Written by Alexander Freund
Is that it with the beautiful idea of a European Union? Is this fragile alliance really broken? Is nationalist sentiment ripping the EU apart? These questions frequently come to mind if one looks at the EU from the outside.
National borders across Europe witnessed a fundamental transformation after the end of the Cold War, epitomized by the reunification of Germany. In the eastern part of Europe, many new states emerged with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. In Western Europe, though, national frontiers did not alter much. But the situation could change now.
The European Union is currently at loggerheads with the United Kingdom over how to organize the country’s exit from the bloc. The two sides are struggling to find answers to an array of tricky questions dealing with the divorce settlement, such as: How expensive will the separation bill be? How should the future relationship look like? How should they trade and tax each others’ products in the future? What rights should be granted to EU citizens living in the UK and British nationals residing in the EU following Brexit? What does this mean for the people and firms that have so far benefitted from the European Single Market?
The two sides have to undo now what they have jointly managed to build and achieve over decades. This will have ramifications. Companies operating in Europe, particularly in the financial sector, may have to adjust their business models and operations accordingly to fit the new reality. Many firms and investors are also likely to relocate at least part of their activities from the UK to the EU.
The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland or, possibly, Scotland could then suddenly turn into the EU’s external frontier. In these places, Europhile Scots and Northern Irish have also been contemplating independence for a while.
The British vote to leave the club hit the EU hard. Many in the UK and in other European countries were aware even ahead of the referendum how tough and painful a separation would be.
Still, the British opted to leave, as many there, like in other EU nations, shared the feeling of having lost much of their national identity and political authority to Brussels. This concern unites separatists, along with the irrational notion that people would benefit if their countries became more “independent.”
In most cases, however, granting broad autonomy would be much more meaningful as well as more feasible.
Needless extreme demands
Catalonia is a case in point. Separatists here assert that the economically strong region has to declare independence as it has been exploited and culturally suppressed for too long by the Spanish state. This oppression, they claim, has lasted for over 200 years, since Spain incorporated Catalonia in 1714 following a war of succession.
In remembrance of this disgrace, the fans of the FC Barcelona football club to this day roar “In-de-pen-den-cia” (independence) in a chorus at precisely 17 minutes and 14 seconds into each half of their home games – a bizarre ritual.
Certainly, Catalonia has always had its own language and its own culture, but the region has never been an independent nation. Since the Middle Ages, the place has enjoyed a special status within the Spanish Kingdom. And this far-reaching autonomy status was even adopted by the Spanish and Catalan Parliaments in 2006, and then approved by the Catalan people in a referendum held afterwards. With this autonomy option, it seemed possible to bridge the gap separating Barcelona and Madrid, which had arisen during the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939 and the subsequent dictatorship under General Francisco Franco.
But this statute was a thorn in the eye of conservative Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, who lodged a complaint against it, following which Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down the core provisions of the statute in 2010. The ruling marked a victory for centralization, a challenge for separatism.
Since this needless demonstration of power, the separatist tendencies have intensified. The two camps have also become increasingly intransigent, especially since the Spanish central government’s brutal crackdown on the independence referendum, in which an overwhelming majority of Catalans voted for secession.
The consequences were immediately apparent, when a number of Spanish banks and companies began considering moving their legal headquarters out of Catalonia. As discussions grew louder that the region could tumble out of the EU and the Eurozone, moderate forces and those in favor of the region remaining part of Spain started to coalesce.
Although Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont issued a symbolic declaration of independence from Spain, he then immediately suspended it and called for negotiations with the Madrid government, saying that he wants to give dialogue another chance.
The EU’s silence
Why doesn’t the EU intervene? Why doesn’t the “community of values” attempt to build bridges? It doesn’t, simply because it’s not allowed to do that as the Catalonia problem is formally an internal matter of Spain, unless both parties express a wish for Brussels to interfere to resolve the issue.
Moreover, the EU is not interested in getting itself dragged down into any messy involvement in the Catalonia debate, the implications of which will not be limited to Spain.
Separatist tendencies, sometimes even militant ones, are rife across the EU. In Spain, the demand for independence is not constricted to Catalonia. The Basques, too, have been striving for independence for a while. Such sentiment is also prevalent in the region of Corsica in France, in Belgium and in the prosperous northern Italy that wants to split from the poorer south. Furthermore, many in Greenland don’t want it to be part of Denmark and the Serbian minorities want to get out of Bosnia and from the independent nation of Kosovo.
In addition, there are places like Transnistria, the eastern Caucasus and the Crimea that present similar problems. All these conflict spots make Europe appear like a patchwork carpet.
It is therefore easy to lose faith in a united Europe. Or the alternative would be to view the European idea not as a problem but as a solution. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, is currently promoting the idea of a visionary Europe everywhere. In tackling all key issues, be it in the economy, defense, education, security, migration and climate, Macron seems to be committed to European cohesion and joint action.
Only a strong Europe could meet the challenges of a globalized world, Macron said, adding that the answer then is more, and not less, Europe. Against the backdrop of the centrifugal forces pulling the EU apart, the French leader’s stance appears to be somewhere between utopian and naive. Nevertheless, his approach is correct.
A multi-speed Europe
The renewal of the European Union will be possible, by ensuring that some countries move forward with further integration without the need for others to join. That means a multi-speed Europe. A united Europe as a whole is more important than the search for small-scale consensus, which has long paralyzed the European Union.
National or even regional interests must be subservient to the interests of the entire European community. The community, in turn, will have to respect the regional needs and, if necessary, grant adequate autonomy – including the right to self-determination, but not the right to independence.
The basis for these considerations is the conviction that it is usually better to reform a community from within than to leave it.
Unity is strength, even if the separatists do not like to hear that. And unity in diversity has always been important in Europe. Diversity is strength, not a weakness. “We need to overhaul the European project, through and with the people, with much greater democratic stringency than a mere binary question,” said Macron. After reforming the EU, the French president noted, even the UK could return to the bloc if it so wished.
If Macron’s ambitious vision turns into reality, then there will be not only a Europe that is united and diverse but also a Great Britain that is a true “United Kingdom,” including Scotland and Northern Ireland.