Despite the election of Emmanuel Macron at the helm of France less than a year ago, the populist wave has maintained a strong footprint and influence over European politics. The outcomes of the recent legislative election in Italy confirm that a core EU member state and Eurozone’s third largest economy has chosen a populist movement, the Five Star Movement (M5S), and an extreme right party, Northern League, to lead Italian politics for the upcoming years.
The story behind the results of the Italian election of March 4, 2018 is shaped by a series of factors: migration (influx of over 750,000 migrants since 2011 from Sub-Saharan Africa), frustrations towards the EU and Eurozone governance, ethno-nationalism (especially for Northern Italy), stagnating economy and increase of poverty (11.1% unemployment rate and 37.8% youth unemployment rate), and disillusionment with Italian political establishment. In addition, the results highlight the division between several Italies: in the North, the Northern League gained the most voices; in the South, M5S was the big winner; and in the middle, a faction of center left.
In the upcoming weeks, party leaders will be working on building a coalition in order to gain a majority. It was projected to see a coalition between Forza Italia and the Northern League, but in recent days Party leader Matteo Salvini expressed openness to join a coalition with M5S and other parties, at the exception of the Democratic Party. “The choice of speakers for the lower house of parliament and the Senate, due after March 23,” writes Giada Zampano of Politico “will provide the first hint as to possible alliances before parties consult with President Sergio Mattarella about forming a new government.” Mathematically, no future government can be formed without either M5S and/or the Northern League.
Here is my discussion with eTBS This Morning‘s host, Alex Jensen, on the populist wave over Europe in light of the Italian election, and the transatlantic link between European and American populist movements: audio file here or on iTunes here.
(COPYRIGHT 2018 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).
The “paradise papers” shine a light on the mechanisms utilized by global elites and corporations to avoid paying taxes. These latest revelations on the dark mechanisms of global finance, known as the “paradise papers,” emerge a little more than a year after the “panama papers.” But a clear distinction must be made between the two giant leaks: the panama papers were about illegal financial activities, while the paradise papers expose the legal financial and fiscal instruments available to the global elite and corporations.
Over a period of a year, 13.5 millions documents were analyzed and verified by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and its 96 partners, such as the BBC, The New York Times, and Le Monde. These revelations are based on a leak of documents in 2016 shared to the german newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. This year long investigation has permitted to expose the complex mechanisms of fiscal optimization utilized by corporations and the global elite (see here the documentary by Vice on the investigation). The documents are composed of three major categories:
6.8 million internal documents belonging to the international offshore law firm, Appleby, located in Bermuda with branches in ten tax heavens,
566,000 internal documents from the law firm Asiaciti Trust in Singapore,
and 6.2 millions documents from confidential registries in 19 tax heavens.
The paradise papers are particularly damaging for the transatlantic global elite involved in this massive tax evasion. The “paradise papers” are in fact the obvious demonstration of a total disrespect of democratic and social values by a segment of the transatlantic elite. As argued by an editorial of the french newspaper Le Monde, this mechanisms “endanger the principle of the equality of all in front of taxation.” Among them, so far the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, members of Trump and Trudeau’s entourages, and other wealthy individuals appear to have had prior or ongoing activities to avoid contributing to national taxation.
Politipond argues that the “paradise papers” are even more scandalous than the “panama papers” considering the current transatlantic political, economic, ideological and social climate. The “paradise papers” ought to be put into perspective along four points.
The first point ought to be political. The transatlantic political class has increasingly been more connected to, or simply is, the global elite. In the US, Donald Trump was brought to D.C. on the pledge to ‘clean up the swamp’ and on a variety of ‘America first’ slogans. Even though these rhetorics gathered great appeal on the campaign trail, the composition of his administration tells a completely different story. These latest papers show that three leading figures of the Trump
administration, Wilbur Ross, Secretary of Commerce, Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, and Gary Cohn, Economic Advisor at the White House have or are utilizing these optimization mechanisms for personal profits. Other individuals and influential republican donors, such as Robert Mercer and the Koch brothers, appear in these documents. So far the most damaging allegations go against Mr. Ross, whom is potentially facing a conflict of interests, as he is still retaining “investments in a shipping firm he once controlled that has significant business ties to a Russian oligarch subject to American sanctions and President Vladimir V. Putin’s son-in-law.” This financial connection does not imply that Mr. Ross is a piece of the Russian puzzle involved in the meddling of the 2016 American elections. To the contrary, Ross’ spokeperson claimed that Mr. Ross has been supportive of the American sanctions against Russian entities. But this connection demonstrates an absolute lack of morality in the behavior of some members of the American elite and government officials. In a ‘normal’ democracy, Mr. Ross should have already provided his letter of resignation to the President (watch here Mr. Ross’ response).
