Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The Catalonian saga continues

The Spanish government has maintained its iron fist policy against Catalonian independence, but Europe’s leaders need to investigate why separatist sentiments on the continent are stronger than ever, writes Hany Ghoraba

The shadow of civil conflict still looms over the Iberian Peninsula as the Spanish government led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has dissolved the Catalonian parliament, fired Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and called for snap elections in the region. Rajoy invoked the 155th clause of the Spanish constitution for the first time and declared an unprecedented imposition of direct rule over the autonomous region of Catalonia, thus annulling the 1978 Statute of Autonomy.  

More drastic measures were taken by the Spanish government on 3 November when a Madrid court issued a European arrest warrant for Puigdemont, who had fled the country seeking refuge in Brussels along with several members of the independence movement. The measure was preceded a day earlier by another court handing prison sentences to eight Catalonian government members for “inciting rebellion” against the Spanish state in a move that is likely to exacerbate an already explosive situation. 

If convicted, the Catalonian leader along with some members of his government face sentences of up to 30 years in prison. 

Rajoy has maintained his iron fist policy against Catalonian independence and stressed the illegality of the separatist movement.

Though supported by a large majority of the Spanish population, Rajoy’s draconian measures have emboldened the resolve of the separatist movement in Catalonia and drawn support for it from neutral bystanders. This is one of the first times since the establishment of the European Union that a European state has been viewed as oppressive in this way towards its own citizens.

The legality of Catalonia’s move towards independence is a highly controversial issue, given the circumstances that surround it and the historical context of the separatist movement (explained in my article in Al-Ahram Weekly last week). However, as with most separatist movements, the Catalonian movement has for years talked up the perks of an independent Catalonia to whet the appetites of the nationalists and encourage them to support the movement more vehemently. 

However, this movement like many others across the world has failed to mention the harsh realities of independence and of forming a new and separate state.

The present economic health of Catalonia has to do with its being part of Spain, since the region’s economic ties with Spain along with negotiations undertaken by the central government have been responsible for the majority of foreign trade and tourism revenues in Catalonia. With these ties broken as a result of possible independence, any new state would have to renegotiate the previous trade and economic deals made by Spain with the rest of the world. 

Even if the Catalonian separatist movement manages to successfully win its independence, this will render the Spanish citizenship of the region’s residents null and void. They will no longer be treated as European citizens, and they will lose the perks related to Spanish citizenship. The newly independent Catalonian government will also fight an uphill battle to join the European Union if it wishes to retain the economic benefits of it. Its application for admission will likely be rejected by European leaders eager to make an example out of Catalonia over the dangers of separation from the mother country. 

The new government will also have to seek UN recognition and establish embassies worldwide in order to guarantee diplomatic representation for the new state. 

The costs of maintaining a national army and police force will also have to be negotiated. The new state will have to bear the entire cost of establishing a modern military and police force from scratch, which will be a huge financial burden for Catalonian citizens. This will entail levying more taxes and likely enforcing conscription. Such things will cost billions of dollars and will take considerable efforts to establish. 

The EU position on the crisis was in favour of a united Spain, and European leaders rejected any attempts at separation. The EU categorically ignored the demands of the Catalonian separatists in favour of keeping their membership of the EU intact. Pragmatism trumped the right of self-determination. 

While the EU acknowledges the independence of European states of the size of Andorra, Lichtenstein, San Marino and Monaco, all more or less city-states, it is unwilling to discuss the possibility of a new sovereign state in Catalonia or elsewhere. There is a determination to nip separatist movements in the bud, something that applies to the Corsican and Breton independence movements in France, the Basque and Catalonian independence movements in Spain, the independence of Lombardy in Italy, the Flanders movement in Belgium, and last but not least, the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish independence movements in the United Kingdom. 

One cannot fault the European leaders for wanting to preserve the order and economic progress of the Union, as this was the original purpose of the European Union. However, they are also tasked with investigating the reasons behind the lack of faith in the European Union that led the United Kingdom to exit it a year earlier. They also need to investigate why after decades of European unity, nationalist and separatist sentiments are stronger than ever. 

If they do not do so, the Catalonian case may be only the beginning of an avalanche of separatist movements that will sweep the rest of Europe.  

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Long and Winding Road to Democracy.

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