Here’s Why Catalonia Has Put the EU In Danger

Jacob L. Shapiro |


Catalonia is vying to become Europe’s newest nation-state, but this is a battle Catalonia ultimately can’t win.

Only 51.8% of members in the Catalan parliament supported the independence declaration. That means even Catalans themselves are divided over whether Catalonia should secede from Spain.

Spain has threatened to do whatever is necessary to maintain the rule of law in Catalonia, and it has both the will and the means to follow through.

Catalonia also has very little international support it can depend on. Even so, the Catalan revolt of 2017 will have ramifications in Spain and in Europe that will be felt for generations to come.

For many observers outside of Europe, the Catalan issue came out of left field. But no one should be surprised that Catalan independence has become a major issue—it has been for many centuries now.

A Product of Spain’s Geography and Catalonia’s Unique History

The geography of Spain is immensely diverse. (In his recent exclusive e-book, The World Explained in Maps, George Friedman explained the balance of power in Europe using maps. Download it here.)

The northwest is rainy and faces the Atlantic. The center has historically been dry and poor. The northeast—where Catalonia is located—is fertile and faces the Mediterranean. The south has its own unique climate and spent many centuries under Muslim rule.

These realities helped create unique cultures and political economies that have proved remarkably resilient over centuries, despite best efforts to subsume them under Spanish nationhood.


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The Catalan declaration also came out of Catalonia’s history.

There has been a uniquely Catalan political consciousness since the Middle Ages. When Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile married, their rule was not absolute. It was a bargain between the monarchs and the regions comprising their dominions, many with their own constitutions.

Taxes might well have flowed to the crown, but the crown in turn respected the autonomy of its regional subjects. The players often changed, but “Spain” was always a grand bargain between disparate regions and distinct peoples, not a coherent national entity.

Catalonia’s Victory Would Spark a Wave of Independence Movements

This explains why Spain has reacted with such force to the Catalan regional government’s moves.

Catalonia is just one of 19 autonomous communities in Spain. Basque Country, with its own language and unique culture, has also been vying for independence. And as recently as the 1990s, Basque separatists carried out terrorist attacks in Spain in support of their cause.

If Spain does not crush Catalonia’s independence movement now, it could open a Pandora’s box, with other regions demanding more autonomy or even separation, and Spain can’t allow this to happen.



Madrid, therefore, needs to assert direct control over Catalonia; anything less would give the appearance of Spain abdicating its responsibility to its people and its constitution.

Both sides have been hurling accusations of illegal conduct at each other.

The Spanish constitution is silent on the issue of independence referendums, but the Spanish government and Spain’s Constitutional Court view the Catalan regional government’s activities as illegal.

The Catalan government viewed the violent Spanish response to the vote as illegal. The Catalan government also thinks what it is doing is in keeping with the spirit of the European Union, founded as it was on the idea of national self-determination.

The situation has progressed to the point that the legalities and illegalities are irrelevant. The rule of law exists only in a political community where at least the vast majority accept it.

When there is a fundamental disagreement about what the law is and who gets to enforce it, stability vanishes. Then life goes back to being nasty, brutish, and short, with victories determined not by persuasive argument but by monopoly of force.

Europe Is in a Lose-Lose Situation

This is where things get complicated for the European Union.

On the one hand, the EU remains steadfastly in support of its member state, Spain. But Spain will now have to use force to maintain its writ in Catalonia. That will put the EU in a lose-lose situation.

It can support a member state using force to quell a political rebellion that seeks the very thing the EU was designed to protect: national self-determination. Or it can support the right to self-rule for the people of Catalonia, which would undermine the position of the Spanish government.

How Spain and the EU respond to Catalonia will set the tone for how the EU will respond to separatist or autonomy movements in places like Scotland, northern Italy, or other regions with dormant nationalism that may bubble to the surface.

2017 will be the year that the EU supports a government in putting down a movement for national self-determination on the European continent. Most, if not all, EU countries will support the use of force this time, since no country wants its own territorial integrity challenged.

But condoning the use of force in this context takes the EU to a dangerous place. The EU was built around economic prosperity and was designed to ensure peace for Europe’s nations. If the EU can’t guarantee either of those things, it will become irrelevant or unrecognizable.

Slowly but surely, Europe is returning to history—and the suppression of Catalonia is a recurring chapter in that history.

BY JACOB L. SHAPIRO

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