30 October 2017

The Spanish Senate has just triggered Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to impose direct rule over Catalonia. The decision, which Madrid claims is necessary to restore constitutional order, was taken following the escalation of tensions since the 1st October referendum. That resulted in a declaration of independence that was initially suspended but then activated this afternoon.

The situation is currently extremely tense. The Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has called an extraordinary Council of Ministers this afternoon, which will sign off the implementation of measures under Article 155, including forcing the Catalan leader Puigdemont and his ministers to step down. It is difficult to predict how things will unfold, although it seems unlikely that Catalonia will succeed in its bid for independence without international support. Less difficult to predict is that the crisis will have major social and political consequences. The unprecedented recourse to Article 155 will inevitably damage future relations between Madrid and Catalonia. Catalans’ desire for greater autonomy will have to be reckoned with sooner rather than later.

This desire for autonomy is by no means confined to that Spanish region. Just last Sunday, two large and wealthy Italian regions, Veneto and Lombardy, voted to demand greater autonomy from Rome. The referenda, which were sponsored by the Lega Nord’s (Northern League) governors of the two regions, crown demands which that party has voiced since its creation in the early nineties.

The demands of Venetians and Lombardians are different from Catalonia’s independence bid. Each regional struggle, including those of separatist movements in Scotland and Flanders, and elsewhere in Spain, develops within its own historical and geographical context. Yet, taken together, calls for greater autonomy and separatist drives all over Europe point to people’s desire for greater involvement in decision-making. To some extent they also challenge the authority of the nation state: a political unit which, while often taken for guaranteed, has not been dominant on the Continent for that long.

The European Union has so far watched these developments from something of a distance. Yet if the current antagonist of regional demands is the centralised and inefficient state, removed from its peoples, the technocratic EU might soon become the next target of separatists’ demands. This might be particularly so if the EU is perceived by separatist movements as siding with the nation-state, as happened during the Catalan crisis. To some extent this is already happening. Although they are very different in nature, nationalist and populist trends in Europe, as well as the Brexit vote, and regional claims, all have a common demand for greater democracy against an authority perceived as illegitimate.

The EU faces nowadays the urgent necessity to improve its legitimacy. This was one of the key messages of the Brexit vote, which many in Brussels have failed to understand. It is remarkable how little self-analysis there has been in Brussels over the root causes of the Brexit vote, which has been variously blamed on a fit of racist xenophobia, a particularly stupid or irrational electorate, or on British exceptionalism and their historically ‘awkward’ relations with the EU.

It is telling that when discussing ways to reinvigorate the EU, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker overlooked Brexit. Ignoring the result of the Brexit vote fails to grasp the problem at the heart of Europe today. It is of course analogous to the common practice of downplaying dissenting voices in Europe as nationalist and populist. People feel increasingly distant from the process of decision-making, at the European level, but also, and as testified by separatist and autonomist trends, at a national level. The recent developments in Catalonia and in Italy should serve as a warning.

A version of this article was originally published on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog