The Catalan message for Brussels

ACCORDING to the organizers, a million people thronged the streets of Barcelona Monday demanding Catalan independence from Spain. The Catalan parliament has passed a law authorizing a referendum which the Spanish government in Madrid had declared a breach of the country’s constitution. Federal police have reportedly seized ballot papers that have been printed, ready for the day when the Catalan authorities will dare to challenge the Madrid government and go ahead with an independence vote.

It is reported that if any referendum were held, it would be a close run thing. There is a core of people living in this Spanish province, including native Catalans, who think a breakaway a very bad idea. A major motive for voting against is the plain fact that Catalonia already enjoys a high degree of autonomy. The demand for independence is emotional but is not seen to make either economic nor political sense.

This was the way the Scottish people felt in 2014 when they had their vote to break away from the rest of the UK. This issue of an independent Scotland has been raised again since the British voters decided to quit the European Union. Significantly most Scottish voters rejected Brexit. It is on this basis that the Scottish Nationalist Party is arguing the country should be allowed another independence referendum and if the yes vote wins, should then seek to join the EU as a sovereign country.

For those in Brussels whose vision is of a United States of Europe, the rising tide of nationalism through the EU is positively bad news. It used to be argued that since all EU member countries were marching toward ever closer union, the idea of relatively small ethnic groups such as the Basques, Bretons, Catalans and Scots becoming independent was ludicrous.

But what the Euro-enthusiasts entirely overlooked is the reality that it is the impetus toward a single European superstate that has triggered nationalist movements. People are pushing back against what they see is the homogenization process whereby the central authority, far away in Brussels, is dictating how they should live their lives. For the British, including most of the five million Scots, the Channel which separates them from continental Europe has proved a psychological as well as a physical barrier. Napoleon’s description of the British as “a nation of shopkeepers” was largely true in that when Britain joined the then European Economic Community, it was for reasons of trade and nothing more.

Thus, unfortunately — or perhaps it will prove fortunate — for the enthusiastic proponents of a united Europe, there was a logic to the Brexit vote. The British never really belonged. But for the small ethnically-distinct groups elsewhere in the EU, independence from their current states, makes distinctly less sense. There are four small states, Liechtenstein, Andorra, San Marino and Monaco that are not members of the EU but they use the single currency and to all intents and purposes are part of the Union. But Brussels has long huffed and puffed against the anomaly they constitute, not least because of their business as tax havens. There would be no warm welcome for a sovereign Catalonia joining their ranks. But perhaps the million people who crowded the streets of Barcelona this week have an important message for the Euro-enthusiasts, which is to ease up on the unification pedal.