Europe’s Death Dance: What the Catalan Referendum Means for European Unity and the United States

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Written by Daniel Mollenkamp

At the beginning of this month, a militarized Spanish police force descended on a rich area of northeast Spain to brutalize voters and suppress a referendum on Catalan independence.

The violence of the Spanish government was verified by observers when I was in the region in the days following the referendum, though Spain’s foreign minister has claimed accusations of excessive force have been inflated, invoking the phrases “alternative facts” and “fake news”. But the violence has also been established by the European Media Director for Human Rights Watch Andrew Stroehlein, who responded to the foreign minister in the Telegraph that “detailed investigation into three cases found that national police and Civil Guard used excessive force”. The Hague Center for Strategic Studies has also condemned the violence, as have numerous others. And the Catalonian health department offered documents to the press saying it treated 991 patients on October 1st, due to the clash between voters and police.

Strikes permeated Barcelona merely two days after the referendum, and initial estimates by Catalan officials put the count at about 90% in favor of independence (estimating voter turnout at 2.26 million). The “yes” percentage was somewhat similar to the Iraqi-Kurdish independence vote, which took place less than a week earlier.

Whether the Barcelona vote should count as representative of Catalan wishes is unclear. Spanish interference likely turned away moderate and conservative voters. (Spanish nationalists have held rallies in Barcelona since the strikes to express the pro-Spain side.) But the vote has triggered a regional and constitutional crisis.

On October 10th, Catalonia Regional President Carles Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence, but suspended that declaration and suggested mediation with Madrid. French President Francois Macron, who is opposed to Catalan separatism, voiced opposition to the idea of mediation through the European Union. And Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has announced, in an unprecedented move, that the government intends to take over regional administration and dismiss the Catalan parliament. They have said they will force new elections within six months. (Rajoy is waiting on approval from the Spanish Senate, who will vote on the proposal on October 27). But the Catalan regional government is resisting suggestions that a new election be held. The name of General Franco has been accusingly invoked by both sides.

The suppression efforts of the Spanish government made the moral case for Catalan independence invariably more appealing. They have also given cover to “anti-globalist” crusaders who have been gaining wind across North America and Europe, who can now point to those efforts as a moral justification for separatism. The Spanish government may view the vote as unconstitutional based largely on the Spanish constitutional court’s decision to rule it as such, but it’s unclear that their actions would have avoided more severe international condemnation were this not being considered something of an internal European matter.  Moreover, it’s unclear that the increasingly drastic moves being made by the Spanish, including the decision to dissolve parliament, will not merely ratchet up the tension in the region.

In other words, the biggest proponent of Catalonian independence, even if accidentally, is the Spanish government. But the implications of this movement will be global, proving the irony inherent to modern separatist movements, that local politics almost always have global consequences.

In Europe, the consequences are now becoming apparent, as separatists are beginning to make waves. For example, two regions of Italy, Lombardy and Veneto, have catalyzed nonbinding votes for greater autonomy and better financial deals from Rome, a move which experts have deemed constitutionally legal in Italy (in contrast with Catalonia’s vote). These are stronghold regions for Lega Nord which has previously campaigned for succession, though the current vote is being described as a bargaining position rather than an outright bid for succession.

Part of the metastasis of these movements has to do with dissatisfaction with globalism and global narratives. It was still plausible to view the long march of globalism as inevitable a couple years ago. But that was before the calamitous refugee crisis. That was also before Brexit. Before Trump.

“Borders are Back,” remarked the historian Niall Ferguson. But it is impossible to fully disengage from truly global issues, like trade and security. So, the anti-globalists have pushed narratives that conflate global and domestic issues generally. Certainly, this is part of the legacy of Trump’s election in the United States and Brexit in the United Kingdom.

In the United States, the Trump administration, especially former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, has been pushing an anti-globalist message from the beginning.

In a speech before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) earlier this year, Bannon offered a relatively rare view on the system behind the Trump administration, setting up his vision of American nationalism. Largely, this means enacting protectionist programs for trade and bridling immigration. Domestically, this has led to a push to bring back manufacturing jobs and to reinforce borders (to build the Great Wall of America and to curb the influx of radical Islamic terrorism). The visibility of this message has shifted, but it has been ever-present. It’s present in Trump’s “America-first” attitude, and even in his slogan—purloined from Ronald Reagan— “Make America Great Again.”

The administration has treated these issues as connected since the beginning. That connection was made explicit by Arizona State Treasurer and campaign chairman for Trump, Jeff Dewitt early on in the campaign. Said Dewitt, in an interview with CNN in February: “Myself being in Arizona, we know firsthand that tens of thousands of people that come over illegally every month there’s a big problem on the border. There’s drugs pouring over. Now we have ISIS coming over the border. You have problems.”

Bannon has kept the message going, though now outside the White House. Bannon is currently in an all-out fight for control of the Republican congress.

Internationally, this kind of smiling chauvinism requires a dogged pursuit of national interests. It is not isolationism. To the contrary, it allows for global interaction, perhaps even encourages it, but only on the understanding of a zero-sum, aggressive wrestle of competing interests. Thus, Bannon can characterize U.S.-China relations as an “economic war,” and call for a tougher stance on Beijing. In the infamous American Prospect interview, he forecasted an actual military war impending in the South China Sea.

This resurgent nationalism is only half concealing a wish for a return to more open imperialism of the kind dominant in the twentieth century when Woodrow Wilson could base international cooperation on the self-determination of the nation-state and a kind of “benevolent” imperialism.

On the European front, the Catalan and Italian referendums seem more a question of border control and fiscal policies than a yearning glance at imperialism and influence. But the central motifs—border control, national sovereignty, and terrorism—remain present.

