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Weak EU breeds regional revolts

The emotional discourse that surrounds calls for independence is merely a mask for naked political ambition and economic self-interest

Gulf News

In both Catalonia and Scotland, calls for independence are growing once again — an indication of conditions not only in Spain and the United Kingdom, but in the European Union as a whole. Indeed, the EU’s weakness in confronting its financial crisis both reflects and reinforces the erosion of its raison d’être — political integration. Whatever its roots in old grievances, secessionism, it seems, is a painful symptom of this degenerative process.

The perverse irony here is that Europe’s shrewdest secession-minded parties are dressing up their programmes in European garb, promising that the new states will have automatic EU membership. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) and Convergència i Unió (CiU) in Catalonia are both exploiting the concept of European cosmopolitanism to revive narrow nationalist ends and, ultimately, to break up the countries of which they are now a part. No provisions of EU law address the disintegration of a member state, as secession contradicts the core principle of “ever closer Union”. That is why there are increasing calls to send a message to electorates in would-be secessionist regions that EU membership would not be guaranteed in the event of independence.

Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister and the SNP’s leader, proclaimed that the guarantee of EU membership was a matter of law; because it is not, he and his party now face their biggest crisis since coming to power in 2007.

This legal void explains why, in the run-up to Catalonia’s elections on November 25, the CiU’s leaders are so eager to convert an informal referendum on independence into a plebiscite on Catalans’ desire for EU membership (which is neither at issue nor up to the electorate in Catalonia to decide). Rationally, if not legally, the only coherent question that the CiU government could pose is whether Catalans wish to be part of Spain.

The United Nations framework governing secession establishes a clear distinction between ‘internal self-determination’ and ‘external self-determination’. The former sanctions a people’s pursuit of its political, economic, social, and cultural development within the framework of an existing state; the latter could potentially take the form of unilateral secession, but only under an extreme set of circumstances. Neither definition applies in the case of Catalonia or Scotland.

No one in Catalonia or Scotland can legitimately claim the suppression of cultural identity, which enjoys strong protection in Spain — where one of the main goals of the Spanish Constitution, after Francisco Franco’s death, was to protect the Catalan and Basque languages and cultures — and the UK. Perhaps this helps to explain why the formal Scottish claim to independence does not rest on a distinct heritage, but on the shaky notion of distinct political and social values — an argument so vague that it could be used to justify dismantling every European country.

As is often the case with nationalism — irrespective of its dress — the emotional discourse that surrounds calls for independence is merely a mask for naked political ambition and economic self-interest. In Catalonia, victimisation has become a campaign strategy, with CiU leaders openly citing imaginary threats from the central government in Madrid.

Rhetoric aside, the looming Catalan referendum emerged as a result of the political bargaining surrounding bailout discussions between Spain’s regions and the central government. The crisis has stoked demands for independence by adding fervor to many Catalans’ anger at financial transfers to Spain’s poorer regions through the much-maligned Territorial Solidarity Fund.

The question of independence has turned into a powerful bargaining tool vis-à-vis the central government. It also conveniently sweeps existing problems under the rug — for example, Catalan debt makes up close to 30 per cent of the total debt of Spain’s regions — and deflects attention from the CiU regional government’s poor economic management.

Conditions could become much worse with independence. Conservative estimates suggest that exiting from Spain, the euro, and the EU would cause a 20-25 per cent drop in Catalonia’s GDP, as 68 per cent of Catalonia’s international exports go to the EU (according to official 2010 data) and 50 per cent of its total output goes to the rest of Spain.

A similar pattern holds true for Scotland. Moreover, in the wake of the euro crisis, SNP leaders have dropped their old plan to embrace the euro and now say that they will keep the pound.

But criticising the opportunists who are stoking the fires of secession in Barcelona and Edinburgh is not enough. A demonstration in Barcelona in September that brought close to 8 per cent of Catalonia’s 7.5 million people onto the street showed that there are real issues to be addressed, both at the European and national level.

The core principle of democracy is the ability of citizens to guide the direction of public policy. But today, across Europe, citizens feel impotent. With the economic crisis, this phenomenon is particularly pronounced in Europe’s south, where voters sense uneasily that they have little influence in Berlin, where the real decisions are being made.

In Catalonia, CiU has channelled this frustration into a rejection of Spain’s central government. In Scotland, the austerity policies pursued by David Cameron’s government have provided similar force to the SNP’s independence bid.

Spain was undoubtedly one of the biggest successes of the end of the twentieth century, managing its EU accession and democratic transition while moving from under-development to the Eurozone’s fourth-largest economy — and 13th in the world. But the trade-offs that were part of that transition led to consequences — particularly the country’s territorial distribution of power — that must now be confronted openly.

Whatever its cause, unrest in Catalonia should spur a thorough revision of Spain’s 1978 Constitution and the adoption of a true federal structure. If successful, Spanish federalists could then advise others — starting with political leaders in the UK.

— Project Syndicate, 2012

Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former senior vice-president of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State.