Catalonia and the ‘Europe of Regions’

Exclusive: Catalonia’s bid for independence from Spain had a curious twist, a readiness to take its place within the supranational European Union, a further challenge to traditional nation-states, observes Andrew Spannaus.

By Andrew Spannaus

The Catalonia section of Spain.

Political debate across Europe has been shaken by the clash between the pro-independence faction in the Spanish region of Catalonia, and the national institutions of Spain, raising thorny issues about autonomy, national sovereignty and the European Union.

The Catalans, who organized a referendum on independence that was formally prohibited and partially repressed by national authorities, are in fact just one of the regional groups around the continent which have consistently sought to lessen their ties with their respective national governments, with schemes that go from greater financial independence to outright secession.

Until just a few decades ago, such aspirations would have barely been considered realistic in the Western world, as nation-states have been the dominant political entity for centuries, with no intention to give up power over their territory or population.

Several factors have intervened to change the political environment since the beginning of the 1990s. First, there has been the promotion of the notion of ethnic self-determination by Western democracies. This has generally been used to urge political change in other areas of the world, often with geopolitical aims such as weakening strategic adversaries; there are numerous examples, from the former Soviet bloc and the Balkans, to East Timor and Tibet. Support for such breakaway movements in the name of democracy and human rights has opened the door for people in Western Europe to demand their own right to self-determination.

Second, is the strategy adopted by architects of the modern European Union to encourage acceptance of the abandonment of national sovereignty. This entailed a departure from the original form of the E.U. that was begun in the 1950s as a system of economic cooperation among Western European countries with a strategic aim.

In that initial phase, it was considered essential to foster a close alliance in order to counter the Soviet Union, and the United States even made increased European cooperation a condition for disbursement of Marshall Plan funds shortly after World War II.

At the end of the Cold War though, the E.U. underwent a significant transformation, adopting the goal of gradually ceding national prerogatives to the supranational structures in Brussels and Frankfurt, ultimately seeking a sort of European-wide “United States of Europe.” This idea was promoted by the political elites, but garnered only limited public support, repeatedly being rejected when actual votes were taken among the population, for example.

It’s not difficult to understand why: countries would have to voluntarily give up their sovereignty to a political structure that, while formally managed by representatives sent from each single area, risked being led mainly by a permanent bureaucracy with little connection to, or understanding of, the diverse populations around the continent. The impression, still present today, is that the transatlantic political and financial establishment would centralize control, catering to the needs of only a small portion of the population.

A ‘Europe of Regions’

One of the solutions that emerged was to promote the notion of a “Europe of Regions,” i.e. along with the centralization of power on certain matters at the supranational level, there would also be a devolution of powers towards local authorities in other fields. The idea of emphasizing regional characteristics on an ethnic basis was not new, but it received renewed attention in the 1990s as avenues were sought to advance E.U. integration.

The flag of Catalonia.

This had an effect on political movements that focused on local issues. An example comes from Italy, where the idea was trumpeted by Gianfranco Miglio, an Italian jurist and political scientist who was a leading proponent of regional autonomy. Miglio was a long-time supporter of a reorganization of nations into smaller entities based on different ethnic groups, in a situation where the state and borders would ultimately disappear, as he put it.

Miglio became the philosophical leader of the Italian “Northern League” for a time in the 1990s. The League began as a movement calling for secession of the wealthier regions of northern Italy from the center and south, cast as corrupt, inefficient and impossible to reform. Representatives of the League were elected to political positions throughout the North, but eventually also took on roles in the national government.

As the notion of secession proved to be unrealistic, the political world did however embrace the idea of greater federalism, understood as allowing regional governments more financial and administrative autonomy, for better or for worse.

Now the two largest regions of Italy’s North, Lombardy and Veneto, are poised to vote in a non-binding referendum in favor of greater autonomy on Oct. 22. The aim is not to move towards actual independence – a goal embraced by only a small portion of the population – but rather to convince the national government to allow the wealthy regions to keep more of the taxes they pay, instead of sending most of the money to Rome where it is redistributed based on national priorities.

“We want the cash,” a leading member of the Lombardy Regional Government told this writer on Oct. 3. “The referendum will strengthen us in our negotiations will Rome.”

This is the position supported publicly by Lombardy Governor Roberto Maroni, who makes no bones about his desire to shift resources to his own constituents rather than keep subsidizing other areas of Italy that are less efficient and more needy.

In a press conference three weeks ago, Maroni also jumped at the chance to declare his support for a “Europe of the Regions.” Despite aiming to capitalize on populist sentiment, he distanced himself from the nationalist, anti-E.U. sentiment spreading around Europe, expressed by politicians such as Marine Le Pen in France. Thus the push for local autonomy dovetails nicely with the increase of supranational power structures that weaken the nation-state.

