Alina Mungiu-Pippidi: "If we accept such self-serving, irresponsible arguments in one case, the whole of Europe is gone."
A few years ago, when a major political science conference was held in Spain, I rented a country house with some American colleagues for a week in deepest Catalonia – near Ripoll. It turned out to be a medieval castle, complete with a chapel our hosts had lovingly restored. Over those days, a world soccer championship that Spain eventually won was unfolding and we duly congratulated our hosts, only to find them deeply offended. A success of Spain, they told us, meant the opposite to them, as Catalans. The Catalan soccer players in the national team were opportunists, if not traitors.
Such deep nationalist resentment in a core European Union member state presents the EU with its next major challenge after Brexit. Catalonia is one of the regions that has profited most from EU cohesion programs during its development (in 2007-2013 it still qualified for 1.4 billion euros, although it has meanwhile been raised to the status of ‘very developed’). Spain, one of the few successes of fiscal equilibration after the euro crisis finds itself entirely destabilised by the unilateral proclamation of Catalonia’s independence following a non-constitutional referendum in which less than the absolute majority voted in favor. The set of arguments used by Catalan nationalists for their independence could apply nearly everywhere in Europe and, if deemed acceptable for Catalonia, would render the European ‘integration’ concept meaningless. A brief review of such claims from a scholar of nationalism might therefore be helpful.
To start with, the Catalan claim rests on its separate history and identity, which entitles Catalonia to a separate path from the rest of Spain. But Spain as a whole, as, indeed, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, the United Kingdom (this is why it’s called "united"), let alone Poland and Romania, are the products of different regions, states or parts of states opting, at some historical moment when borders were put into question – 1918, 1945, 1989-1990, to combine their destinies into modern multinational states. Some of them opted for unitary states, others for federal, but none of the European nation states are based on collective identities where the region is based on a specific ethnicity.
Some EU states have been more respectful of the traditional, organically developed institutions of such regions (as in Germany), others less (as in Italy), but none was so unwise as to enshrine an ethnic character in EU regions, grounded in a feudal order predating the modern idea of the nation. Indeed, only the Yugoslav kingdom of 1918 was officially called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and despite various historical transformations, it was the persistence of this ethnic character that led to its tragic end.
A threat to their survival?
Therefore, the insistence of the Catalan Parliament on a unilateral right to secede is anything but democratic. There is no iron law of democracy giving people the right to unilaterally vote to leave a nation state they previously subscribed to without coercion. Catalonia was no colony. Therefore, the citizens of the rest of a Spanish state based on the 1978 democratic constitution have as much right to vote on the future of their joint project as do those who reside temporarily in the autonomous Catalonia (many of whom are Spanish).
Of course, every region has its history and differences. For instance, the communist Yugoslav constitution allowed the right of secession, as does Quebec’s. In the case of Scotland, the right to hold a referendum on independence was granted as a temporary power to the Scottish Parliament by the UK Parliament, after introduction by David Cameron's government, to make it constitutional. It was not unilateral.
Of course, the right to self-determination is strengthened by a real threat to the identity or survival of the minority group in the seceding region. The international community respects existing borders, but has acknowledged secessions by endangered regions or groups whose rights were systematically infringed by the state they lived in. This was the situation in Kosovo, where education in the native language was suppressed under the communist strongman Slobodan Milosevic, followed by a mass expulsion of Kosovar Albanians by the Yugoslav army. The Kurds can point to the Anfal genocide, in which over 50,000 Kurds died and the enforced change of the ethnic character of Kurd areas like Kirkuk through Arabisation during the reign of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The forces surrounding them today are not so very different from those during the Iran-Iraq war, which ended in their victimisation. Thus their argument that they alone can ensure their own safety (especially after their heroic fight against ISIS) is worth listening to. They have a legitimate claim which should be discussed peacefully.
But not so the Catalans. They have an advanced autonomous rule in a country ranked among the top ten by OECD in terms of fiscal decentralisation (direct collection of taxes by the sub-national units). Not only is there no infringement of their general human rights in democratic Spain, which also ranks among the most democratic countries in the world by Freedom House or Human Rights Watch standards, but their linguistic policy has been, on the contrary, one of exclusion, not inclusion.
In Catalonia students are taught only in Catalan in their first years of schooling, English is promoted over Spanish as a foreign language (although the majority of Catalans have long indicated that Spanish was the number one mother tongue, before this statistical item was dropped). The obligatory use of Catalan as the sole medium of instruction for all school subjects has been championed by Catalan nationalists over the past decades with little contestation, although in no other region of Europe has a group that does not have the linguistic majority managed to promote a monolingual model.
True, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco once banned Catalan in schools, but to argue that in the now democratic Spain one must take extremes to do justice or make reparations, is going too far. In fact, in a bilingual society a bilingual model should be promoted to ensure social communication. Had a similar policy existed in Scotland, they would have gained independence by now. This long term linguistic policy is a proof of exclusionary, not inclusionary, identity politics. Indeed, the many people who rally for independence are the products of such schools. Unfortunately, academics have long gathered evidence that organising states on identity lines – giving each group its own police and army, for instance, does not result in anything but secession.
Furthermore, although they live in a region that has benefitted the most from redistribution from the rest of Europe in earlier years (two different lavish highways connect Lerida to Barcelona, a sign of abundance rarely seen anywhere else in Europe), they seem themselves less inclined to return this generosity. Catalonia is not plundered by Madrid, whose redistribution to poorer Spanish regions is twice Barcelona’s (5 versus 10 percent of GDP).
Economic solidarity within nations and the Union is a guarantee for bad times
What if people in Baden-Wuerttemberg, one of Europe’s top net donor regions, threatened secession if they couldn't keep all their income in Baden-Wuerttemberg, rather than redistributing it to poorer regions? Yet this region does not even owe the debt that Catalonia does. All of Catalonia's great separation plans rest on the assumption that secession is good for business if taxes and the 72 billion euros in debt (16.34 percent of Spain's) are no longer paid to Spain. Catalonia has 16 percent of Spain’s population and its grievance is that it pays almost 20 percent to the budget in taxes. But that is how Europe works – urban areas, and capitals in particular, redistribute to rural areas and thriving economies help those in a downturn, as economic fortunes are not everlasting. Economic solidarity within nations and the EU is a guarantee for bad times – Europe is full of cities that were once mighty economic powers and are today just charming UNESCO heritage sites to visit. Surely it would be good business for all to leave our debts unpaid and leave with our income when we are riding high? Of course, this might appeal to more naïve voters.
And what if every region where the political majority happens to be different at one moment in time from that of the centre – it happens every day, everywhere free elections are held – simply left, calling the others fascists or communists? Last, but not least, there is the argument regarding the monarchy. Yes, this reflects a deep division between republicans and monarchists. Funnily enough, in the constitutional textbooks we have all been citing, two economists once calculated that Greece would have been as prosperous as Spain had it only kept its monarchy and the stability advantage it entailed. So more neutral outsiders can even find some good features in constitutional monarchies.
Nationalism and populism combined
The combination of nationalism and populism is not new in Europe and has been resurfacing in recent years. But the Catalan story is emblematic. If we accept such self-serving and irresponsible arguments in one case, the whole of Europe is gone. This is why both Russia's Vladimir Putin and the UK Brexiteer Nigel Farage champion the Catalan cause, because it enfeebles Europe. Could something that the propaganda channel Russia Today champions daily, the cause of Catalan independence, be good for the rest of us Europeans? Perhaps it is time to think more critically of charismatic Catalan national heroes, before they rally all the separatists of Europe. In the early 1990s, Italy also had similar problems, when the Northern League (Lega Nord) party enjoyed an electoral breakthrough in the Veneto and Lombardy, precisely by campaigning against Rome and the “centralist state” allegedly ripping off the "hard-working" north to redistribute resources in the "parasitic" south.
When independentists moved to real action – civil disobedience, tax strikes, occupation of public places like the San Marco bell tower in Venice, the government struck back with legal methods, eventually accusing them of crimes ranging from tax evasion to terrorism. And no, Italy was not ruled by fascists at the time, but by left-wing Eurocrats like Giuliano Amato and Romano Prodi.
 Persson, T., & Tabellini, G. E. (2005). The economic effects of constitutions. MIT Press.
This column was originally published on 31 October, 2017 by Open Democracy.