The global community has pearl clutched at the vulgar things Trump has said and done, but Europe has echoed Trump’s motifs more than they might be willing to admit, especially the belief in the supremacy of national sovereignty, which has struck a resonant chord across continent. This nationalist chord includes not only the generally shared emphasis on sovereignty but also shared reasons for that emphasis, which have to do with immigration and economics.

It is true that there was an anti-nationalist counter wave across Europe in response to Trump (Macron’s election in France, and the defeat of Marine Le Penn, is a prime example). However, the moves of these counter waves have increased regional tension rather than deflating it. Macron’s stance against the Spain-Catalonian mediation through the European Union certainly hasn’t deflated tensions.

Part of the reason these movements have moved to prime-time is likely due to the migrant crises which have animated discussions over national borders. The migrant crisis helped pave the way for Trump in the U.S. and Brexit in the UK. It also plunged Europe back into the question of national borders and sovereignty.

Recently, the European Court of Justice rejected a challenge from Hungary and Slovakia (supported also by Poland) to the migrant quotas. That rejection was agonizing for Hungary and Slovakia who view the acceptance of migrants as exposure to the risk of violent radical Islamic terrorists. It was also controversial because it was settled by a majority vote (something usually used on issues that don’t involve national sovereignty). Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto of Hungary was quoted as saying: “Politics has raped European law and European values. This decision practically and openly legitimates the power of the EU above the member states.”

A Chatham House study conducted before Donald Trump’s Muslim ban was announced showed that the majority of Europeans surveyed (more than 10,000 participants in 10 European countries, including Spain, France, and Italy) would favor a ban from Muslim majority countries in their own countries. Indeed, 55% indicated support for the statement “All further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped”. Only 20% rejected the statement, with 25% indicating neither agreement nor disagreement, according to the study. The same sentiment that animated Trump’s voting block and led to the Muslim ban in America is relatively widespread in Europe too. So, it seems, is nationalism.

Notably, Trump’s speech in front of the United Nations drew applause when he mentioned the need to fulfill sovereign duties and protect national interests while rejecting threats to sovereignty. This was something of a culmination for his operational philosophy internationally. But the imperialist tones are here, too. Even as he proclaimed national sovereignty, Trump motioned off “Rocket Man” in North Korea and threatened strong actions against the country, as well as Iran and Venezuela. (Russia, a country with its own resurgent imperialism, was, perhaps predictably, not an object of his scorn.) He also took shots at the UN, which is premised on national sovereignty, but has had trouble coping with the problems it is tasked to solve, which are larger than sovereignty (global poverty, genocide prevention, and nuclear nonproliferation are not bound by national borders).

Before Brexit, shots at the European framework were viewed as fringe. Though burbling noises were often heard a few years ago (and had ratcheted in volume due to mounting crisis), it would have been hard to point to a memorable victory for the fractional nationalist movements across Europe. Brexit has put the question of nationalist politics even more to the forefront of the Eurozone than it already was. (Interestingly, Bannon described the Independence Movement in the UK, the movement which played a prominent role in pushing through Brexit, as a “professional version of the Tea Party Movement.”) Though it won’t be so easy to leave EU, and the terms of Brexit will have lasting echoes in European politics. Brexit should, however, give Britain more control over borders and the economy. This may look attractive to other European separatist movements.

From the internationalist perspective, it’s hard to mount an argument against Catalan independence. UN membership includes states less consequential and populous. And whatever procedural rules Catalan separatists have broken, they are unlikely to make as convincing a case as police brutality. But to put this event in international context is to also contextualize the idea of Europe as an economic cooperative.

The argument for a unified Europe has always been flawed in its incompleteness: If Europe is to share a currency and borders, it also needs to share central policy. The failure to observe this is partly the reason for the Greek financial crisis, which was more of a structural crisis than a regional issue. Of course, the migrant crisis shares the same Achilles heel. If Europe cannot pass migrant quotas to more evenly split the burden of mass migration then the countries will be incentivized to lower the level of cooperation altogether. The “sick man of Europe”, it seems, is European cooperation.

In the U.S., one corollary to the present situation in Catalan is the resurgence of the Californian independence movement, the terribly named Calexit, wherein tax-weary Californians propose separatism. This is an American microcosm for the same trends that threaten to split Europe at its seams. The state-federal question seems to be mirroring the nation-union one in Europe. The terrorist motif may be somewhat muted here, but the economic one is on full display.

Post-2016, the movement began gathering force. In January, “Yes California” gained approval to begin collecting signatures. Internet gadfly Julian Assange has suggested some support for a California referendum via Twitter. Though success for this referendum seems dubious (as did the success of Brexit at one point), it is enough to observe the arguments for nationhood involve California’s rather large GDP and its status as a donor state, which gives more in federal taxes than it receives. In other words, they’re calling for fiscal self-determination, just like the Italian and Catalonian referendums (and indeed Brexit and the unsuccessful Scottish referendum, which may make another go in early 2020 despite recent setbacks for the Scottish Nationalist Party). The cheerleaders for Calexit, as well as those for similar movements aimed at Texan succession in the United States, are eyeing Catalan independence with a jittery anticipation, and have openly suggested as much.

So, the model sometimes mentioned by Americans as the solution to the European crisis (a more centralized system equivalent historically to the change from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution) will get a test of its own.

In a short period, nationalist and separatist movements have received a nervous rush of energy, leaving its proponents relevant in a way that seemed almost impossible or comical a couple years ago. The noisy and unpleasant fringe has forced itself to the forefront. In its response to this crisis, Spain has proven itself not only a threat to regional unity but to pan-Europeanism itself.

About the author: Daniel Thomas Mollenkamp is an independent journalist. He is also on the board of Abukloi, which runs a secondary school in Rumbek, South Sudan.