In the distant past, this is something that would have been settled on the field of battle. Spain would seek to put down the province declaring independence, and Catalonia would have resisted.
In the twenty-first century, there’s reasonable hope that this won’t end in bloodshed. There’s a vestige in that older way of thinking in the speed with which Spain suspended Catalan autonomy, calling fresh elections, and the threats to arrest the (now ousted) Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont. From the outside, it feels like a game of double bluff, but one in which every twist tears at the self-understanding of the many who see themselves as both Catalan and Spanish, making it harder to find a negotiated solution.
In a dis-spiriting parallel with Brexit, the near-impossibility of establishing an independent state seem not to impinge on the desire for it (countries can only join the EU with the agreement of all existing members, and Spain would be likely to veto membership). The sense is of poorly and partially articulated grievances leading to actions that make things much worse.
For the EU this presents a dilemma. Donald Tusk quickly came out with a statement saying that, the declaration changes nothing, and the EU will deal only with Madrid. In one sense he has no choice: for the time being this is an internal matter for a member state. In the short term, that would come under pressure only if Spain cracks down on Catalonia in a way that calls into question its commitment to the basic ideals of the Union. That’s possible, and there was pressure for action on that basis against Hungary in May 2017, but the hope is that things won’t get that bad.
But the other side of the EU’s dilemma is that this does change everything.
There have been rumours of Russian-run twitter bots stoking up support for Catalonian independence (there were rumours of similar interference in the Brexit campaign). But with the exception of Russia, no-one stands to gain from civil unrest and deepening divisions in Spain/Catalonia.
But globalisation means national governments have far less ability to act unilaterally than they did. Power is heading away from national governments, both to supra-national bodies and regional ones. In the structures of the EU there is a balance between power held by national governments, and exercised through the Council of Ministers, and Europe-wide influence through the Parliament and the Commission. If the EU moves further in a federal direction, then subsidiarity means things done centrally that need to be done there, and all other powers being as close as possible to those affected. That means significant autonomy for regions. It means Catalans having significant self-determination without ceasing to be Spanish or European.
In the grand scheme of things, the nation state is a new idea. In feudal times, what matter was which monarch or noble had dominion over which area. Disputes were settled by force. The Reformation could be claimed as the time when the modern nation state starts to appear, but it is not the only way of being, or the only way of being European.
Catalonia, Northern Ireland and Scotland are three glaring examples of places where there national identity is complicated. If people have to decide which side they fight on, things are black and white. But if we can pull back from that then things are more subtle. Nationhood can be about self-identification and self-understanding. There’s a parallel with football. Manager Bill Shankley went down in history for saying “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” A properly federal Europe offers a way for a multitude of deeply-held self-understandings to co-exist, crucially, without needing to trample each other. At its best, the European ideal offers a way to cherish diversity which is built into the structures of the European institutions.
If the UK goes ahead with Brexit, it places itself outside these structures. The one credible argument for Brexit is that the deepening of a federal Europe would be easier without the UK. The frustration here is that, where the rest of Europe hears “federal” as about devolving power, the public discourse in the UK says the opposite. Already one of the most centralised countries in the EU, we project our centralising tendencies.
But this is 2017, and things are not quite as they look. Quite where the Catalonian declaration will lead is not clear, but it seems unlikely to lead to the fully-independent state it professes. In the UK, the Eurosceptic Daily Express ran an article criticising the EU for not intervening, though it is more given to scare stories which accuse the EU of interfering in the UK.
For now, supporters of Brexit would be wise not to judge Spain too harshly. If things go wrong there, article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union does provide a mechanism for the EU to act when a country is abandoning European values. But if the UK were not on it way out of the EU, we too could expect others in the EU to start to think about invoking article 7 in response to the brazen behaviour of the British government over Brexit, not least in trying to sideline the courts and parliament, particularly over the EU Withdrawl Bill.
A very primitive response to anxiety is splitting: my nation, tribe or group become “good” and all others become “bad”. There’s no grey in that. There’s also no realism. My group becomes “good” just because it is my group. It needs something to affirm other ways of being to tilt the balance, especially when there are real causes for anxiety (as there are now with global changes). At an abstract level federalism does this, by tilting the scale in favour of many different groups finding ways to co-exist. The EU was born out of the wreckage of two world wars, where that splitting led to horrific levels of death and suffering. Right now, the real causes of anxiety are global things. Acting them out buy splitting can only make things worse — whether that is splitting Catalonia from Spain, Scotland from the UK, or the UK from the EU. Finding the stability that means different self-identities can co-exist and flourish is a very different proposition.
For now, it is hard to see the Catalonia saga ending well, unless it is heard as a clarion call for a more fully-federal Europe. An increasingly globalised world, where Europe faces growing challenges from other parts of the world, is a powerful argument for a United States of Europe, doing centrally those things best done centrally, and devolving everything else. The tragic irony is that the phrase “United States of Europe” was coined by Winston Churchill, from the country poised to stumble out of the EU, and the political party at the heart of the stumbling: hopefully it is not too late to heed his wisdom.