The second point is economic. The Euro-Atlantic community has been confronting a considerable decline since the 2008 financial crisis. If the US has recovered quicker than European economies, the economic crisis has considerably affected a wide segment of the transatlantic citizenry. In both American and European economies, taxpayers were the one to fit the bill to bail-out, rightfully so, the banking and financial sectors in order to avoid a complete collapse of the transatlantic economies. But since then, the stock market, particularly in the US, has done fantastically well, while transatlantic wages for the middle class have stagnated. Unfortunately, strong financial data and performance have not translated into the real economy. Taxation is an important equalizing instrument in the hand of governments in order to finance the state and social programs among others.
The third point is related to ideology. These allegations contradict the push occurring in the US and some countries in the EU, lately in France with President Macron, to promote trickle down economics, meaning tax cuts on the wealthy, in order to promote investment. The concept/theory implies that income and capital gains maintained thanks to tax breaks and financial benefits to wealthy individuals and businesses permit to stimulate economic growth. This theory was, once more and recently, demonstrated as fantasy by the Kansas experiment.
In the US, the blame usually falls on the shoulders of the poorest and weakest. Elected officials have historically blamed welfare programs, such as food stamps, in order to explain the ever expanding deficit. In this case, the American elite is demonstrating that in a country wherein taxation is not the highest in the world, fair contribution via taxation is not as automatic as expected. The New York Times reports that “Americans — companies and people — dominate the list of clients.” Among these American corporate giants, Apple, Nike and Uber, have avoided taxes legally through creative bookkeeping.
Helping the wealthy getting richer through offshore maneuvers is not a “benign benefit,” said Harrington, a Copenhagen Business School professor. “When the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, because individual wealthy people are not paying their fair share of taxes.” The inequalities within the Euro-Atlantic societies are increasing and the gap is becoming wider between the ultra-wealthy and the middle class.
As illustrated above in the chart from an analysis published by Chicago Booth Review, the gap is not only wider, but the income of the bottom 50% earners has not increased in the last 34 years and the middle 40% only show a rise of its income by 42%. A 42% increase is not small, but compared to a 121% for the top 10 and 205% for the top 1%, it is quite minimal. In addition, over the last 30 years, the quality of the American welfare state has declined forcing Americans to increase their spending on their healthcare spending. Income inequality has considerable grown wider in the US since the 1960s. For instance, a recent report explained that “the richest 1% of families controlled a record-high 38.6% of the country’s [the US] wealth in 2016.”
Last but not least, the greatest consequence is social. Tax evasion, in this case legal, undermines that basic structure of Euro-American democratic societies. These directly undermine the basic ‘social contract’ and fabric that citizens have with their fellow citizens and governments. Taxation for too long has been framed as a punishment, when in fact it is an individual contribution, a civic duty, to the construction, physically and psychologically speaking, of the society, country and ultimately the defense of the public good. In a Western democracy, citizens are expected to contribute. But as it was demonstrated by the Trump campaign and rhetorics, a significant number of American voters agreed and supported a man proudly exposing his successful cheating (he has yet to release his taxes, which could prove the contrary). In an even more grotesque move, Mr. Trump pushed the argument further claiming that because he had successfully cheated, he would be the best person to ‘fix it.’
So far, we are only in the first weeks of the release of the documents. The “paradise papers” demonstrate the facility for the global elite to hide their wealth in all legality and impunity in tax havens through shell companies or other complex mechanisms. It is difficult to image Euro-Atlantic states pushing for an end to this legal loopholes, when states are increasingly in the hands of the global elite. “It won’t be lost on wealth managers and those in the offshore industry,” Professor Harrington said, “that we are reaching sort of French Revolution levels of inequality and injustice.”
In the case of Europe, the EU and other international organizations such as the OECD (listen here in French the recent interview of Pascal Saint-Amans, Director, Centre for Tax Policy and Administration at the OECD), have put pressures on offshore havens in order to reform their laws. As argued by Samuel White of EurActiv, the “paradise papers” may “provide the impetus the EU needs to finalise an effective tax havens blacklist and end tax competition between EU member states.” In the case of the US, the Congress has had no desire to address these issues in recent memory and the data in this latest leak demonstrate it. The Euro-Atlantic societies need to wake up and start pressing elected officials in order to tackle these systemic tax avoidance mechanisms. These inequalities are directly at the heart of the problem of the Euro-Atlantic societies seeking for alternatives in the extremes. Surprisingly enough, these allegations have not had the impacts as one would have expected. Impunity can only continue if the citizenry is consenting.
