The police tried to manhandle those going to vote deepening divisions, for which Madrid belatedly apologised.
In the winds of change blowing across Europe, the Catalonian demand for independence from Spain is a straw in the wind. We have had a series of elections in European nations recently with populists and extreme factions gaining ground, the extreme right’s advance of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) marking a danger signal.
Much as France’s young and dynamic President Emmanuel Macron is flying the flag of Europe and hopes to rejuvenate the European Union with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU — one of the post-World War II success stories — needs a new direction and inspiration to surmount its blues.
Essentially, the sub-nationalism displayed by Catalans, a prosperous part of Spain, was exacerbated by Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy’s decision to send the national police to frustrate a referendum, which had been declared unconstitutional by the courts and the political establishment. The police tried to manhandle those going to vote deepening divisions, for which Madrid belatedly apologised.
The King weighed in on the side of the Madrid authorities in a speech that Catalans saw as being biased. There are calls for an outside mediator to bring peace even as Mr Rajoy is threatening to end Catalonia’s autonomy. Madrid says Catalans must first nullify their referendum result in favour of leaving though all accounts suggest that the majority still favours staying in Spain.
The point of the Spanish crisis as the populist and extreme movements in other European countries is the romance of the European Union that brought the countries together and attracted former Communist countries into the fold is over. Even as the EU has got over the economic crisis it had faced in recent years and is now looking up, it needs to be fired by a new ideal missing from the agenda.
While Ms Merkel is busy with the task of building an uneasy coalition to govern, President Macron is pressing on the accelerator to chart a new European course. In a landmark address in Paris, he proposed a common eurozone budget with corporate tax receipts from across the continent, a carbon tax at the EU’s borders, the conversion of 70 seats in the European Parliament that will become free on Britain’s exit into pan-EU seats and a common defence policy with “a common intervention force, a common defence budget and a common doctrine for action”.
Clearly, President Macron is not short of ideas nor limited in his ambition. But he realises, as does the rest of Europe, that the key to future changes lies with Ms Merkel, whose hand has been weakened by the depleted majority of her Christian Democratic Party and the rise of the AfD. But the initial responsibility is the success or otherwise of Mr Macron’s bold labour reforms and his ability to bring down his country’s economic deficit to reasonable levels.
In a sense, therefore, the success of a new EU horizon will depend upon Ms Merkel’s ability to manoeuvre through her country’s new political landscape before tackling major problems of Europe’s future. Particularly after Britain’s impending exit, the Franco-German axis will be the main motor that will drive a revitalised EU. As an aside, France will be the only EU country after Brexit to possess an independent nuclear capability and a seat in the UN Security Council.
There was a time after the end of World War II when the horrors and tragedies of combat brought about a yearning for unity. The last war is now a fleeting memory for the young in particular, brought up in a largely borderless Europe able to take up employment wherever they fancy. They take such blessing for granted.
What Europeans are now expressing is a desire to distinguish themselves from the European stereotype. It expresses itself in the form of Catalonian independence in one country, the AfD in another. The danger, of course, is that in the latter case it brings back memories of a particularly evil phase in German history. It might be fun for the young to sport themselves as neo-Nazis as a sign of protest but there are too many reminders of the harm the Nazis and Adolf Hitler did to make this acceptable.
Thanks to Ms Merkel’s generosity in accepting more than a million mostly Muslim refugees from Syria into Germany, religious differences have come to the fore. If India can’t absorb 40,000 Rohingya refugees because they are Muslim, imagine Ms Merkel absorbing such large numbers. Germany, after all, is a Christian country and you don’t have to be a neo-Nazi to protest against changing the character of the nation.
The anti-Muslim bias accentuated by the proclamation of an Islamic State with its brutal practices (now under retreat) prevails in many EU countries, particularly among former Communist EU members who have refused to take a single Muslim refugee, despite the quotas allotted to them. Apart from the religious element that has crept into European politics, this new feature has exacerbated expressions of sub-nationalism.
We are seeing the beginning of a new phase in EU politics which will make it that much harder to promote pan-European solutions. For many Europeans, the traditional roadblock is Germany’s tight money policy, which has made the country rich and prosperous. But most German legislators believe that their hard-earned prosperity should not be squandered by the foolish or extravagant policies of fellow EU states. It is an argument that will continue.
Beyond this quibbling lies the future course the EU will take. As we have seen, President Macron is not lacking in ambition and bold ideas in revitalising the EU. The problem is whether the rest of the EU is ready to take the plunge, aided by Ms Merkel. At the very least, it will be a long haul, with many twists and turns. But the short answer must be that the EU is too valuable an institution to be allowed to wither and die.