Will Spain fall like Yugoslavia, if so who's next?

Gilles Bransbourg / 08h26 - 05 october 2017 / 0 comments

On 31 December 1992, the Czech and the Slovak components of what used to be called Czechoslovakia parted peacefully...

...A year earlier, Slovenia and Croatia had declared independence from Yugoslavia. As it was deemed unconstitutional by Yugoslavia’s federal government. Belgrade sent troops to restore order, Ljubljana and Zagreb stood fast. Although the Slovenian case was settled rather peacefully at the cost of a few dozen casualties, it marked the beginning of a cycle of civil wars that was to last for ten years and cost about 150,000 lives, notwithstanding other forms of atrocities.

The referendum in Catalonia on Sunday, 1 October 2017, was deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s federal government. Madrid sent police forces to restore order, Barcelona stood fast. This is where we are. Is history repeating itself, and, if so, what history? Bratislava or Sarajevo?

People with a knowledge of history would say that Yugoslavia had been an artificial state from the start. That its ethnic components never accepted one another. That the region had a track record of violence. Czechoslovakia, a peaceful and civilized area of the Austrian Empire, did not share that tradition, which allowed for a peaceful outcome. Fine, although history is not short of horror stories caused by supposedly civilized nations – as if civilization had ever prevented violence.

Britain expanded its empire by ethnically emptying two continents (North America, where the job was mostly achieved by its breakaway colonists, and Australasia), and there is no need to remind ourselves how probably the most civilized and culturally rich country in Europe, Germany, behaved during WWII – alongside Mozart music-loving Austria that still pretends to have been an unwilling partner in crime (if any). Now, where does Spain stand, with its saga of civil wars since the 18th century that culminated in 1936-39, leading to the dictatorship of generalissimo Francisco Franco who died peacefully just 42 years ago?

The components for a very violent crisis are in place and the European Union may prove as hapless in 2017 as it was back in 1991 - especially since many member-states have their own secessionist threats in mind. Starting with France and Corsica, or Italy where the North may view itself as another Catalonia. Same thing for Belgium’s Flemish half etc.

This begs the question: are nation-states of Europe still relevant within the European Union, or just an increasingly redundant, costly and powerless layer between Brussels and their provincial entities? Regions like Catalonia, Brittany, Lombardy, Saxony, Transylvania, could foster their own identities within a Federal Europe, like German or USA states do today. Maybe Alsace could decide to reunite with Baden, Savoy with Piedmont and Tyrol would thrive on both sides of the current Austrian/Italian border.

One should not forget that most national identities of today are the result of centuries of violence. France became France through the brutal suppression of its southern principalities, with their own culture and distinct languages. Spain achieved its unity through wars of “reconquista”, completed by the oppression, forced conversion and then expulsion of its Muslim and Jewish minorities etc.

In the end, European nation-states played a positive role – notwithstanding their propensity for waging wars of conquest and killing civilians on a scale never seen before. Once unified, they offered protection to their population, freedom irrespective of faith and ethnicity, unparalleled prosperity and technological breakthroughs, the rule of law, a culture, a language, artistic achievements, pride. As a result, Europe is probably the most desirable place to live on Earth, hence the current migratory pressures of all kinds. However, in the digital age, where information travels from one point on the Earth to another in a matter of milliseconds, where sizable numbers of Europeans study, live or work in another European country, where internal wars of conquest have become irrelevant and European economies integrated like never before, would not a Federal State of Europe represent them better? Europe-wide elected institutions would eliminate the European Council with its clumsy (non-) decision processes as well as the technocratic, unelected European Commission, offering democracy and efficiency at the same time. Then, less distant regional rather than national governments would deal with local matters. Still many issues would have to be sorted out, starting with protecting citizens not perceived as locals against discriminatory types of legislation aiming at enforcing extremist forms of regional identities. The exclusive use of Catalan should not be forced upon Catalonia’s Spanish-speaking people for instance, this is nonsense, especially as technology will soon provide instant translation devices for everyone. Some borders may have to be redrawn to avoid trapping cohesive communities into regions whose culture they do not share.

This may look like a chimerical, unachievable or even undesirable vision of Europe’s future - but the alternative may be continuation of political impotence and in some cases, risks of significant civil unrest leading to more political fragmentation.