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Concerns that Iran may seek to develop its own nuclear arsenal once the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) expires in 2025 are legitimate. But how can one make an informed decision to decertify the deal when so far Iran has complied with the terms of the 2015 agreement signed under the UN auspice?
Politically speaking, Donald Trump, against the recommendations of his top advisors decertified the deal after having already recertified it at two previous occasions. While this decision may appeal a Trumpian base that perceives multilateral and diplomatic efforts as a form of weakness undermining American grandeur, a divide between the US and the Europeans is apparent regarding the survival of the Iranian nuclear deal. European counterparts, especially France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the European Union (known as the E3/EU), have not shied away from expressing their opposition to such unilateral decision by the White House.
Could the greatest threat to the unity and future of the European Union come from within the member states? For a long time, the concerns were coming from capitals seeking to leave the block, economic difficulties or even foreign pressures. With the 2016 Brexit vote, the national decision to exit the EU has in fact proven to foster unity among the member states on maintaining the integrity of the Union. But with the 2014 Scottish referendum (calls for a second referendum are being advanced), the movements within the nation-states to seek for greater regional autonomy, influence, and power from the national capital have been relentless.
The Catalan crisis is an illustration of a region seeking for independence from its state. The fraught relations between Madrid and Barcelona are real (read past analyses here and here). The crisis continues to escalate. Over the weekend, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared that Madrid, the central government, would remove the region’s secessionist leaders. PM Rajoy announced the use of the Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, a radical step and an unprecedented event, which will dismiss the Catalan Cabinet, see Madrid assume all the powers of the regional executive, curb the role of the regional parliament and call for new regional election in the coming six-months. The central government does not seem keen at the moment to seek for mediation, but rather continues down the road of confrontation.
In addition, over the weekend, two wealthy Italian regions, Lombardy and Veneto, voted in non-binding referendums in favor of greater autonomy and seeking more power from Rome. These referendums, promoted by the Northern League ruling both regions, are not calls for secession from Rome, but instead a call for greater say and influence on issues of tax distribution and financial independence on several areas such as security, immigration and education.
Both Northern Italian regions contribute to a significant share of the Italian economy, with 20 percent for Lombardy and 10 percent for Veneto. Despite a significant share of Italian GDP, last summer Veneto received a €17bn rescue deal to address the banking crisis.
Even though it is too early to talk of a full fragmentation of some member states and the European Union, several trends and observations shall be advanced in order to rationalize and explain these forces at play. Prior to looking at a series of questions, which could contribute to the development of a series of hypotheses, one ought to recognize the complexities and particularities of each secessionist movements and the unique histories of the member states within the EU and their relationships with Brussels. These hypotheses try to identify commonalities between the recent movements in order to comprehend the reemergence of these regional forces.
Are wealthy regions done with solidarity via financial redistributions to other regions/states? Should the EU or the state be blamed for it?
Are these referendums informed by a conscious desire to guarantee cultural and linguistic survival, authenticity and uniqueness in a globalized world? This feeling is very much represented in Catalonia (despite being a major global touristic destination), in Nice and Corsica (France), and so forth.
Is the EU perceived as the enemy? In some regions of the EU, the EU or Brussels and in particular the Commission, are perceived as the actor promoting economic liberalism and ultimately undermining a certain savoir vivre. But in the recent case of Catalonia, the EU is called upon to mediate in domestic politics and national matters. Even further, there are some cases of desire to join the Union as a full member, which is a fantasy considering the responses of most European capitals and support to PM Rajoy.
The regional calculus takes for granted the core responsibility of the nation-state: national security and survival of the state. War and peace are forgotten concepts in Western Europe, which is quite ironic considering the state of European peripheries from the East (Ukraine) to the Mediterranean basin.
Are referendums the way to proceed in order engage with the central government? Do referendums serve the interests of the majority or only of the few?
Do these separatist movements inform us of a higher desire of activism and democratic inclusion? Meaning, there is a feeling of deposition to control civic life and influence the making of the nation. By scaling down from the national capital to the regional capital, there is a belief that one can have a greater say and influence in shaping the policy-making process and therefore the policy outputs. This democratic argument was very much present in the Brexit vote. These movements represent to some extent the end of centralized nation-states. But does this feeling of democratic inclusion at a lower level illustrate a narrow understanding of the world? It is not certain that an hypothetical sovereign Catalan state can, on its own, weather global forces from flow of capital to people.
