Separatism and European crisis

In the weekend NY Times there’s an article by Steven Erlanger about the apparent resurgence of regional separatism in Europe. It’s not exactly a bad piece. It talks to the right people, and makes some good points. But Erlanger tries to stitch these elements together to make a wider case, and I’m not buying. Let me see if I can explain why.

He starts with a warning about a “renewed wave of separatism in the European Union”, for which he has a two part explanation. Firstly, the eurozone crisis is delegitimising national governments. Secondly, the risks entailed by a push for regional independence are lessened by the EU providing a supportive framework based on shared sovereignty.

The situation in Catalonia today shows that there’s a lot of truth in that first point. On his excellent blog Paul Mason, the economics editor for BBC Newsnight, quotes a man in the Barcelona street: “The situation has evidently changed a lot. It’s no longer about what people are feeling in their hearts, it’s what they feel in their pockets too. And the feeling is that they would be a lot better off if they were not a part of Spain.”

But that’s not the whole truth. A highup in the Catalan leadership tells Mason:

“One cause of it is the crisis, but the crisis just gave the last push. It’s the addition of obstacles, one on top of the other by Madrid, over the past two years. Political obstacles – and obstacles to identity, which really says to us there is no option to have Catalonia as we imagine it inside the Spanish state.”

Not just the past two years, either. In another blogpost, Mason traces today’s problems back to the 1930’s and the Civil War. Clearly the eurozone crisis has everyone at each other’s throats. But it’s an exacerbating factor in a long history of separatist resentment. To focus on the euro crisis as the source of a new wave of separatism is a strong claim, and a wrong one.

That conclusion goes double for Scotland, which is only indirectly affected by the problems of euroland. Indeed, the crisis has created a series of nasty dilemmas for the Scottish Nationalist government. Would Scotland, as a new member state, be obliged to join the euro as required in the EU treaties? The leadership says no. But that would mean staying with sterling, and suffering the same structural liabilities as the euro members, who use a currency over whose monetary policy they have no control.



Similarly, Erlanger’s second claim that the EU encourages separatism because it “lowers the stakes for regions to push for independence” isn’t as solid as it seems. Erlanger quotes the Blairite foreign policy thinktanker Mark Leonard:

“The whole development of European integration has lowered the stakes for separation, because the entities that emerge know they don’t have to be fully autonomous and free-standing … They know they’ll have access to a market of 500 million people and some of the protections of the E.U.”

But the piece contains plenty of evidence otherwise. As Erlanger writes, “the crisis has also presented a real conundrum for regional leaders, because it has undermined the attraction of the European Union”. And this is a real change from the old pre-crisis days. Once upon a time the EU was indeed a strong force for regionalism. The European Commission assessed structural fund spending on a regional basis, and backed a range of dull-but-important initiatives like Interreg. To quote again from the Erlanger article:

Traditionally, the European Union has been popular with the leaders of these regions, said Josef Janning, director of studies at the European Policy Center. “They see strengthening the power of Brussels as diminishing and relativizing national governments, a process accelerated by the single market in Europe.”

The past, though, is another country.

“But now,” Mr. Janning went on to say, “comes the crisis,” which presents a dilemma for the regions, because it also means a reconcentration of power by national capitals trying to cut the national budget. “Now eyes are again on Madrid and Rome and Paris and Berlin,” he said, “so regional opportunities are squeezed, and the affluent [ – Catalans among them – ] are made to pay.”

It now seems almost inevitable that Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy will be forced to take a bailout on terms dictated from the centre. Spain’s budget will be backed up with European money only on strict conditions. Further austerity will be required, and will be enforced from Brussels and Frankfurt. Regional authorities will quickly lose the habit of looking to the EU for relief, assuming that habit’s not already been comprehensively broken by the hard experience of the last four years.

Likewise in Scotland, the longstanding lovein between regional activists and the EU has steadily soured. Scotland is less eurosceptic than the rest of Britain, but even so the latest polls show a majority of Scots voting to leave the EU if given the choice in a referendum. According to Josef Janning, “these regional entities and leaders need to be on the right side of public sentiment and feel close to public opinion and regional identity. So now they’re torn.”

What to conclude from all of this?
I’ve got my own two points to make.

One, that today’s regional separatist movements have long and tangled roots that draw on deep resentments. They ebb and flow to their own historical logic.
And two, that the crisis has wrought chaos. It’s now pushing Europe’s institutional settlement in many different directions at once. At the highest levels there are moves for further integration, most obviously on financial matters. At the same time the nation states are being forced to take the lead in imposing crisis measures. And below them, in those areas where there are long-established problems of consent and legitimacy, regional grievances are gathering. It’s a volatile mixture, and you’d need to be brave or foolish to predict how it plays out from here.

Maybe I’ll get brave enough, or foolish enough, in a future post.

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