....The Catalan question has deep historical roots, as does nationalism more broadly. But would it have erupted the way it recently did had Europe not mishandled the eurozone crisis since 2010, imposing quasi-permanent stagnation on Spain and the rest of the European periphery while setting the stage for xenophobia and moral panic when refugees began crossing Europe’s external borders? An example illustrates the connection.
Barcelona, Catalonia’s exquisite capital, is a rich city running a budget surplus. Yet many of its citizens recently faced eviction by Spanish banks that had been bailed out by their taxes. The result was the formation of a civic movement that in June 2015 succeeded in electing Ada Colau as Barcelona’s mayor.
Among Colau’s commitments to the people of Barcelona was a local tax cut for small businesses and households, assistance to the poor, and the construction of housing for 15,000 refugees – a large share of the total number that Spain was meant to absorb from frontline states like Greece and Italy. All of this could be achieved while keeping the city’s books in the black, simply by reducing the municipal budget surplus.
Alas, Colau soon realized that she faced insurmountable obstacles. Spain’s central government, citing the state’s obligations to the EU’s austerity directives, had enacted legislation effectively banning any municipality from reducing its surplus. At the same time, the central government barred entry to the 15,000 refugees for whom Colau had built excellent housing facilities.
To this day, the budget surplus prevails, the services and local tax cuts promised have not been delivered, and the social housing for refugees remains empty. The path from this sorry state of affairs to the reinvigoration of Catalan separatism could not be clearer.
In any systemic crisis, the combination of austerity for the many, socialism for bankers, and strangulation of local democracy creates the hopelessness and discontent that are nationalism’s oxygen. Progressive, anti-nationalist Catalans, like Colau, find themselves squeezed from both sides: the state’s authoritarian establishment, which uses the EU’s directives as a cover for its behavior, and a renaissance of radical parochialism, isolationism, and atavistic nativism. Both reflect the failure to fulfill the promise of shared, pan-European prosperity.
Catalonia provides an excellent case study of Europe’s broader conundrum. Choosing between an authoritarian Spanish state and a “make Catalonia great again” nationalism is equivalent to choosing between Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the President of the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, and Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front: austerity or disintegration.
The duty of progressive Europeans is to reject both: the deep establishment at the EU level and the competing nationalisms ravaging solidarity and common sense in member states like Spain.
The alternative is to Europeanize the solution to a problem caused largely by Europe’s systemic crisis. ....