EU Crisis: All For One, And Everyone For Themselves

<p>Jasper Juinen/Getty Images</p>

Voters in Spain’s region of Catalonia gave secessionists a majority in November 25 regional elections. Why does Catalonia want to go it alone?

As Spain suffers its sixth year of economic crisis, ‘Why not?’ might actually be the grumpy Catalans’ more likely question.

Economic crises often create opportunities for long-simmering separatist movements to exploit. Think of what happened in the Baltic states as the Soviet Union unravelled, and in East Timor after the Indonesian economy collapsed in 1998. And consider the other Indonesian regions — Aceh, the West Papuans, the Christians of Maluku — that have tried to go it alone and could do so again next time Jakarta’s “Javanese empire” gets itself into money troubles.

As Spain’s richest region, Catalonia’s aspirations for independence have rarely been as passionately — and never as violently — expressed as those of the Basques on the other side of the Iberian peninsula.

After the dictator Franco died in 1975 (and poignantly, for many Spanish, not overthrown) to usher in a wobbly Spanish democracy, the 1980s saw Catalan extremists briefly flirt with the idea. They formed Terra Lliure, or Free Land, Catalonia’s equivalent of the Basque’s ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom). Both groups wanted to install Marxist states in their respective regions, ETA more violently than the more business-minded Catalans, who prospered from Spain’s embrace from Europe.

Terra Lliure was never as confronting as ETA, and Madrid regarded it as a bit of a joke. ETA has killed more than 800 people in its five-decade war on the Spanish state, and remains an active, though much reduced, threat to Spain. Terra Lliure killed just once, a 62-year-old housewife who was accidentally slain in a botched raid on a judge.

So unremarkable has Catalonian separatism been that Madrid has probably never even considered waging a guerra sucia, or dirty war, against Barcelona’s splittists, as Spain’s first post-Franco democratic governments did when they marshalled death squads against the Basques.

In 1995, by which time Catalonia had become one of Europe’s richest regions, Terra Lliure had disbanded, but the rump of its members joined the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), Catalonia’s Republican Left party.

But Spain’s current economic demise has opened a door for Catalan secessionists.

Elections on November 25 gave the secessionist parties a majority in the Catalonian parliament, probably forcing the dominant centre-right Convergence and Union party into talks on how to advance independence.

And as they proudly wave their senyera, the striking Catalonian flag, as they enthusiastically dance the folkloric sardana piling high in ceremonial human castles, independence-minded Catalans will tell anyone who listens that it’s all about culture, language and identity. These conversations don’t take long to evoke the tyranny of Franco, as if he were still in power.

Except it’s actually about money. It may be Spain’s most industrious region, but Catalonia is going broke, it says, because the cash its economy generates is transferred to Madrid — which in its profligacy has wasted it. ‘Enough!’ cry as many as 70 per cent of Catalonians.

But the mechanics of how secession actually might take place mean independence will be a long time coming. The Catalan breakaways still want to be in the EU but, pressured by Madrid (and Paris too, which has its own Catalan region bordering Spain), Brussels has said that’s not a given. And its not clear how far an independent Catalonia would spread – south to Valencia and the Balaeric Islands too? Into France? All regions speak Catalan.

What’s Spain’s so-called ‘Red Effect’?

This was the feel-good nationalism that was expected to wash over Spain after its football team La Roja heroically prevailed on the South African veldt two years ago, for sport’s most-coveted trophy, the World Cup.

Until then, The Red — so named for the team’s fiery playing strip — had been international football’s chronic under-achievers. Commentators and pundits had mused that it was Spain’s political disunity — its grumpy Galicians, its cranky Catalans and, too often, its bombing Basques — that had turned the national team, drawn from one of the world’s strongest leagues in a football-obsessed land, into a dud.

And then La Roja won. The Guardian, CNN and others gushed about ‘How World Cup victory stirred Spain’s forgotten patriotism’ and that ‘Spain’s success puts nationalists in the shade’. We were assured that this Red Effect would elevate Spain from the deepening doldrums of its collapsed economy.

Except it did nothing of the sort.

Two years — and another football cup (Euro 2012) — later and Spain’s economy has plunged ever deeper. One in four Spanish is out of work, and more and more Catalans, Basques and even Galicians are itching to break away from a fretting Madrid, which relies on these regional economies to pay its mounting bills.

No-one can confidently predict when Spain’s once-tigerish economy will roar again. The best sensible estimate is 2014, which also happens to be when La Roja defends its title in Rio and also when Catalonia is likely to hold a referendum to decide if its seven million people will break clear of Spain.

If La Roja doubles up in Rio, doubtless Madrid will be pumping the Red Effect again for all it’s worth. But before it does, its politicians might wish to dig into the files to remind themselves of what Barcelona’s newspapers chose to put on their front pages the day Spain made its first World Cup final in history.