A Divided Catalonia

The case of Catalonia is more contentious. The Statute of Autonomy went into effect in 2006, giving the regional institutions heightened power over numerous areas, from education and health to communications and transportation. In 2010, the Constitutional Court of Spain began to roll back the effects of the Statute in various fields, provoking the opposition that ultimately led to the referendum earlier this month.

Flag of the European Union.

Not all Catalans are for leaving Spain. Indeed recent polling suggests that there is currently not a pro-independence majority. This conclusion is disputed though, and in the regional elections of 2015 pro-independence parties received 48 percent of the vote, short of an absolute majority, but a plurality sufficient to give them control of the regional government. The result has been a clash between Catalonia and the national government of Spain, with the national police intervening physically to block the referendum on Oct. 1.

The conflict has also raised serious issues for the European Union. Catalan secessionists openly stated that as an independent state they intended to be a member of the E.U. What better way to advance the notion of a “Europe of Regions”?

When push came to shove though, the E.U. institutions found themselves forced to warn Catalonia that it would not receive any preferential treatment even if it were to become independent. After an initial embarrassed silence, the European Commission aligned itself squarely with the position of the Spanish government, showing that in times of crisis the prerogatives of nation-states still prevail.

It’s ironic that just as voters throughout the West are supporting populists calling for a return to national sovereignty, in opposition to the end of political and economic borders as preached by globalization, the other flank used to weaken nation-states, that of regional autonomy and self-determination, is now causing problems precisely for those who promoted it.

Andrew Spannaus is a freelance journalist and strategic analyst based in Milan, Italy. He is the founder of Transatlantico.info, that provides news, analysis and consulting to Italian institutions and businesses. His book on the U.S. elections Perchè vince Trump (Why Trump is Winning) was published in June 2016.

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11 comments for “Catalonia and the ‘Europe of Regions’

  1. Ld Elon
    October 11, 2017 at 8:30 pm

    Could of made USE an example to the world, for the betterment.
    Now days you had fear-mongering and naysayers.
    Never happy, hardly justified.
    Letting his story ROT.

  2. Abe
    October 11, 2017 at 9:57 pm

    “While there are political parties within Catalonia that oppose Catalan membership both within NATO and the European Union, they seem to lack the ability to put in check pro-EU and pro-NATO leaders determined to peel away from Madrid and transform their new nation into one more eager and effective for NATO than Spain as a whole.

    “For NATO, Catalonia as a new member-state of NATO – while Spain continues its contributions to NATO – is a case of two for the price of one. Two nations carved out of one, in which both must dedicate a percentage of their respective GDP’s to military and NATO spending, and two nations now both weaker divided apart than united together to influence or oppose the larger collective agenda of NATO set by its much larger and more powerful members.

    “As to why Catalan politicians expect the Catalan people to believe NATO membership is essential, one reason cited often is ‘terrorism.’ Conveniently – and just in August in the lead up to the referendum – terrorists carried out two vehicle-ramming attacks, killing 14 pedestrians.

    “The attack – like virtually all others that have occurred recently across Europe – was masterminded by convicted criminals known to European, Spanish, and Catalan security agencies. […]

    “Leaders and proponents of Catalonia’s independence movement have been careful recently not to mention their eagerness to join NATO or to ‘spill blood’ in the alliance’s future conflicts. The Western media, including those who appear opposed to Catalan independence, have also not mentioned Catalonia’s future within the EU or NATO.

    “Instead, as the push for independence continues, a narrative is being constructed around familiar themes seen in other Western-backed political movements – a narrative predicated on emotions, personal struggle and state brutality versus the struggle for national and individual freedom.”

    Catalan Independence: Out of Madrid’s Frying Pan, Into the NATO Fire?
    By Tony Cartalucci
    http://landdestroyer.blogspot.com/2017/10/catalan-independence-out-of-madrids.html

  3. Peronella
    October 11, 2017 at 10:01 pm

    A correction, please. Respectfully.

    This is NOT the official flag of Catalonia. It is the independance flag. This flag expresses the specific desire of Catalans to be independent from Spain. It was modeled on the flag of Cuba, after it became independent from Spain. You see it everywhere now in Catalonia because the Catalans are pushing hard to become independent.

    The official flag is relatively plain. Just four red stripes on a field of yellow. It is the flag of the original ruling Catalan dynasty founded in the late 800s. It is said to be the oldest flag in Europe, but not of a state.

    Admittedly, the independance flag is very photogenic and makes for beautiful eye catching visuals. As it should, given the potency of it’s message.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senyera

  4. Zachary Smith
    October 11, 2017 at 10:08 pm

    Since I had heard nothing about the Catalonia situation until a few days before the vote, I was left wondering who was in the “right” and who was “wrong”. Also, I wondered if the Hillary bots would start howling “Putin!”, or even if the US might have some obscure reason to see Spain fall apart.