Lastly, could we go even further and see these regional forces as the success of the European Union emphasizing that the state is now unable to fulfil the need of national citizens. In the case of Catalonia, the EU flag has been flown along the regional symbols. However, it is not certain that other regions would feel the same way. But if this were the case, the current EU would not be suited for the move towards a federation of regions considering that it is currently a Union of Sovereign States.
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With the election of President Macron in May and the guaranteed re-election of Angela Merkel, the European Union and the state of European affairs were supposed to return to the positive. Unfortunately, a series of recent events have exposed deep problems in Europe with the rise of AfD in Germany, the call for independence by Catalonia, the UK-EU tensions over the terms of Brexit, the election of Sebastian Kurz in Austria, and the recent assassination of a Maltese journalist. These recent events, prior to the European Council meeting on October 19/20 in Brussels, display domestic tensions and the need for greater unity at the EU level. But both seems incompatible at the moment.
Despite winning a fourth-term as Chancellor (past analyses here and here), Angela Merkel has yet to finalize the structure of her government. The strong results by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), extreme right party, was a response to Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik towards refugees since 2015. AfD capitalized on the fear associated to immigration and the perceived undermining of German identity. Chancellor Merkel is working on the coalition talk. On Sunday, Merkel’s CDU lost an election in the northern state of Lower Saxony to the SPD, which could affect her upcoming coalition talks. With the decision by SPD not to enter in a coalition with the CDU, Ms. Merkel will have to move towards the option of a Jamaica Coalition (with the pro-liberal and green party). The talks to form a coalition will be difficult considering the differences of policies and options on fundamental issues from immigration, EU reforms, taxation policies and environmental protection.
In the case of the UK-EU relationship as part of the Brexit negotiations, the current tension is centered around the financial obligations of the UK, or the net contributions of the UK to the EU’s budget in 2019 and 2020.
@ Olivier Hoslet/EPA
Until an agreement on the UK financial obligations is set, the EU is not willing to move forward regarding the terms and type of relationship between the UK and the EU post-Brexit. Prime Minister May changed the tone with her recent speech in Florence and confirmed that the UK will “honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership.” But the EU is expecting more concrete terms coming from the British leader. At home, PM May is facing a difficult front from the hard brexiters, framing the financial obligations as a ‘divorce bill,’ and members of her own party. She appears to have lost credibility domestically affecting her ability to shape a common position, and her European counterparts are concerned about her ability to stir the negotiations and ultimately deliver. Until the question of financial contributions is settled, PM May will not be able to move forward and discuss the terms of the future relationship between the UK and the EU. As reported by the Guardian, European leaders are the ones overruling EU chief negotiator, Mr. Barnier, whom suggested opening talks about the transition phase. But it appears that some European capitals are not ready to respond to May’s call. Ultimately, “the problem is not in the commission so you will not find the solution in the commission.” Therefore, the upcoming European Council will be critical for PM May to make a her case with as many EU leaders as possible.
On Sunday, Sebastian Kurz became one of the youngest elected leaders, at 31, as the Chancellor of Austria. Mr. Kurz, leader of the conservative right wing Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), won the national election with 31 percent of the vote. The Social Democratic Party of Austria, which currently governs in coalition with People’s
Party, received 26.7 percent, while the Freedom Party, extreme-right, had 27.4 percent. Traditionally, the People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party govern in a coalition, but this time, Kurz may be forming a coalition with the extreme-right taking the country back to 2000 when Jörg Haider led the country triggering political sanctions by the EU. Austria is one of the wealthiest EU countries with one of the lowest unemployment level and highest standard of living. But during the 2015-16 migration crisis, Austria took part of Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik welcoming a considerable number of refugees. During his tenure as Foreign Minister, Mr. Kurz, was behind the drive to seal the Western Balkan route in 2016 and was critical. The theme of the election, as it was the case in the other western countries, was identity, in particular anti-immigration and anti-Islamization. For instance, he has been calling for effective defence of the EU’s external borders, a stop to illegal immigration and curbs on foreigners’ access to welfare payments. “Anti-immigration populism and nationalism” wrote Steven Erlanger and James Kanter of the New York Times “are challenging the European Union’s commitment to open borders for trade and immigration.” In the coming days, Kurz will be building his coalition, but a move to the extreme-right appears as the new normal for Austria.
