The events of the past ten days or so in Catalonia have rattled the establishment in Spain and the European Union (EU).
On Sunday the 1st of October, the Catalan government held an informal referendum on the question of Catalonia’s secession from Spain. With a turnout of just over 40%, approximately 91% of the votes were in favour of secession.
This, of course, drew an immediate and violent response from the Spanish government, which denounced the referendum as illegal and the result as meaningless. Resorting to tactics last seen during the fascist regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the Spanish police intimidated Catalan voters with thuggery on a grand scale.
The EU’s silence on the matter was deafening, which is strange for an organization that purports to support human rights.
This Tuesday, the Catalan Prime Minister pulled back from the brink of declaring a unilateral declaration of independence, preferring to sit down and discuss the matter coherently with the Spanish government.
Of course what it all boils down to is a rabid fear of disintegration of Spain and, by extension, other parts of the EU. There are many separatist movements all over Europe, some of which demand full secession from the countries into which they are currently integrated, and some merely seeking greater autonomy over their own regional affairs.
The EU has metamorphosed from a five-country trading bloc with the Treaty of Rome in 1957 to an all-encompassing economic and political union, with its own flag, national anthem and other aspects of “European identity”. Thus it is not minded to be supportive of any breakaway movements in Europe.
Which brings us to the thorny subject of Brexit. Chris Patten, a British Conservative Party grandee and the last governor of Hong Kong, recently described Brexit as “the single most calamitous example of national self-harm in my lifetime”.
He went on to say: “I don’t know what is going to happen as a result of Brexit. I’m in good company, because neither does the Government. At its best, in 10 years’ time there will have been a succession of small and larger things which will have impoverished us and made us less significant on the world stage.
I think it is awful if we finish up with a diminished country as a result of all that mendacity.”
The EU, too, thinks Brexit is a bad idea, not because it has any special affection for the British, but because it may act as a catalyst for the further disintegration of the EU itself.
And then, of course, is the hugely ironic situation of Scotland. Scottish independence, or more correctly its secession from the UK, has been an issue in Scotland for hundreds of years – but in the past couple of decades, the situation has become far more focused.
In the 2014 referendum on Scotland’s secession from the UK, the “No” campaign won by 55% to 45%. In the Brexit referendum in June 2016, while the UK as a whole voted marginally in favour of leaving the EU (by 52% to 48%), Scotland voted firmly to remain, with 62% of voters exhibiting that preference.
Negotiations between the UK and the EU have become firmly bogged down over the Brexit issue and it is becoming increasingly likely that the UK will leave the EU in March 2019 with either a bad deal or no deal at all.
If such a scenario materialises, the Scottish government may well be inclined to hold another referendum on Scottish secession from the UK, using the desire to remain in the EU as the main issue.
Two years is a long time in politics, and while both Catalan and Scottish secession may currently appear no more than a distant pipe-dream, I wouldn’t be taking bets on either outcome at this point in time.