    The notion that the EU could be a driving force was a surprise, but upon examination it’s a logical one. Just as the newly minted Kings of European nation states found suppressing the powerful nobles useful, the EU would naturally be interested in destroying the power of the nation states.

    It’s also logical that the wealthy inhabitants of any country would be at the forefront, for keeping their wealth at home instead of sending it off to a poorer part of the Nation State would make them natural allies of the EU. I suspect the EU is posturing for publicity purposes so as not to spook nations which are next on the target list.

    The Civil Guard in Spain was one of the nastiest of the players during the Spanish Civil War. One wonders – if they go on a modern murder rampage as they did 80 years ago, how will the EU react? Will the rest of the European nations allow Catalonia to turn into Syria?

    • Abe
      October 12, 2017 at 12:46 am

      The White Terror was a nine year period (1936-1945) of political repression and mass killings perpetrated by the Nationalist faction during the Spanish Civil War and during the first decade of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

      The right-wing notion of a limpieza (cleansing) of society was the essential political strategy of the Franco government. The assassinations and terror began immediately after the nationalists captured a place.

      The Civil Guard (nationalist military) and the fascist Falange engaged in a merciless campaign of political violence against civilians in name of Franco. These Nationalist terrorist forces were ideologically legitimized by The Roman Catholic Church as defenders of Christendom.

      English historian and Hispanist Paul Preston chronicled the period in The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain (2012).

      Here’s a review of Preston’s book
      http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/13/books/review/the-spanish-holocaust-by-paul-preston.html

  5. Kalen
    October 12, 2017 at 2:42 am

    Well, suppose defenders of democracy in the west and worshipping elections to the level of going to war in MENA to assure democratic elections and democratic rule , now eat their feces of gigantic hypocrisy.
    Police thugs beating up elderly people waiting to vote, Trump is silent, DEMS are silent, MSM is silent.
    What possible crime requiring police violence is casting a ballot?

    Spain was and is a fascist state so is EU fascist emporium, those election looked identical to April 1933 election under Hitler emergency rule, tens of thousands voters were beaten or arrested by police at polling stations and that included various party members as well as the very candidates running in the election who were beaten and arrested while trying to cast a vote.(most still were elected while in prisoner)

    All those phony defenders of democracy choked, only deafening silence, no word, no condemnation of police violence, no defending right to vote revealing themselves all of stooges of deep state run by oligarchjic class set sim for mass extermination of population and terror.

    And all of that what for? When simple declaration of illegality of the vote by Madrid would have suffice, why so desperate violent move that only will increase the number of Catalonians voting yes.

    Here is the answer.
    What most are missing is the fact that Madrid panic response is not about Catalonia it is about Basque country.
    The Catalonia issue in fact stems more from 2008 crisis and their carrying most of cost of Spanish recovery, they want to get better share of they money they send to Madrid and have been utterly ignored and disrespected by Madrid de facto fascist regime.

    In fact like Scotland, [what killed their referendum] they want to stay in EU and probably last year referendum would have failed anyway so why not done then and got over with it last year.

    It is because it would set a precedent of region leaving the Spain peacefully while Basque country was not able accomplish it for over several decades, as the only Spanish anti-fascist force to fight Franco fascists [liberation struggle continued by ETA] before and after WWII until 1975 and later fascists who just changed uniform for democrats.

    The famous Picasso painting Guernica is about a Franco defiant Basque city leveled by German Luftwaffe [air force, killed hundreds] sent by Hitler to destroy democratically elected Republican government of Spain just a year or so before WWII stated in Sept 1939 while west was watching.

    This is the fight of Catalan elite for money from Madrid not liberation or sovereignty since they are happy to submit to Brussels, the mere fact of Madrid recognizing secession referendum is a political red line, which even so called Socialist PODEMOS. Will not cross and supports fascism of Popular party descendants of Falanga.

    • Libby
      October 12, 2017 at 2:09 pm

      One way to look at this situation is as the Russian doll, where a smaller ones are successively drawn out from within it, each of which, when standing alone, is at risk of losing its validity when taken in context. Your last paragraph is correct, and one which many jumping in from the outside do not understand: a binding referendum for secession is a red line because it is crosses the line of the territorial integrity of a nation-state and the will of the people taken as a whole. Here, one can question the very validity of the concept of nation-state. In the case of Catalunya, and one can also question of validity of the ‘will of the people’, for the independence movement has never constituted a clear majority within Catalunya (I believe this article even has the results of the 2015 (non binding) referendum erroneously, as the results are usually quoted as 41% in favor and 49% opposed).

      Invocations of the Civil War and the fascist nature of ‘Spain’ are next invoked, by the ‘independentistas’ of Catalunya (and left-leaning international spectators), who have been inveighing against Spain from their independent school system and in their official language (catalan) for forty years -a taste of the content can be gleaned from articles and comments on the Internet. The anachronistic nature of invocations of Franco are rarely questioned, as the Constitution of 1978 was formulated under sixteen years of a governing socialist party in Madrid (PSOE) and signed by over 90% of Catalans, or 5% higher than the national average.