The continuous tension between Madrid and Catalonia represents a considerable crisis in one of the largest Eurozone economies (read two recent analyses here and here). After a referendum, considered by Carles Puigdemont, as a victory towards the independence of Catalonia from Spain, he has failed to call for it during his address to Catalan lawmakers on October 10. PM Rajoy asked Mr. Puigdemont to clarify his address by tomorrow (October 19). In case of a failure to comply, Madrid may use its emergency powers to take administrative control of the region by invoking the article 155 sending the country into a deeper political crisis. The tensions between Madrid and Catalonia continue to escalate despite a recent call by Mr. Puigdemont asking PM Rajoy to initiate a negotiation in order to find a solution.
Last but not least, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Maltese journalist, was assassinated on Monday in a car bombing in the smallest EU member state, Malta. She had made a name for herself exposing ramping corruption at every levels of the Maltese society and political arena. During the Panama Papers’ scandal, she exposed the link between politicians and shell companies. More recently, she uncovered financial dealings between family members of Azerbaijan’s president and Malta’s prime minister, forcing snap elections. Her assassination is latest attempt to undermining freedom of press and expression in Europe and it requires proper response and inquiry by the Maltese government and the European Union.
All these recent issues illustrate considerable challenges for the future unity of the bloc, but as well expose major systemic and domestic failures. These issues related to ethno-nationalism, populism, secessionist desires are ramping and require stronger domestic initiatives to shrink economic and social inequalities, address sub-national identity and cultural fears, and bring back a certain civility in the political discourse. At the EU level, these crises illustrate the a growing disconnect between Brussels and the capitals. Fascinating enough the EU is being criticized for being too little integrated on issues of migration and being too passive on questions of regional secession, but the EU does always not have a mandate to dictate policies and rules in certain areas of political life.
Each selected case exposes the undermining of core EU values from freedom of expression, to maintaining democratic values, inclusion, and ultimately the centrality of the rule of law. Austria is another piece of the European populist puzzle and highlight the shift toward the extreme-right. Hungary and Poland are the examples of the undermining of EU values and a clear shift towards non-democratic regimes. For instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has championed what is refered as “illiberal democracy.” Austria illustrates that the East-West divide continues to widen. Populism is vibrant and spreading throughout Europe and it is shacking the democratic foundations of EU countries and the EU.
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Let’s get straight to the point: self-determination of peoples. It is a very laudable theoretical concept. All peoples should have the right to choose the nation they wish to belong to, especially when they have a distinctive culture and a different language, as well as political and economic viability to build an independent state. And we, Europeans, ex-colonialists, field with guilt for our ancestors’ acts, tend to favor the rebels, independently of the justice and the consequences of their cause.
Historical Rationales for Independence
But there is also the other side of the story: in his most recent book, Michael Walzer uses three case studies of the past, India, Algeria and Israel, whose legitimate claims of independence where much more consubstantiated, to prove that “liberation movements” do not represent the expression of the majority will (people are much more concerned in surviving and moving ahead with their lives in troubled times), but the position of a separatist elite who builds a narrative and does everything they can to convince the population that their intentions are fairer and their view of history is much more accurate than the one the status quo power has been trying to impose.
In practice the paths towards independence are sinuous and trapped. They are played in a dangerous arena where almost everything is admissible for the cause of independence. It is an opportunistic and dirty game where the two sides are waiting for a weakness of the rival. It generates violence. In more extreme cases, it generates civil war. In the most extreme cases, it generated ethnic cleansing. At the regional level it generates instability. Very often it is contagious to sleeping separatisms that start to reevaluate their possibilities. Of course, we think, nothing of this kind is going to happen in Catalonia. After all, it is the 21st century, and this is Europe. But let me remind you of two things: on the one hand, the two sides of the conflict, Barcelona, and Madrid, have already reached extremes that we never thought possible in a democratic context. On the other hand, the last few years have demonstrated that nationalisms, of the emotional, ideological, centrist, and extremist kinds are not a relic of the 19th century. They are alive and kicking. Remember that history does not repeat itself but it rimes. Nationalisms are back, now in a context, different from the past. And we, in Europe, are ill prepared to deal with them.
