Why Catalonia’s Independence Would Have Disastrous Consequences

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Catalan independentist mural in Republican district in Belfast (by Toniher via Wikimedia Commons)

People who advocate Catalonia’s independence from Spain believe that their homeland has been oppressed by the central government for centuries, and that a nation with its own history, language and culture should have the right to self-determination. We have explained in a previous article why this view is wrong and dangerous.

Political upheavals have long-term and often unintended consequences. The cases of Iraq, Kosovo and the Arab Spring illustrate how political change in the name of a vague and contradictory concept of ‘freedom’ can go wrong if it is detached from complex political, historical and economic realities.

In the present article we shall consider some of the possible negative consequences of Catalan separation from Spain and its impact on global affairs.

A Dangerous Geopolitical Game

The first question we should ask ourselves is: who would give diplomatic recognition to an independent Catalonia? This issue is of vital importance because it reveals he geopolitical complexity of Catalan separatism.

At a time when the United States has de facto surrendered its global leadership, when Europe is more divided than ever, far-right movements push for a return of the nation-state and Russia is keen on exploiting other countries’ weakness, Catalonia would become a bargaining chip to be used in an increasingly complex geopolitical game.

The EU would likely not recognize Catalonia’s independence. On October 2 the European Commission released a statement calling Catalonia’s referendum “illegal” under the Spanish Constitution and saying that if Catalonia were to leave Spain, it would be automatically outside of the EU. The Commission emphasized the need “for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation,” and urged “all relevant players to now move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue.”

As a multicultural organization aimed at overcoming the nationalist division that led to European wars, the EU obviously does not want to see the resurgence of nationalism and the disintegration of its member states. Every EU member is arguably multicultural, especially in border regions where various ethno-linguistic groups overlap.

If the EU should refuse to recognize an independent Catalonia, then the new state would find itself isolated and in search of allies.

The United Kingdom, which is in the process of leaving the EU, might recognize Catalonia, a move that would sour relations with Spain and the EU. Spain and the UK already have an ongoing dispute regarding Gibraltar, which has intensified due to Brexit.

Russia might also seek the opportunity to sow discord in Europe and weaken what used to be a stable and powerful political alliance between the states of the continent. Over the last few years Putin’s regime has cultivated ties to Europe’s nationalist parties that are opposed to the EU.

It is clear that Catalonia’s independence would be a further step towards the return of Europe’s division and the system of geopolitical alliances typical of the era preceding World War II. This would be catastrophic for a continent that for most of its history was unable to achieve peace and stability.

Many observers are failing to grasp the seriousness of the situation and its long-term consequences. A generation that has come to take European peace for granted seems to be incapable of seeing the looming danger.

The Rise Of Nationalism

We argue that nationalism is an anti-democratic and harmful ideology. Nationalism is based on the principle that the world is made up of nations with a distinct history, culture, language and common destiny, and that political borders across cultural and linguistic lines must be drawn to secure the ‘freedom’ of the nation.

Nationalists do not believe in universal human values. They believe that individuals exist as members of a national community and each national community has a different ‘national character.’

Nationalists reject the EU because it is multicultural. They believe that diversity threatens the nation and that co-existence within the same political framework of diverse peoples is doomed to fail.

As Erika Harris explained, the concept of nationalism is rooted in the era of Romanticism and it was formulated in opposition to the values of the Enlightenment. Nationalism, she argues, “is dominated by ‘who’ the participants are rather than by ‘how’ the society should be governed.”

Therefore, nationalist thinkers spend more time discussing the issue of ‘identity’ and how to make ‘identity’ coincide with statehood, rather than talking about economic policies, social policies, education and other issues.

Nationalists indeed reject ‘reason’ as a way of explaining human affairs. They reject the idea that universal human values and reason can help improve people’s lives and society. They believe that every nation is unique and that if a nation has a good ‘national character’, then society will prosper. It is a narrative of superior versus inferior nations as the explanation for success. They fail to understand the role of economic policy in shaping economic outcomes.

The problem with this theory is that not only can nations not be defined objectively, but also that nationalism promotes isolationism, intolerance, division and conflict. Furthermore, nationalism prevents a rational debate about economic and social issues, because its focus is not on rational solutions but on ‘feeling’ and ‘identity’.

We predict that the rise of nationalism, if successful, will put an end to the era of peace and stability in Europe.

Catalonia Will Be More Divided

Some people might think that an independent Catalonia would be more harmonious, but that is far from true. In fact, Catalan society would be more divided than ever and the issue of ‘national identity’ would continue to dominate public discourse for years to come.

First of all, after independence Catalonia would have to deal with the large number of people who want to remain citizens of Spain. According to figures released by the Catalan authorities, only 42% of the electorate voted in the referendum, meaning that a majority abstained from voting altogether.

The extreme division within Catalan society is already becoming obvious. In an article entitled “Nobody’s Land” (Terra de Nadie), the Catalan filmmaker Isabel Coixet  recounted the following episode.

One day two men waving the Catalan flag shouted at her in front of her house: “Fascist! You should be ashamed!” The reason why they harassed her was that she is a supporter of Spanish unity.

“For months,” she wrote, “the insults and defamatory remarks against those who, like me, do not follow the mainstream thinking (‘pensamiento unico’, literally ‘single thought‘) of the independence movement and express our disagreement, have been constant.”

If Catalonia becomes independent, those who disagree with Catalan nationalism, those who have family outside of Catalonia, those who come from other areas of Spain but have settled down in Catalonia, will become pariahs. Perhaps some people will have to leave the country, becoming citizens of nowhere.

Then there will be the issue of Catalonia’s place in Europe, and here, too, Catalan public opinion will be fractured. Some will favour EU membership; others will reject the EU either because of its multicultural nature or because it failed to support Catalan independence.

Lastly, there will be the issue of immigration. If the Catalan economy prospers after independence, it will certainly attract people from outside of Catalonia. The integration of immigrants, in turn, will become a hot topic among far-right nationalists who will forever be concerned with the problem of ‘culture’ and ‘identity’ and be fearful of multiculturalism. Moderate Catalan separatists who embrace multiculturalism still fail to see the more radical elements of the movement.

Rise Of The European Far-Right

The most dangerous long-term consequence of Catalan independence will be the rise of far-right nationalist movements across Europe, who will feel emboldened by the triumph of the Catalan nationalist project. Old ethnic tensions that were kept at bay by the European integration process will resurface. Ireland, Corsica, South Tirol and the Basque countries are just a few of many examples.

Regional independent movements within Italy, Spain, the UK and other countries will become more vociferous. The large population of immigrants or descendants of immigrants will face increasing xenophobia and discrimination in the name of the ‘nation-state’ that cannot tolerate diversity.

Instability, chaos and perhaps a return of autocratic tendencies, as the cases of Poland and Hungary show, may ensue.

Economic Depression

Political instability and nationalism will lead to a worsening economic climate. Catalonia itself, cut off from the European market, in need of a new currency, isolated between France and Spain, might suffer an economic collapse. Some banks are already moving their headquarters outside of Catalonia.

Perhaps Catalonia will recover, if the far-right governments in the US and the UK recognize the country and offer it a trade agreement. But Catalonia’s small domestic market will make it difficult for its politicians to abandon disastrous neoliberal policies.

A nationalist surge would monopolize Catalan and European public opinion, distracting from a rational debate about alternative economic policies capable of solving problems such as low growth rates, unemployment, inequality and deteriorating welfare.

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