So the worst has come to pass, and the two protagonists of the “Catalonia Crisis” have slid into open confrontation; as neither Barcelona is happy with the ‘marriage’, nor Madrid is willing to entertain a ‘divorce’.
The Pro-Independence Catalonian Regional Government – i.e. ‘the secessionists’ as Spain’s Government calls them – are regarded by Madrid as rebels, and their referendum on Independence illegal and unconstitutional.
The picture is not the same, however, in the Catalonian capital Barcelona, where Pro-Independence parliamentary groups see things differently. They have insisted on seeking “divorce” and won the vote in the Region’s parliament 70 to 10, in the 135 seat assembly, after the anti-Independence deputies had walked out.
This means that Catalonia, like Scotland during its own independence referendum in 2014, is a deeply divided society. There is no large majority with a well-defined idea about where it is going, its alternatives, and the future of co-existence with current domestic partners, and Europe and the world community beyond.
Calling for a full independence may have been a decisive factor that was reflected in the relatively small margins; for in Catalonia, and against in Scotland. This is quite different from what we saw a few days ago in two significant referenda in two of Italy’s richest Regions, Lombardy and Veneto. In both there were huge majorities (98.1 percent in Veneto and 95.3 percent in Lombardy) for those favoring stronger autonomy and more diluted relationships with the rest of Italy.
The message from Italy is clear; as although both regions are led by the northern ‘isolationist’ and Northern League – which regards the richer Industrialized North as “more European” while the poorer agrarian-touristic South as “more Mediterranean” – the organizers neither sought full secession, nor made the referenda results binding. Such an attitude shows the organizers’ deep understanding of Italy’s fragile structure and interesting contradictions, and their wise tendency to rush things during a critical period in the history of Europe, indeed the whole world.
In Italy, contrary to Spain, political players seem more patient, although economic, cultural and linguistic differences are as commonEyad Abu Shakra
Radical and socialist Left
In Italy, contrary to what we see in Spain, the political players seem more patient, although economic, cultural and linguistic differences are as common. While there are Basque and Catalan speakers in northern Spain, there are German and French speakers in northern and northwestern Italy, respectively; and while there are both radical and socialist Lefts confronting the remnant of Francisco Franco’s fascist legacy, there are radical and socialist Italian lefts confronting the fascism legacy of Benito Mussolini.
Furthermore, as there exist active secular and pluralist trends throughout Spain, Italy’s Left even managed during the Cold War era to dominate city councils of major cities, including Rome, the political capital and spiritual center of Catholicism. As a matter of fact, no large or medium sized European country is free of secessionist currents of suppressed wishes for ethnic, cultural or regional distinctions and privileges.
In the ‘Old Continent’, where there is a widespread acceptance of separating the state and church – perhaps more than anywhere else in the world – one notices the maturing of the experience of ‘co-existence through accumulation’, including accumulation imposed or effected from above through wars, alliances of elites, and royal intermarriages. In the ‘Old Continent’ ‘interests’ - nothing but ‘interests’ – play the central role in the nation-building process.
Religions in Europe have never been a sufficient element in bringing about unity. Christian states have fought long wars showing that religion on its own is never a uniting factor; indeed, one of the most salient proofs is that Christian powers led the two warring coalitions of the two world wars, with the Ottomans being the exception in the first, and the Japanese in the second. This applies, as we are aware, to the Muslim states throughout history, in Asia and Africa.
Religious sects too, neither in the past nor the present, are enough to create a secure union or even alliance. Germany and Great Britain are both predominantly ‘protestant’, Russia and Ukraine are likewise predominantly ‘orthodox’; and in Spain secessionist fires rage in ‘catholic’ regions against a ‘catholic’ center, and at a much less acute situation the same is true in Italy.
Middle East experience
On the other hand, in the Middle East, it is well known known that Turks, Kurds and Arabs, are not only predominantly Muslim, but also Sunni; and yet, there is an old conflict between the Turks and the Kurds, moreover after Saddam Hussein was deposed, the Kurdish leadership in Iraq sided with the Shi’ite political parties and militias against Sunni parties and militias, and this continued up until the last few weeks.
Added to the above, even sharing one landmass is not enough to turn neighbors into one country. Sweden and Norway share the bulk of the Scandinavian Peninsula, and Spain and Portugal share the Iberian Peninsula but still they have remained independent.
Then, what about language? Even speaking the same language did not convince the American Colonies to remain loyal to the British Crown, and did not prevent Canada, Australia, and New Zealand from achieving independence, and never tempted Spain’s colonies in the Americas to unite in one nation.
Last but not least, there is the element of ethnicity.
Well, as pertains to the notion of unity based on ethnicity or race, the purity of race is scientifically unproven. It does not exist in major societies not living isolated from historical trade routes and in territories fought over by liberators and attacked by conquerors.
No one ethnicity or race automatically means or insures political unities; otherwise, we wouldn’t have known animosities and wars of all kinds between members of the same ethnicity, such as the those between the Russians and Poles who are both Slavs, the English and German who are both Germanic (in fact the British royal family is of German origins), the Pashtuns and Tajiks of Afghanistan both of whom are Indo-Europeans; just to mention a few.
To conclude, one must say that what creates nations are ‘interests’ of the people(s) if they have the right to choose freely and responsibly in a democratic environment; and these days, although history of nations is full of myths and folklore – some of which may be true or untrue – wise leaders are becoming more realistic. The notion of ‘globalization’ in Europe now needs to be re-defined, and the same goes for ‘Arabism’ in the Arab world.
After the West’s long co-existence with the ‘nation-state’ and trials with ‘pluralism’, and the Arabs’ confusion in dealing the two opposites of ‘state of partition’ (of the ‘Arab nation’) and ‘minority rights’, here come the experiments of the Catalonians, Scots and Kurds to ring alarm bells to all nations.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.