Rediscovering a Forgotten Past – State, Identities and Cohesion

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Credit Emilio Naranjo/European Pressphoto Agency

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.”

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Cartoon: Chappatte

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.

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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 220px-2012_Catalan_independence_protest_1021.jpgone 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.

(COPYRIGHT 2017 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

 

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European Adventure – The Missing Variable

Cartoon: Jasper Rietman
Cartoon: Jasper Rietman – New York Times, Dec 18, 2013

The Europe we live in today is the worst possible Europe apart from all the other Europes that have been tried from time to time. No European alliance, empire, commonwealth or community has endured forever, but we should want this one to last as long as it can – Timothy Garton Ash 

Politically, the European endeavor appears as fragile as ever. Pockets of populism (extreme-right and extreme-left combined) have been popping out since the collapse of the financial markets in 2007. But the recent results of elections in Sweden, Poland, the United Kingdom, Greece, France, Spain, Denmark and so forth are demonstrating that the European electorate is increasingly voting more extreme than before. In the case of France, the Front National, which was historically a party of opposition has become the “first party of France” to take her President’s words. If populism is becoming attractive, it has created a complex national debate of incomprehension and anger between populist voters and the mainstream rest. National unity, in France, Europe and even in the US, is under attack.

Experts and political analysts have been identifying a series of variables in order to explain the rise of populism such as immigration, terrorism, economic stagnation, high level of unemployment, corruption, cronyism, globalization and Europe. Each variable is highly valid and can explain what motivate Europeans to seek for extreme alternatives. But one core dimension has been missing and is most likely the strongest component: an adventure, a story (for Europeans) and a dream (for Americans).

Loss of Memory/Direction in a Ever-More Globalized World

Globalization has been framed as the foundation of all national turmoils and traumas. For populist movements the word ‘globalization’ is a toolbox with no clear definition for obvious political reason. The concept of globalization should be understood as an acceleration in the degree of interaction and interconnection between humans, capital and goods. To some extent, the physical world is shrinking; the speed in interaction is accelerating [distance-time are disappearing]. A smaller shared space ultimately affects the understanding of one’ space and culture.  In her recent address about the reflection on a common strategy, HR Mogherini framed the question of globalization from a security angle, which contributes to the reflection on the definition of the globalization in this piece. She said that:

Everything that is important to our citizens is influenced by our international environment. And there is actually no distinction, no borders, no line between what happens far away, what happens at our borders, in our region, and what happens inside our European Union. Even these categories are now losing sense. 

‘Losing sense’ is quite a powerful part of her statement. Populist movements are directly responding to this sensation of physical, emotional and ideational feeling of dizziness. In addition, populist movements argue that the European Union is in fact a materialization of globalization and its global forces weakening national unity. Unfortunately, this is not true if one takes a historical look at globalization bringing us back to the 14th century with the Dutch empire. Globalization has roughly emerged at the end of the Dark Ages and pushed the economic and political transition of Europe and North America into the pre-industrial world. Arguing that globalization is the root cause of all national traumas is an absolute fantasy considering the longevity of such phenomenon.

However, one should talk about the speed of globalization and its acceleration in the last 20 years. “We live faster than ever before” writes Svetlana Alexievich “Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other.” Certainly globalization has become a powerful force highlighting serious limitations and weaknesses of European foundations. If capital and people can travel quicker than ever before [in roughly 12hours a human can be on the other side of the world], and in a less than a second billions of dollars/euros can be wired from one continent to another, such forces can undeniably create serious problems to the slow-moving entity of the nation-state and the EU. These realities of an ever-more globalized world is creating a distortion between immediacy and reflection. Immediacy could be embodied by the current economic model of casino capitalism; while, reflection is in fact the foundation of European political regimes, Democracy/Republic. If casino capitalism is based on economic gamble informed by pseudo-rational thinking as it is more a question of rumors and speculation, democracy is a slow process of introspection, discussion, collaboration and compromise. The discrepancy between casino capitalism and democracy is obvious and stretching the limits of European societies. Here lays the core of the problem in the globalized world of the early 21st century.

Ultimately, when a politician like Marine Le Pen, president of the extreme-right party le Front National, tells a story of national sovereignty, national control through the construction of physical barriers and implementation of protectionism, these narratives attract a confused audience. But the lie is obvious, the building of physical barriers to block invisible forces won’t do a thing in order to solidify national sovereignty and empower cultural exceptionalism. Building physical barriers in order to limit the flow of people is a myth. Millions of Europeans went through the Atlantic Ocean, an ocean, for a better future; are a series of walls around Europe be sufficient to stop refugees to come in. Not a chance.

European Adventure

The story of the European construction is a remarkable story and endeavor. In the rumbles of Europe, visionary leaders and thinkers drove European politicians to follow their visions

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Cartoon: Paul Lachine

in order to avoid another war that could destroy the world. World War two was one of the most vicious global fights with genocides, mass-movement of troops and civilians, arms and technological race and so forth. Over 40 million individuals died in six years leaving Europe as a massive field of destruction. From the agreement of the Treaty of Paris in 1951 to the Treaty of Nice in 2001, the European construction was far from perfect but it was an adventure for greater political, economic, and institutional integration. It was an adventure in order to horizontally expand the Community/Union from six original members into a Union of 28. It was an adventure as European citizens saw the fall of physical borders, from the Berlin War to national borders under the Schengen Agreement. It was an adventure when on June 7 and 10, 1979, European citizens could vote for the first time at a European election for the European Parliament.

It was an adventure as Europeans could finally move within a wide group of states in order to start a career, to start a European life, to study. It was an adventure as the continent saw an unprecedented economic boost bringing struggling states – Germany as one of them – into highly sophisticated and developed economic and industrial levels. It was an adventure in the agreement to share a common currency, the Euro, in order to facilitate commercial and financial transactions at first, and then the flow of people. It was an adventure as the Community/Union demonstrated the world that cooperation at its extreme did not undermine national sovereignty, but rather empowered it.

The Quest for a European Life

Today, the European adventure has become a European set of technicalities. The European adventure, which was at first bold and big, has become a highly technocratic and reductive vision of politics, finance, economics, and culture. Emotionally, European citizens are not opposed to the European Union, but are thrown off by the appeared and perceived distance between them and “Brussels.”populism-400x300

Europeans are in fact in search of meaning, a raison d’être. Unfortunately, this quest for a raison d’être is being hijacked by populist movements selling a past that never was. Populism, either fascist or communist, is attracting audiences – from elder voters to first time voters – because they are selling a ‘mission,’ a purpose to reconstruct a past that never was. Unfortunately, these populisms have no serious political, foreign, economic, fiscal, educational agendas. These populisms are simply selling smoke.

Instead of talking of clash of civilization – in order to identify a mythical clash between Western societies and radical islamic movements, which do not speak for societies with a majority of muslim citizens – experts should be talking of a civilizational depression. Instead of seeking for external enemies, Europeans should be looking within, inside and reflect of this European state of confusion. Europe may be simply dealing with its mid-life crisis. Now it is a matter of avoiding a complete divorce with a supposedly dark and repressive past, the European integration process.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)