area has seen a major investment made in this sector of the economy.
As the real estate boom ended in a bust near the end of 2008, the country had no choice but scale back government spending. The arrival of austerity across the Euro-zone in attempting to keep national budget deficits to 3% or below of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) hit Spain particularly hard. The country went into a deep recession and unemployment skyrocketed, especially among the young.
During these years, support for independence surged from less than 25% to over 45%. There have been times, where polls have indicated an almost even split electorate on the issue. Local politicians have been skillful in placing the blame on central authorities.
The regional government of Catalonia under Puigdemont, still has enough local support, to proceed with a binding referendum this year. The pro-independence coalition, still holds a majority in the Catalan Parliament.
Since the central government still refuses to permit it, a confrontation in the escalating crisis is unavoidable.
The situation has been made far worse, because as of December 14th Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal has ruled that a referendum movement is illegal.
The reality in 2017, shows that support for independence in Catalonia may have already peaked. This may present a problem for the Generalitat, the government of the region. As the general economy of Spain begins to grow again and unemployment starts moving down the anger of voters will continue to subside.
The present impasse has been politically beneficial not only for those in Catalonia that favor independence, but for the government of Rajoy and the political party he represents. The population of Spain at large, does not support further allowances for the Catalans. This has paid enormous dividends for the conservatives in Madrid.
The deadlock has become wearisome for a growing number of the electorate. Puigdemont has published a list of 46 negotiating points. Although he is unwilling at this point to give up the idea of a referendum on independence.
Mr. Rajoy will have to offer a list of concessions to avoid a permanent break with the government in Barcelona.