Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab writer Christian Caryl described in his article The Age of Disillusionment that both western democracies and the world’s largest autocratic regimes are undergoing a period of strong disillusionment. Economic stagnation, the threat and visibility of global terrorism, and lack of a clear global leader among states has left many countries struggling among domestic constituencies to forge confidence in a single system of government. Indeed, the rise of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and the lesser known Jeremy Corbyn of the Labor Party in Great Britain, is symptomatic of people who feel left behind by changing technology in the workplace, labor market shortages, and the growing gap between elites and non-elites. He goes on to note that authoritarians are being challenged by the economic forces of globalization, and increasing dissatisfaction among their people who discovered capitalism without liberal political reforms do not necessarily work. Mr Caryl is right to assume we are disillusioned with the state of the world. But we should bring careful attention to the European secessionist movements that act as powder kegs, threatening further instability throughout the continent.
While many stateless peoples are content to live without a state of their own, many others joined, or are in the process of joining, vibrant secessionist movements across the world. One country that is particularly affected by this growing disillusionment with liberal democracy, even as democratic governance is giving way to stronger autocratic tendencies: Spain. Europe has a diverse and wide array of stateless national groups, bound together under the umbrella of national identities that are threaded by common histories, political relationships, and economic dependence. Catalonia and the cause of Catalan independence has achieved international attention for a people who have long agitated to control their own destiny at the expense of Spain and the ideals of liberal democratic rule. Two years ago, Scotland stunned the world by nearly seceding from the United Kingdom, an act that would have ended a more than three century union, and broken up a historically powerful country in international affairs. But the effect would have other devastating consequences for the European Community, as it would have inspired other people agitating for independence and autonomy to go farther, and granted greater legitimacy to their cause.
Europe’s (and Spain’s) Democratic Deficit
For years, we have talked about a democratic deficit in Europe, as stronger integration among states in the European Union have made decision making less accountable to the people. The refugee crisis and conflict in the Middle East has exacerbated undercurrents of dissatisfaction with Brussels and the national governments of France and Germany, helping far right candidates like Marie Le Pen and Viktor Orban rise to prominence in European politics. The proximity to which Le Pen’s National Front came to achieving higher offices in the 2015 Regional Elections served as a warning to establishment parties everywhere that many were looking for change. The European anxiety over how to address challenges to cornerstone EU policies like the Schengen Free Movement Zone and fiscal union, is symptomatic of a Europe in transition.
For More: “United in Disunity:” http://wp.me/p6YUnp-B
No where is that symptoms of European disunity more painful than in Spain, where the Catalonian Independence Movement has been empowered by dysfunction in Madrid, a product of economic stagnation and the inability of the two mainstream parties, the Populist Party and Socialist Party. The election of the far left, pro-independence president Carles Puigdemont to replace Arthur Mas, ejected the progressive conservatives from the movement, bringing together a more radical coalition aiming for independence in 18 months. Spain’s leaders and parties have threatened Catalonian leaders with imprisonment for attempting to breakaway, reflecting fear among the establishment and Spanish nationalists that the Catalans will go their own way regardless. After finally putting together a government in Madrid, Marianno Rajoy, head of the conservative acting government and Populists has decried the mounting tensions between the two parties.
The Catalans see Madrid as a deadweight on their own economic future, due to the region’s status as the country’s economic engine. But it is also a reflect of political confidence in national government. Spain’s history of coalition building and democratic rule is a rocky and violent one, hailing back from before the Spanish Civil War and then into the post-Franco period. The two leading parties have long held control of the country parliament, trading places much like the Democrats and Republicans in the United States, sidelining all other parliamentary parties to the fringes. Many of these fringe parties include separatists groups from the Basque, Asturian, and Catalonian regions that have never been fully integrated
The Spanish Threat to Unity
With Europe being rocked by Far Right and Far Left challenges to the established, pro-democratic, pro-unionist parties, Spain is both a unique case of a country unraveling at the national seams, but also a telling reminder of the fragility of that several countries still possess. While no one, and certainly not the author, believes that countries like Germany and France could be torn apart and split up into independent petit nationale states, the challenge presented by the Catalonian secession threatens the integrity of the European Union. Scotland’s case two years would have emboldened secessionists like the CUD to agitate Madrid for separation, but a successful split from Spain would be a bellwether of attitudes in other European countries throughout the Union. The keystone issue of the extremist parties, like the National Front, is that Europe is better off when we limit refugees and immigrants coming into the country, protecting the integrity of the country’s culture and national image, and limit further moves toward European Unity. Catalonia’s referendum, along with the Popular Party’s alliance with the two Catalonian independence parties may provide just such an example, provided Spain does not continue to slide into economic stagnation in the face of European recovery. Catalonia’s secession would inevitably damage the Spanish economy, but would have ripple effects across the entire continent, and the Atlantic trade.
The other threat is emboldening other secessionist parties to pursue greater autonomy, weakening the powers of national government in countries that are not historically well integrated. Italy was stitched together over a century and a half of constitutional monarchy, followed by Mussolini’s fascist government, and then a parliamentary system that favors unstable party coalitions, but has not fully achieved unification of identity. Last year, Veneto (Venice) residents voted 89% in an online poll for independence, as the regional secessionist party built a case for a referendum on the issue. Sicily, Lombardy, and Sardinia have also had independence movements, though Lombardy has attempted to push a federalist model of government. While none of these movements have succeeded in putting a referendum on the ballot, the conditions in Europe and Italy make the time ripe for flash points among the country’s disillusioned nationalist movements.
The Unknown Unknowns
The variability of results of even one region’s successful bid for independence makes it impossible to decipher the future of the continent. Given the continent’s rich cultural diversity and strong identification with local rather than national politics in the globalized society, this might be the cost of building a supranational state. This does not mean that policymakers and diplomats in Washington should take this lightly, or dismiss it as the work of extremists whose voices are drowned out by the vast majority of moderates, as we have done in Iraq. These movements are not the National Fronts or UKIPs, who are agitating for largely economic and religious reasons, but cultural and national ones who are highly organized around razor sharp wedge issues that common citizens can easily identify with. If the politics of European unity are challenging now with twenty-eight countries, then they will become increasingly complicated as a small group of new countries start asking for admittance to the Union, or remain outside the Union altogether.
The instability that secessionist movements create will challenge transatlantic economic relationships according to the Congressional Research Service, especially in a slowly recovering global economy, largely driven by US and Asian economic growth. We should consider a stronger social and cultural partnership, along with strengthened economic aid to Spain and Southern Europe. The United States since 1945 has provided material assistance to European allies on the basis of security against Communism and Soviet aggression against NATO. The Marshall Plan aid helped lift the continent from economic collapse and keep extremist groups on the Left from taking power in France and Italy. Detonating the Spanish powder keg may also create opportunities to see those parties take power, presenting a direct threat to Washington’s moral leadership as a protector of democracy, human rights, and the basic freedoms we hold so dear.