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Catalonia Demonstrates the Limits of European Integration


On the 9th of May, 1950 the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed “to make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.” His plan was to create a common market of natural resources and production between France and Germany, along with the supranational institutions to administer it. Mr. Schuman hoped that the intense economic rivalry which had characterized much of Great Power relations during the late 19th and early 20th centuries would give way to cooperation and joint planning; and as these rivalries diminished, so too would the jealous nationalism that had led to the most catastrophic war in human history, only five years ended. This was the European Coal and Steel Community, which eventually merged and evolved into today’s European Union, an institution whose official motto is “united in diversity” and which is dedicated to “ever closer union”.

The dream of “ever closer union” involves the creation of Europeans. This was to be achieved practically through the building of common institutions: a common market, a common currency, a common set of rules for moving people and capital, a common Parliament, a common Court of Justice, a common external frontier. Beyond these useful inventions, at the heart of the dream, was the shedding of the “bad old nationalisms” that were blamed for the First and Second World Wars, in favor of a “higher” supranationalism. People would cease to consider themselves French or German or Belgian and think of themselves as Europeans first and foremost. The new Homo europea would still feel nostalgia for the old flag and country, rather like a Bavarian today might feel proud of Old King Ludwig when viewing the Neuschwanstein Castle. But for all other matters, they would carry a European passport, “European” would be the nationality listed in it, and if they chose to fly a flag at all – something the advanced European would instinctively shy away from – it would be the blue and gold of the Union, not their “provincial” flag.

The European Union was established in 1993 and experienced a Golden Age of uninterrupted growth economically and territorially through accretion. During that period, the Union was extremely active in promoting the cultural formation of Europeans: between 2000 and 2007[1], the EU was spending an average of 1.2 billion euros[2] a year on “Training, youth, culture, audiovisual, media, information & social actions.” The flag ship Erasmus Program, established in 1987, was meant to expose European students to a dynamic cross-section of their peers from across the continent as they pursued a degree in a European university; there is a large and active internship program in Brussels for young Europeans who wish to work in one of the many EU directories and institutions; and there are placement programs, vocational and language training and research funds available for Europeans who wish to live, work or study outside of their home regions.

In other words, the process of creating Europeans seemed both workable and eminently achievable…for a time.

The Dream was dealt a surprising blow in 2005. Europe had just negotiated and signed a constitution which would done away with the previous treaties, replacing them with a single charter of fundamental and political rights, and replacing unanimous voting requirements with qualified majority voting. The new constitution would not have created a United States of Europe – it would not have been the fulfilment of the Dream – but it would have been a major step forward, one that would have allowed an acceleration of the unification process. Between November 2004 and May 2005, eight member states had ratified the constitution[3] but on May 29th French voters rejected it by 55% to 45% with a turnout of 69%; and three days later, the Dutch people also voted against it by 62% to 38% with a 63% turnout. The EU Constitution was dead, dead, dead. [4]

Subsequent events have only served to reinforce the verdict of the French and Dutch voters: most people are perfectly happy with the “bad old nationalisms”. They don’t want to be massaged or cajoled or bullied into becoming Homo europaea, the New European Man. When the chips are down and the financial crisis comes a-crunching, solidarity is revealed to have limits. Germans and Finns and Dutch will bail out the “profligate South” but only because they want to limit the contagion, but only with punishing strings attached. When the waves of immigrants arrive at the door step, a “borderless Europe” suddenly finds itself ringed by chain-link fences and razor wire. The newly powerful populist parties are exploiting precisely those cracks the European Union is dedicated to filling – the old fault lines of national pride and chauvinism. While most of these parties are not yet at the point of wanting to #MakeFranceGreatAgain (though some are) they are all talking about France or Germany or Italy First.

The current crisis afflicting Spain and its wealthiest region, Catalonia, is indicative of both of Europe’s initial success and ultimate failure. The European Union – and NATO – were successful in creating a large, borderless, free market and a security zone that seemed to make another European war inconceivable. That reduced the advantage of belonging to a large state, one with a large internal market and a sufficiently large military to ensure domestic security. Inside the European Union, a nation like Luxembourg could compete on equal terms[5] with Germany in the common market of 500 million people and had no more to worry about invasion than France or Italy. With a population 13 times as large as Luxembourg and an economy four times greater than the diminutive Grand Duchy, the Catalans felt that they could make a going concern of their country.