      It is also true, were we to persist in anachronistic specters, that the Popular Front was not exclusive to Catalunya, but represented throughout Spain, became equally murderous and extreme due to its pro-Soviet communist and anarchist factions. But is a persistent reference to the Civil War fruitful? If so, to whom? My ex-father-in-law (Spanish) used to warn me, “Anything can happen here any time because we are essentially ungovernable”.

      Is Spain really a fascist country today under the veneer of democracy? While one can (myself included) not care for the PP, can they be voted out in the next elections? And, in the meantime, are the Spanish people, including, or especially, those of the ‘independence movement’, oppressed? Just looking at least week in Barcelona, we see a general strike (illegal in the US) by the CNT (anarchist union, the other powerful unions are the UGT -socialist -and the CCOO -communist – not conceivable in the US of today) capable of shutting down a city (not possible here either), the likes of which have taken place many times in democratic Spain. A country with multiple parties extending from the extremes of right and left to every shade in between, all of which have legally mandated equal airtime in televised debates.

      Linked to aspects of the above is the perception of an independence movement in Catalunya that represents the struggle against neoliberalism… But I never see those with this view bring forth either the corruption of the bourgeoise Catalan government (see the ousting of Jordi Pujol and his successor, Arturo Mas, for the same, and which can in every way rival that of the corruption of the PP. Nor do I see pointed out that, in 2015 at least, only 20% of Catalans wanted independence if it meant not being in the EU. Or that the current squabble with Madrid is focused on having more money for themselves. The truth is, in all ways except this, Catalunya already has more autonomy than any other region of Europe.

      More could be said from yet more angles. But when you look at the independence movement itself, and you ask of it what exactly they want, they can only say, “Their identity” or ‘independence’, so where is the line between facto autonomy and independence? Here, it seems to me that the movement, in collapsing into itself, becomes more and more exclusivist, and more and more ‘against Spain’ in a negative and even vengeful manner. Of course, one can take recourse to Junquera’s recent article (Vice President of Catalunya) on the DNA of the Catalan people, which is closer to the French, and then the Italian (with a drop of Swiss), than ‘Spain’s’, which shows more likeness to that of the Portuguese.

      Does the ‘will of the people’ or ‘right to self-determination’ include the motto (theirs), that ‘the streets are ours’? Does it sanction the governmental documents discovered of a planned secession by increasing steps of conflict? Or the squirreling away to accounts outside the country of I-forget-what large amount of money, but enough to support Catalunya for its first three years of independence? I have been an admirer of the Spanish democracy of the last 40 years (22 years from within Spain -including as a witness to the Catalan independence movement) and so have to question how democracy is being defined in this insistence, and how alternatives to neoliberalism and political corporatism can be formed, both in the EU and the US, can be created (we don’t even know who to move, as a country, or think, outside the duopoly). But the Catalan question also shows up problems inherent to democracy itself, and how we define it in terms of its dependence on the rule of law and its organizing structures. As regards relatively blind sympathy to the Catalan independence movement, it would seem appropriate to say ‘Be careful what you wish for’.

      I am somewhat embarrassed that this post is so long. The questions raised have repercussions; finally, I care about Spain, and am passionate about the distinctive history, culture, peoples, landscapes, and even languages (or dialects), of all its regions.

  6. October 12, 2017 at 3:28 am

    Thanks for the review

  7. john wilson
    October 12, 2017 at 4:20 am

    What’s the point of independence when at the same time they want to be part of the very controlling EU and NATO? I believe there were some 7,000 new laws and regulations passed by the EU last year alone which all member states had to comply with.

  8. Brad Owen
    October 12, 2017 at 6:56 am

    “Europe of Regions”: this is straight from the “playbook” of Synarchist Movement for Empire(SME). It’s an Oligarchic, neo-feudal conception; a PanEuropa of several hundred feudal estates presided over by an Emperor (Otto Von Hapsburg was the primary candidate in consideration for the job, back in the 1980s). This would supply employment for Dukes, Counts, Marquises, Earls and such, as local governors answerable to the Emperor (presumably there would be a local Folk Council that interfaces with the Emperor’s representative Duke). But it also is a reflection of a natural, biological process of multiplication-by-division (like in cell growth & differentiation). Europe is a very old, very mature land, occupied for uncounted thousands of years, having developed many local cultural distinctions, within any&all of its Nation-States. I can see the natural attractiveness of SME, if its rulers heed “The Angels of Our Better Natures”, to borrow a phrase from Lincoln (that’s a BIG if). Refer to “Return of the Monarchs”, from EIR search box.

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