<p>Daniel Sastre/Getty</p>

True, with seven Barça players in the national team, 100,000 Catalans crowded Barcelona’s placas to celebrate La Roja’s magnificence; but as many as 1.5 million, about 20 per cent of Catalonia’s population, had come out a day earlier to protest Madrid’s winding back of its autonomy. It was the moment many Catalans today say crystallised their reborn independence movement — which carried last month’s regional elections.

But Spain’s crisis has evened out, no?

Not quite, but last week Spain finally made a start by accepting the reality that many analysts have long been banging on about — it must tackle the cancer in its toxic banking system. Though Spain’s property market first collapsed in 2008 in the wake of the US sub-prime drama, and has been tanking ever since, even banks that took billions in EU (read German) support were reluctant to swallow such harsh medicine onto their balance sheet. Write-offs of dodgy loans amounted to 25 to 30 per cent at best.

Now all that has changed. On November 28, the four stricken Spanish banks that had accepted state aid agreed to write their assets down by 60 per cent. With most of the problems in the property sector, that reflects the real level of real estate prices, which have been hammered by the massive glut of property across Spain.

But this is also a tricky topic for Madrid and Brussels — both desperate to keep their unions together. The write-down came with thousands more job losses at a time when neither administration can afford the resulting political impact of more unemployment. And it brought hundreds of branch closures too, denying enterprising Spaniards, who’d hoped to trade their way out of recession, the lifeblood of cash to help them do so. As if Spain didn’t have enough problems, last month revealed yet another as official unemployment reached a staggering 26 per cent.

You say 2014 might be when Catalans vote on independence? Isn’t that also when Scots vote in their independence referendum?

Yes, the Scottish will probably vote in October that year and, curiously, sport might also be a factor as nationalists, now well behind in the polls, crank up the rhetoric to get Scots fired up to leave Britain. But it won’t be football. Ranked at 70 on FIFA’s ladder, compared to Spain’s 1, Scotland isn’t likely to trouble the scorers in Rio, or even actually make it there. The vote will likely come a month or so after Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games, at which Scottish athletes are expected to do well. They won a disproportionately high seven of Britain’s 29 gold medals at this year’s London Olympics, almost 25 per cent of the tally from a land that comprises just 9 per cent of the UK’s population. And both sides, the unionists and the Scottish nationalists, claimed these efforts as their own, rather as Catalans celebrated La Roja’s 2010 win after cocking a snook at Madrid a day earlier.

But Madrid and London are dealing with their independence agitators in vastly different ways. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has agreed that Scots can have their referendum — not a bad gamble when support for independence runs about 40 per cent. In Madrid, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has denied Catalans the same privilege, claiming such a vote would be contrary to the Spanish constitution. That won’t much bother Catalans, some of whom are even contemplating a unilateral declaration of independence.

Scotland, Catalonia, the Basques… who else in Europe is angling to go it alone?

That would be, most embarrassingly for Brussels, the European Union’s capital, Belgium.

The unelected mandarins who run the EU can’t claim they don’t understand how their austerity demands are firing up opponents from Athens to Alicante, because it’s also happening in their own backyard. Belgians are embroiled in their own independence struggle. This momentum comes from Belgium’s Dutch speakers, the Flemish. They are represented by Bart De Wever’s centre-right New Flemish Alliance, the biggest party in the Belgian parliament, but not (yet) part of government.

De Wever is becoming well known in Belgium for his dramatic weight loss — the politician once pilloried as ‘The Waffleman’ this year lost 60kg of his 142kg, by going on a protein diet. But he is better known for his agitation for a separate Flanders. Though he may no longer personify Flanders’s famous frites, De Wever believes there’s no reason a Flanders independent from the Francophone Walloons should be excluded from the EU.

De Wever can appear to be the consummate European, and he is bringing more moderate Flemish voters into his party than the far-right Vlaams Belang, who occupies the more lunatic fringes of the Belgian debate.

Where else?

Who knows how far it could go in Europe’s race toward stable economies, jobs and incomes. Eurocrats fear that the momentum building in Barcelona, Brussels and elsewhere could spread quickly, rather like freedom caught on in Stalinist Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. And if Scotland goes it alone, what’s to stop semi-autonomous regions such as Wales and Northern Ireland from doing the same? Both already have powers devolved from London, and their own parliaments. Italy is a land of regions, so too is France. Bavarians in Germany can sometimes sound like Catalans when they start grumbling about Berlin getting all their hard-earned.

It all underlines how fragile the EU ideal is, in a Europe where the idea of gathering together distinct regions into a unitary state hasn’t really been around that long.