The Catalan Case
How did we get here? The Catalonian separatism has a long lineage. The national day of the region, September 11, is related to the events of 1714, when Barcelona lost its autonomy to Spain in that War of Succession. In the 20th century, the mores and the language were trampled violently by the bloody Civil War and then by Franco’s regime, trying with particular roughness, to dissolve the Catalonian culture. The collective memory of these events has been passed along generations, as the testimonies from Barcelona, since the mock referendum of October 1, published in the international press, have been claiming. The nationalist feeling was partially placated (ironically) by the 1978
Constitution, that inscribed the right to regional autonomies in the context of the “indissociable unity of the Spanish nation”. But, albeit Catalonia’s acceptance of the founding text of Spanish democracy, the relationship between Madrid and Barcelona was always ambiguous. The Generalitat has always tried to find ways to further autonomy, while the central government has always been keen on protecting its powers. But for considerable period, the regional government was in the hands of moderates. First, a right-wing coalition, the CiU was ahead of it (1978-2003) and then it was replaced by its left-wing equivalent, a coalition led by the PSC, the Catalonian branch of the PSOE (2002-2010). The radical separatists were relayed to the margins, namely ERC, a leftist republican party that tried an independence coup a couple of years before the civil war and the several anarcho-unionist groups, also very active before the war.
However, minority ideas tend to fall asleep but never die. And the Catalonian separatism woke up due to three main factors: first, the economic crisis of 2008, that generated a feeling of injustice as Barcelona profits (around 20 percent of the Spanish GDP) were redistributed to the poorer provinces; second, the judicial process moved by Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party, between 2006 and 2010, that resulted in the removal by the Supreme Court of the status of “nation” (ambiguous) that had been approved in a legal local referendum. The SC alleged reasons of unconstitutionality and the PP claimed reasons of balance between unitarists and regionalists; and third, the political change in the composition of the regional government, that started to be ruled by the coalition “Together for Yes” (to the independence) that mixes, since 2015, the CDC of Carles Puigdemont, a right liberal party that became separatist as a result of the policies of the central government; the ERC, the republican independentist party of the 1930’s; and the CUP a left wing separatist movement composed by several small radical groups. Together they have qualified majority at the Generalitat, even though their only commonality is the independence of the autonomous region.
The Volatility of Nationalist Separatism
This change went relatively unnoticed, but aligns with the similar rise/growth of diverse populist movements across Europe (old nationalisms, new times). But this particular one has a different element: the nationalist separatism is a much more sensitive issue, more emotional, and capable of mobilizing passions. Which usually is a Molotov cocktail in politics.
The events that have been succeeding since October 1st are the culmination of all these tendencies: painful collective memories politicized by a coalition reaching the regional parliament thanks to protest votes against Madrid’s policies; all this in combination with a disastrous management of the Catalonian issue by the central government (including the King Felipe VI). Plus, Barcelona took advantage of the weakness of the chief of central government, Mariano Rajoy, who needed two general elections and almost a year to form a minority government.
This was the context of last Sunday’s referendum in Catalonia. Madrid had the law on its side. It forbidden the public consultation for reasons of unconstitutionality, but the Generalitat was more astute: it disobeyed, and dragged to disobedience more than two million citizens. Nothing was legal in the referendum: plastic ballot boxes, aleatory vote sites, on-line electoral lists of doubtful accurateness, and a very low affluence (around 42 percent) that indicates, according to specialists, that the unitarians simply did not bother to vote, considering the consultation bogus. These arguments would have been more than enough for Rajoy, with the support of Felipe VI, to declare the nullity of the act and move on. As it already happened in the past.
But Madrid lost its mind. So, it sent 12,000 civilian guards to preclude the voting. In this counter-information war, we know that the national police used force against the population (although we do not know how often), we saw mossos d’esquadra (the Catalonian regional police) crying and, according to hospital records, there were almost 900 injured (even though we ignore the extensiveness of the wounds). What remains from October 1st is the image of the Catalonian people enduring the police intervention against them in the name of independence. TV cameras from around the world captured enough images of disproportional violence to leave Madrid’s international image in the mud and to revolt thousands of Catalans that so far had been happy with the status quo. Rajoy, they say, is an “independentists’ maker”. And in fact, he is. In 24 hours he did more for the independence cause than all separatists together. In democracy, when one has the law and at least part of the legitimacy on their side the use of force against the population (who possibly believed in the goodness of the idea of independence) has two consequences: one loses the morality battle and the support of the population. The independentists won a double victory: they opened a larger gap between then and Spain (and Europe), very difficult to get over and they won the sympathy of the “international public opinion”. If this concept, popularized by Jürgen Habermas during the demonstrations against the Iraq war, is vague and imprecise, its practical effect is well known.
