This week, the Catalan parliament declared independence. Immediately, the Spanish government annulled this move and announced direct rule from Madrid. By tomorrow, the Spanish authorities will have taken over all the organisations of the Catalonia state, including the police force.
This escalation can only further inflame nationalist sentiment in Barcelona.
This story, however, has a wearily familiar feeling to it: the extremists are taking over. The Catalan nationalists will manipulate every mistake by Madrid and, in turn, Madrid will become increasingly deaf to the legitimate yearnings of a significant chunk of the Catalan people who want to go on their own.
So, one side will escalate its own indignation, and the other side will denigrate its significance, leading to a bigger and bigger crisis.
As Yeats noted in “The Second Coming”;
“Things fall apart [when] the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity”.
This perfectly resonates with the current Spanish situation; the middle ground is simply shrugging its shoulders and allowing others to make decisions, while the extremists are becoming more cacophonous.
So, what’s going to happen? If we examine separatist movements of the past thirty years, there are three major movements that might help us predict what will happen in Spain: namely, those of Quebec, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.
The preferred route for those who want compromise is the Quebec path, and it is highly instructive.
When I first visited Montreal, in 1985, it was a slightly edgy, down at heel, bi-lingual city. I arrived on the day of the funeral of Rene Levesque, the nationalist leader of Quebec separatism.
The region was in mourning.
The Parti Quebecois wanted to lead Quebec out of Canada and create an independent Quebec. From the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, Quebec underwent a series of constitutional crises. Each crisis allowed the nationalists to grow stronger, ultimately leading to their day in the sun with the independence referendum of 1995.
In the end, the vote was wafer thin: 49.5% voted to leave Canada and 50.5% voted to stay – it was truly extraordinary. Interestingly, the fortunes of the nationalists waned after the referendum.
Importantly, this decline can be paradoxically attributed to the success of the nationalist movement in preserving the unique French-Canadian identity of Quebec; the region becoming both more French and more Canadian at the same time.
The Montreal I visited last year was firmly within Canada but profoundly more French than the city I had visited in 1985.
This is the solution many Spaniards, and many Europeans, want for Catalonia.
The Canadian government allowed the Quebec government to ramp up their linguistic laws to preserve French, and increased financial aid to Quebec at the same time. In return, the Quebec government dialed down the nationalist moves.
Today, Montreal is an extremely cosmopolitan city that has elements of both rural France and hippest Brooklyn. Quebec nationalism has won and Canadian federalism has also won, in a very Canadian display of constructive pragmatism. Dissolution was averted through dialogue.
For many, this route is the best possible outlook for Catalonia.
The second path for Catalonia is the “velvet divorce” of the Czechs and Slovaks. The old state of Czechoslovakia was dissolved peacefully on 1st January 1993. Interestingly, as late as September 1992, opinion polls showed that only 37% of Czechs and 37% of Slovaks actually wanted separation. However, nationalist politicians, on both sides, agitated in parliament for separation and ultimately, rather than prolong a row, the leaders of the biggest parties agreed to separate and form two countries.
The entire divorce was done with a minimum of fuss, very little acrimony and, better still, a total absence of bitterness.
Some people hope that Catalonia, if it insists on independence, might be able to negotiate such a velvet divorce with Spain. However, this doesn’t look too likely as the past few weeks indicate a level of acrimony between Madrid and Barcelona that is becoming more and more aggravated, not less.
The final path is the path to war that befell Yugoslavia. As outlined in this column a few weeks back, right up to the end, the majority of Serbs and Croats still clung to the idea that the Yugoslavian confederation may remain intact. What was regarded as a difficult but manageable constitutional dilemma descended into civil war in a matter of days.
Elements in the Yugoslavian armed forces made crucial mistakes at pivotal moments, dragging a largely unwilling population into conflicts which pitted neighbour against neighbour; a series of communal violence ensued, the likes of which had not been seen in Europe since 1945.
People sometimes dismiss Yugoslavia as being a once-off event, reminding us that, during the Second World War, the Croats and the Serbs murdered each other with impunity. For those with a sense of history, however, we should remind ourselves that over 1,000,000 Spaniards were murdered in their own civil war.
This slaughter is still within human memory.
Very soon, people will look to the EU.
My sense is that the EU will not abandon the Catalans. The “Europe of the regions” slogan only makes sense when you recognize regions. Moreover, the EU is an expansionist project; if it stops expanding, it loses purpose.
It doesn’t kick regions out.
No matter what it says now, ultimately, the EU will recognize Catalonia as an independent state if it continues down its current path, and the Catalans know this.
In fact, this is Barcelona’s diplomatic ace and Madrid knows this too.
We should all hope that the Catalan crisis takes the route of either Quebec or Czechoslovakia but the Croatian path can’t be ruled out, that is truly terrifying.
David Mc Williams hosts www.kilkenomics.com from November 9th in Kilkenny.