Only free Catalonia can save the EU

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Geopolitical Notes From India

M D Nalapat

THERE are numerous occasions on which the well-paid albeit under worked (in terms of productive effort) bureaucrats in the European Union Secretariat lecture other countries about the need to respect the popular will. However, when it comes to their own members, the EU gives them a free pass, no matter how egregious the human rights transgression. The Romany are as a community treated very shabbily in much of Europe, denied the privileges and access of most other citizens, barring migrants from those regions which have been the target of “human rights wars” waged by EU member states together with the US. No serious effort has been made to spend the relatively small sums required to bring the underprivileged and historically persecuted Romany populations of Europe to the same educational level as other members of the community.
To practise what’s preached seems a difficult task for the Brussels bureaucracy including in the matter of going by the expressed will of the population. Catalonia and its people have been witnessing this double standard during the past months, with the EU backing Madrid in its smothering of the right of the Catalan people to have the political construct of their choice, in line with what the EU claims are its foundational values. The King of Spain has encouraged his Ministers in the Central Government in their undemocratic refusal to permit Barcelona to have a government of its choice, led by Carles Puidgemont, the individual who represents the desire for autonomy of the Catalan population. Indeed, Puidgemont will most likely get arrested were he to return from Belgium, where he fled under threat of incarceration were he to remain in Spain. Despite the clear preference for freedom of a majority of voters in Catalonia (which included around a third of non-Catalans, almost all of whom would have voted against independence), the EU has refused to chastise the Madrid government for tactics reminiscent of General Francisco Franco and his suppression of the anti-Nazi Spanish Republic.
Not surprisingly, Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering sent over aircraft and troops to kill those Spaniards who were opposing the Franco dictatorship which continued for decades and ended only with his death of old age. Catalonia is seething with discontent, eager to be freed of the high cost in both money as well as liberty of being ruled from Madrid rather than from Barcelona. The EU is an institution on life support after the British people voted to break away from the Union last year. Only two countries, the UK and Germany, bear the financial burden of the EU, with the others being passengers so far as payments into the grouping are concerned. Once the UK breaks away, only Germany will be left, and the financial burden on Berlin will be so substantial that voters in that country will follow their British counterparts in seeking to break away from Brussels and its expanding bureaucracy.
In Italy, the northern region is restless at the way in which it is being made to subsidize the poorer south, and increasingly there are voices calling for a “Catalan solution” to the problem. Even in France, certain regions regard themselves as meriting more autonomy than the centralised French system of governance gives them. It is in fear of such a boost to fissiparous impulses that the EU as a grouping has stood by Madrid while it uses police methods to deny the Catalan people the freedom they desire from the coils of Spain. Such a stance is an error, for the most important advantage of the EU construct is the fact that it has made national boundaries largely irrelevant. Even if Catalonia were to secede from Spain, were both in the EU, the people of either country would be able to travel and settle down in the other. Apart from the fact that less of Catalonia’s taxes would be going for the upkeep of facilities and personnel in what would be left of Spain, there would be almost no difference on the ground even after the Catalan region got its independence.
The same situation would apply to any other region within the EU that broke away from the country in which it is now a part. Indeed, given such a situation, it is an example of the perversity and absence of rationality in multiple bureaucratic decisions that Brussels is warning Barcelona that any new Catalan state may not get admitted into the EU. In fact, EU rules should be amended such that a breakaway part of an existing member state would automatically become part of the EU. This would cushion the blow to the remaining part of the vivisected state, and reduce very significantly the impact of any such move towards freedom. Indeed, this would emerge as a key advantage of the European Union, that it would permit the full play of regional sentiments even should they cross the line of sovereignty and towards independence. Smaller states could be governed better and have central governments that are closer to the people.
The massive “tent” that is the EU would be able to accommodate any splinter state that gets formed as a consequence of popular impulses. Rather than turn away the Catalans or seek to join with Madrid in choking the momentum of their drive towards independence, the European Union leadership should embrace new states that are formed out of its present member states. Within the EU, such pluralism can flourish, which indeed will give the EU an advantage that it otherwise did not have. Even in the case of the UK, should Scotland secede, London may find that EU membership is preferable to opting out, but only in that situation. The EU is a perfect construct for ensuring the painless break-up of a member state into separate entities. In this respect, Europe has an advantage that most other regions with secessionist impulses lack.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.