And now what? There are three possible scenarios. For now, the most likely is a growing tension between the parts, as Carles Puigdemont is likely to declare independence unilaterally this week and Mariano Rajoy has threatened to use all means at his disposal to stop him. It is difficult to predict the endgame of escalation. In politics there are few things as dangerous as separatist nationalism for reasons described above but too important to forget: internal violence, regional instability, and domino effect. Europe is full of separatist movements that might see the Catalan moment as an opportunity put forward their claims for self-determination and autonomy.
The second scenario is that Madrid and Barcelona overcome their differences and start to negotiate (as the population ask them to do this weekend in very large demonstrations). However, the possibilities are scarce and the conflict already reached a high point and depending on Puigdemont’s call a potential point of no-return.
Which take us to the third scenario: bringing in an external referee, a mediator. The successive crisis of the European Union almost made us forget that the main goal of its creation was to avoid that war would return to the continent. And it does not matter how critical each of us might be, the truth is this goal has been fulfilled (except for the Balkans that were Europe but not EU). We reached a critical point where Brussels should refashion its peace-making credentials. Pretending Catalonia is none of the EU competency is the sort of decision that did not pay off in several situations in the past. Let’s hope that Europe is willing to mediate, if called upon, this internal crisis, because peace in the continent must be one of the main values that unites member-states. And lastly, if something goes really wrong in Catalonia, a Pandora Box will be opened challenging the integrity of member states. The Catalan crisis could have greater unforeseen and unwanted consequences on the integrity of the EU than a bad Brexit.
Diana Soller is a research follow at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations (Lisbon) and a weekly columnist at the daily Portuguese newspaper Observador.
Politics in Europe are alive; Catalonia is the latest example. The financial crisis was the axiomatic moment in contemporary European politics fermenting domestic crises throughout and within the Union, occassionally bursting ever since. These crises have equally affected all EU Member States leading to the rise of nationalist forces (notably in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, the UK, Poland, Czech Republic and so forth) shaping the national political rhetorics and policy-agenda.
The latest crisis is undeniably Sunday’s referendum in Catalonia, which exposes an absolute dilemma and threatens the integrity of Spain, one of the largest EU Member States and Eurozone members. In a European Union composed of 28 sovereign states wherein domestic politics remain in the realm of the sovereign states (unless under a policy-area of a European competence), one core commonality remains binding democratic values and principles. Catalonia is one of these cases wherein state sovereignty and regional call for self-dertmination meet and clash.
The Catalan Nightmare
The crisis in Catalonia has changed gear, and potentially seen a shift in legitimacy from Madrid to Barcelona, with the reprehensible response by the Mariano Rajoy’s government on October 1 ensuing the unilateral Catalan referendum. Prime Minister Rajoy had the law on his side as the Spanish constitutional courts have ruled on several occasions on the illegality of a referendum on the independence of Catalonia. But “Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has transformed” argued Frederiga Bindi “what would have otherwise been a unilateral, unconstitutional, and useless referendum into a major victory for the separatists.”
The legal baseline is Spain 1978’s constitution, which stipulates that Spain cannot be broken up as “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” and “the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards.” Only the Spanish Parliament can changed the constitution.
Catalonia is a critical piece of Spain, which is the 14th largest world economy and the 4th largest in the EU (post-Brexit). Catalonia counts about 16 percent of Spain overall population Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain contributing almost 20 percent of the Spanish economy. One of the arguments in favor of the independence is the lack of proportionality between Catalan contributions to the overall budget and the return. From the 20 percent of contribution, Catalan residents receive 14 percent back for public expenses. Economically, Spain may certainly face serious internal trouble if Catalonia were to secede.
Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press
Without going back to 16th century Spanish history, Catalonia has always considered itself unique and separate from Spain with its own history, language, culture and therefore nation. In contemporary Spanish history, 90 percent of Catalonia supported the 1978 constitution. But the separatist movement and feeling have always remained underneath. The recent financial crisis, shifting into the Eurozone crisis, leading to the near collapse of the PIIGS country counted Spain in the mix contributed to exacerbate the tensions between Madrid and Catalonia. Adding to the financial crisis, Spain’s constitutional court struck down parts of the new statue of autonomy for Catalonia in 2010. Since then, Madrid did not reach several opportunities in order to continue talks with the region.
Prior Sunday’s violence, polls were always consistent in proving that only 40-45 percent of Catalans have been in favour of independence. 2013 was the year with a peak in the support level at 49 percent. Prior the announced referendum on October 1, a majority of Catalans were in a difficult position between Catalan authorities to hold the referendum on independence and the strong-hold position by Madrid.
