Democratic populism plunges Spain into crisis

By George N. Tzogopoulos Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/24 21:20:08

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The debt and the refugee crises are not the only challenges for Europe. Nationalism fueling separatism is another tendency causing trouble for some member states and skepticism in the EU. Many questions remained the day after the Catalan referendum, from the personal clash between Spain Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and Catalonia leader Carles Puigdemont to the vision of independence the latter promoted.

To start with, it was an illegal vote. About 90 percent of Catalans who participated said "yes" to independence, but this had no legal value. Numerous citizens did not go to the polling stations out of respect for the court decision. As a result, the Catalonia region is more divided now than ever.

Apart from the ambiguity of the referendum itself, some regional cleavages are apparent. The support for independence is much higher in Barcelona in comparison to other areas of Catalonia outside the city. The problematic distribution of regional power has been a thorny issue for years, generating Catalan disenchantment with taxation, the Catalan language in schools and the competence of the Catalonia court system. The reality of independence will certainly be different from theoretical claims.

Notwithstanding Puigdemont's insistence on the need for independence, the Catalonia parliament can hardly proceed to a declaration of independence with such a slim majority. That kind of decision requires a general consensus and a clear plan for the new state.

The current plan is based on the white book presented three years ago by former Catalonia president Artur Mas. This is considered inadequate or at least too optimistic by most analysts and scholars.

Citizens who want independence - largely influenced by the passion of Puigdemont - cannot anticipate future repercussions. It is unclear how a "Catalanexit" from Spain will impact on relations between Catalonia and the EU.

International mediation will not easily be accepted by the Spanish premier. Prime Minister Rajoy will refrain from recognizing Puigdemont as an equal political partner. The initial plans of some banks and businesses to leave Catalonia add further uncertainty. The Madrid government's determination to impose direct rule over Catalonia deploying Article 155 of Spain's 1978 Constitution is causing reactions. It is harsh, but it is the law.

Attention should be turned toward the potential impact of the Catalan separatist movement on similar tendencies in other European countries. The EU is careful to extensively focus on the illegitimate nature of the Catalan referendum. This sends a clear message to other politicians who endorse Puigdemont's tactics.

Italy is a particularly interesting case: Sunday's referendums in Lombardy and Veneto revealed the public will for greater autonomy. Some draw parallels between Italy and Spain and foresee the beginning of a new debate on secession. There is a fundamental difference though. Lombardy and Veneto respect the constitution while Catalonia is not doing so. And Italian regional leaders Roberto Maroni and Luca Zaia do not challenge the unity of Italy.

There are fears the Catalonia referendum could widen the gap among the three communities of Belgium and reinforce secessionist voices in Flanders. But the Flemish nationalist party - New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) - is part of the coalition government in Belgium. Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Jan Jambon, for instance, is member of N-VA. Although politics is unpredictable, the situation seems to be under control in Belgium.

Scotland - where a new referendum will possibly take place either at the end of 2018 or 2019 - looks on Brexit negotiations with anxiety rather than Catalan enthusiasm. Other minor cases of separatism - namely Corsica and South Tyrol - should not be ignored, but their dynamics to shake the foundations of Europe are questionable.

All in all, the Catalonia case demonstrates that some European politicians have the ability to manipulate public opinion and serve their goals using democratic means, or quasi-democratic means. The political trends can perhaps be described as democratic populism.

Of course the lessons remain the same. The reality is harder than the smooth words.

The author is a lecturer at the European Institute in Nice, France. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



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