There are those who think that Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, fell into a trap. Now a man, who by all accounts is decent and cares about human rights, is finding himself being compared with General Franco, that man who ruled Spain with a rod of iron for almost 40 years until his death in 1975. At face value, it seems like an impossible quandary for Spain’s government and indeed the EU itself. And be under no doubt, the constitutional crisis that has befallen Spain, poses a bigger existential threat to the EU than the Brexit vote did. It seems that only the EU can save itself, and indeed Spain.
From one point of view, that are similarities between the Brexit vote, the election of President Trump and what the Spanish government calls the ‘illegal’ referendum in Catalonia. Just as the Brexit and Trump vote was greater in the interior of the UK and US and weaker in coastal areas and in the big cities, in Catalonia, the call for independence is not so strong in Barcelona. Just as Trump campaigned on the idea that the US was being taken for a mug, giving more to the global community than it gets back, in Catalonia there is a sense of unfairness in the air, the belief that Catalonia is treated as Spain’s cash cow. And just as was the case with Brexit and the Trump vote, it seems likely that the long term effect of the 2008/09 finance crisis has been a major factor behind a movement demanding change. But there are big differences, too.
For one thing, the Catalonian separatist movement wants to stay within the EU, even the euro area. And unlike the case with Brexit and the Trump vote, the region in Spain that is rebelling is the country’s most prosperous region. Barcelona is the home of a vibrant tech start-up scene, the movement in Catalonia would be more akin to California or London demanding independence.
In fact there is nothing new about the Catalonian demand for independence and memories are long, there is no doubt that the region was treated abominably during the Franco rule of Spain, the merest whiff of anything similar is enough to get the Catalonian blood boiling.
In fact, thanks to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia in 1979, and the 2006 revisions, Catalonia already has a high degree of autonomy.
But many in Catalonia want more autonomy for two core reasons. For one thing, in Spain's Constitutional Court's decision to declare part of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia unconstitutional, back in 2010. Secondly, the region contributes 19.5 per cent of Spain’s tax revenue, even though it only received 14 per cent of central government spending. Spain’s dreadful economic plight of this decade has not helped.
Up until yesterday, it seemed that opinion on whether the region should be separated from Spain was split down the middle. And the referendum of October 1st 2017 did not really tell us anything. Sure, there was a 90 per cent vote in favour of independence, but then it is thought that very few people who were against this voted. So, we are none the wiser.
Prime Minister Rajoy, however, seems to have messed up. He says that Spanish police were just upholding the constitution, but images of brutality beamed around the world, other images appearing to show local fire officers trying to protect citizens from a charging police force, may have changed the dynamic. Mr Rajoy is finding himself being compared with Franco. And nothing can be more effective at drawing support to a cause than the implication of state repression. Opinion in Catalonia may have been split 50/50 before the referendum, but the reaction by Spanish police following the orders of central government may have been enough to swing the pendulum decisively in favour of the separatists. Some even say that Mr Rajoy has fallen into a trap.
But there are a number of other, important factors at play.
There is also a separatist movement gaining strength in Northern Italy, a region that is even more important to the Italian economy than Catalonia is to Spain. The fate of this region of Spain will affect the fate of Lombardy, and the surrounding area.
And this takes us back to Brexit – as far as the EU is concerned, the UK cannot be seen to benefit from Brexit, as this may encourage Catalonia and Lombardy to push to leave the EU too, it is doubtful that the EU would survive additional departures of prosperous regions of Spain and Italy.
But the separatists in these countries do not want to leave the EU. It is just that under EU constitution, a newly formed country cannot be part of the EU, it has to apply instead – the same would apply to an independent Scotland.
The separatist movement say common sense would prevail.
But this takes us to President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany. Mr Marcon wants to see a more united EU, one with its own finance minister, and a euro zone budget. Such a plan may suit the separatists quite well, you can see how an independent Scotland, Catalonia and Lombardy may settle for being part of a more united EU – in this way they would have more independence than they have now, but still be part of something bigger, not alone in the world.
It is just that the German election has ceded a good deal more power to those who do not want to see further EU integration and are horrified by the prospect of closer fiscal union.
All told, it creates a set of circumstances that seem almost impossible to reconcile. And yet, failure to do so may lead to the unravelling of the EU itself.