Foolishly, the Catalans also seemed to believe that the European Union would actually act on the principles of supporting diversity, the will of the people and democratic mandates, despite strong evidence to the contrary. Instead, they learned that Brussels would always back the interests of its larger member states, especially those who are “good little boys” like Spain[6]. When push comes to shove, Germans are still Germans, Spaniards are still Spaniards, and there is still no place for Catalans in a Europe “united in diversity”. While Catalan leaders are criticized for “sowing chaos” while pursuing their electoral mandate, Spanish leaders are fêted for fomenting police brutality and making political prisoners of democratically elected public officials. Spain will undoubtedly illegalize one or more Catalan pro-independence parties prior to the illegal election called for the 21st of December – there is little chance of them winning it otherwise – so banning opposition parties will be added to growing list of democratic achievements.

This was not an inevitable result. The history of the United States, a true federal union, demonstrates it. Vermont peacefully seceded from New York and was admitted to the Union in 1791. Kentucky petitioned to secede from Virginia and form a separate state, which was agreed in 1792. Maine seceded from Massachusetts and was peacefully admitted to the Union in 1820. Secession within the Union was never a problem for Americans to accept[7]; it was only secession from the Union that we fought against[8]. In the context of the European Union, Catalonia is attempting what worked for Vermont, Kentucky and Maine – secession within the Union. European GDP would not change by a single penny. No new borders would be created, except purely administrative ones (that already exist at a different level). The European Parliament wouldn’t even have to be enlarged: the Catalans could take up the seats vacated by the United Kingdom. In other words nothing would change, except that one old flag would replace another on the public buildings. The more important one would still be the Blue-and-Gold of Europe.

That is the failure of Europe: the failure to progress beyond a club of member states. The solvent of “old nationalism” will continue to work upon the seams of the union so long as it is merely a gentlemen’s club of member states. At some point, some crisis – populism, immigration, separatism, economic crisis, foreign war – will drive the final wedge that breaks those bonds. It has already happened in the United Kingdom. Union officials would be foolish to think that the forces of disunion are confined to that damp island. The same forces are at work throughout Eastern Europe, nations recently freed of Soviet domination and not keen on replacing it with a better disguised overlordship from Brussels. The Czech Republic has a new Prime Minister who openly scorns the European Union. Austria has just elected the most right wing Parliament since it stopped being a Gau in Hitler’s Reich. Italian polls show growing support for the anti-EU 5-Star Movement even as voters in Lombardy and Veneto overwhelmingly voted in favor of greater autonomy in non-binding referendum. And even in Germany, where people should really know better the extreme right Alternativ für Deutschland won an astounding 15% of the popular vote, largely but not exclusively due to the eastern Länder.

This is where the Dream finally dies: on the streets of Barcelona, Terrassa, Sitges and other Catalan municipalities. If the European Union has no mechanism for dealing democratically with the aspirations of its citizens, then it will never have citizens. And without citizens, it will never be able to evolve into a true federal union, a United States of Europe. All of the patches and treaties and ad hoc measures that Brussels cobbles together to centralize functions without centralizing legitimacy will only reinforce the centripetal forces working to pull things apart. It will only serve to make Germans and French and Italians angrier at the dislocation between their sovereign rights and what the EU does in their name without their consent or oversight through elections. Unless Europe succeeds in its fundamental endeavor of creating Europeans, it will eventually fail in all the rest. It took a great and terrible civil war to finally forge “the United States” out of “these United States”. If the reaction of Spaniards and Catalans is any indication, Europe may be closer to that outcome than to the fulfillment of the Dream.

Sources and Notes

[1] After 2007, the EU Budget was recategorized. This type of spending now falls under section 3 “Citizenship” but the comparison is more difficult.

[2] Nominal – not adjusted for inflation

[3] Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, Spain, Austria, Slovakia, Germany

[4] Despite this rebuff, Malta, Cyprus, Latvia, Luxembourg, Belgium, Estonia, Bulgaria and Romania all voted subsequently to approve the constitution

[5] Or on unequal terms, given the status of fiscal and corporate paradise

[6] Had the country in question been a small country like Greece or a rebel like the United Kingdom, you can be sure that the European Union would be sending commissioners, preparing indictments in the Court of Justice and levying fines against the government of said state for violating fundamental human rights of European citizens. As it is, Spain gets a pass.

[7] The problem arose from the imbalance created in Congress every time this happened, leading Southerners to increasingly resist new state creation in the Free North unless balanced by an equal number of new states in the Slave South. This is not a dynamic that should concern the European Union.

[8] And secession in the name of the worst possible cause in the world, the enslavement of other human beings.

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