Mariano Rajoy of Spain called on the separatist leaders, behind Carles Puigdemont, President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, to stop the “disobedience” and the “escalation of radicalism.” In a rare televised speech on the evening of October 3, the King Felipe VI of Spain condemned the actions by the separatists framing them as illegal and infringing the legal structure of Spain. “They have tried to break the unity of Spain and national sovereignty” he went on to claim. Ensuing the banned referendum, Catalonia has announced that it will move forward and declare independence from Spain in the near future (after a parliamentary session on Monday). Legally, if a declaration of independence were to be made, the central government of Spain could suspend Catalan autonomy under Article 155 of the 1978 Constitution. Such option would bring the country in a major constitutional and political crisis.
And, the European project?
Where does the European Union fit in this complex political puzzle? The EU is indirectly the cause and the remedy. But it is as well, rightfully so, a reluctant actor. In the case of the Catalan crisis, the EU and its set of institutions have remained as distant as possible from this domestic crisis. For the EU, this is not only bad news, but a sign of major internal forces at play within Member States. “Separation and secession within a member state is very bad news for a block” argued Stephen Beard of Marketplace “that is striving to hold itself together and is currently doing its utmost to punish Britain for daring to break away from the EU.”
The Treaties of the EU are clear regarding the competencies of States and the EU. For instance, Article 4.2 of the TEU stipulates that, It [the Union] shall respect their essential State functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order and safeguarding national security. In particular, national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State.
Ensuing the use of force by Madrid on Sunday in Catalonia, the EU called out and condemned government violence against citizens. On October 2, the Commission released an official statement underlining the illegality of the referendum under Spanish law. Without directly targeting PM Rajoy, the Commission ended the statement by claiming that “Violence can never be an instrument in politics.” However, Spain may be one of the largest and Western EU Member State, the Commission must be as critical as it has been in Poland and Czech Republic. “It is the kind of violence the European Union” writes Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, “would ordinarily condemn in high moral terms and even consider punishing.”
On Wednesday, the Commission called for an open dialogue between the Catalan authorities and the Spanish government. Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s deputy head told before the European Parliament that “it’s time to talk.” Timmermans still maintained the official position of the Commission endorsing the legal position of Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy. During the European Parliament’s session, two leading MEPs, Bavarian Manfred Weber and Flemish Guy Verhofstadt emphasized on the fact “strong regional identity and autonomy did not mean breaking up existing nation states.” What is certain is that “if Catalonia were to leave Spain,” underlined Jonas Parello-Plesner of the Hudson Institute, “it would also leave the EU, only to start a cumbersome reentry process.”
EU Member States, all sovereign states, are not usually in favor of secessionist movements, especially within the Union. In the current context of the Brexit negotiation, the EU and the 27 Member States are quite reticent to see a region of a Member State calling for self-determination and seeking independence. “Throughout my life,” wrote Javier Solana, a former Spanish minister, former NATO Secretary General, and the first EU High Representative, prior the Sunday violence, “I have witnessed the fragmentation of many countries, and I cannot conceive of that happening in the European Union of today.” Despite the reprehensible past action and poor tactic by PM Rajoy, it is difficult at this time to foresee any support from the 27 European capitals for Catalonia’s independence.
Lastly, the Catalonia case brings home a reality, which seems to have been forgotten in one of the richest regions of the world: history tells us that states will use force to maintain their integrity and unity. In his address to the nation, King Felipe VI, “Today Catalan society is fractured and in conflict,” he said. “They (the Catalan leaders) have infringed the system of legally approved rules with their decisions, showing an unacceptable disloyalty towards the powers of the state.” The message is direct, the state shall remain and fight any types of fragmentation.
For decades, Europeans have watched separatist efforts in Iraq-Turkey (Kurdistan), Sudan (South and North), Serbia (Kosovo), Chechnya (Russia), Nepal (China) with a certain distance condemning state violence and believing in some sort of European exceptionalism, that it would not happen here inside the Union. Well Spain demonstrated a forgotten reality.
“As it forms the basis for an experience of freedom, the history of democracy,” Pierre Rosanvallon, Professor at the Collège de France noted, “is therefore not simply a history of frustrations or betrayed utopias: it has become a deeply intertwined history of disenchantment and indeterminacy.” The Catalan case opens the European Pandora box of a forgotten past forcing European citizens and leaders to reflect on the questions thought buried under the rumbles of World War two, but briefly emerging since with the reunification of Germany and the wars in the Balkans, of identity, democracy, power, oppression, nation-state, region-state and cohesion. The fraught between Madrid and Catalonia is serious and could have considerable ripple effects if a thoughtful and open dialogue is soon implemented.
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