The Problems with Europe: Nationalism and the Rise of Independent States

Barcelona, Spain — Whenever a million people turn out for anything in Europe, people want to know why.

On September 11, a million people showed up in Barcelona to celebrate Catalonia Day. It was one of the largest crowds to gather in Europe this year, and it was a record crowd for the annual celebration of Catalonia Day.

Critics and politicians sought the broader meaning, asking what drove people to assemble. Some called it the biggest “democracy” protest in Europe; some called it a spillover of the Arab Spring events in nearby North Africa; others said it was driven by the recession across Europe and that people had just reached a point where they were simply fed up with unemployment and poverty; still others said it was a symbol that Catalans wanted independence – a sovereign state to call their own.

But thoseon the streets of Barcelona that day heard few calls for economic policy changes; there were no violent “democracy” protests; no one calling out for a new country called Catalonia.

People went to the streets that day – on Catalonia Day – to be together, to share the pain of recession, and to let themselves be heard. These were Catalans. Not Spaniards. Not Europeans. Not Muslims or Christians or Jews – indeed they were all of those. Old people, young people. Gay and straight. Man or woman. What made that day important was not the causes that drove them, but the lack of a cause. Unlike gatherings in the United States, this was not a left-wing movement like the Occupy protests, nor was it a right-wing movement like the Tea Party’s gatherings.

Graffiti on an ATM in Placa Sant Jaume in Barcelona, the day after Catalonia Day. Photo by Laurie Goeman.

Graffiti on an ATM in Placa Sant Jaume in Barcelona, the day after Catalonia Day. Photo by Laurie Goeman.

Most Barcelonans participated – even if only from home. People wanted to celebrate their shared history. The fact that they chose Catalonia Day is significant. It’s a day they have been celebrating since King Felipe V invaded Barcelona and Catalonia lost its sovereignty to the Spanish crown on September 11, 1714.

If anything, it was a statement against the perils of capitalism, as the picture above points out.

Calling themselves Catalans doesn’t mean they’re saying that they’re not Spaniards, and it doesn’t mean that they’re not Europeans. Sure, there were those in the crowd who waved the Catalonia flag and chanted “Catalonia: The newest nation in Europe!”  But in private, most Barcelonans said they are comfortable with things the way they are. And now especially is not the time to declare independence.

Catalans need the Spanish government, as do the other regions of Spain – just like Spain and Greece and Portugal need the European Union.

With debt of 42 billion in euros, Catalonia has by far the largest debt of Spain’s regions. It has been forced to borrow €5 billion from an €18 billion emergency fund set up by the government of President Mariano Rajoy to help Spain’s regions through this recession.

Artur Mas, the leader of Catalonia, says the large crowd on Catalonia Day is an example of Catalans’ desire for independence, and he is using that to urge Madrid to give Catalonia more authority over its finances. After all, he says, Catalonia contributes 19% of Spain’s GDP and carried the poorer regions of Spain when the economy was booming. But isn’t that what being part of a union means? Be it a region of Spain or a country within the European Union, it means giving of some of your sovereignty in exchange for participation in a common market. And the fact that Catalonia now has had to reach out to Madrid to help pay its debt only drives that point stronger.

That’s why President Rajoy said no to Catalonia’s demands for greater fiscal control, and it’s why the European Central Bank has held on tight to the euro and to the European Common Market. It’s also why the German Constitutional Court gave its approval to funding the European bailout fund, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed for an extension of Greece’s aid. Eventually, Europe’s larger,  more powerful countries are going to need the smaller markets of the south of Europe to sell their goods – and they know it.

Is keeping Spain together — and also Europe – going to solve the region’s economic problems? No, and we’ll discuss some potential solutions in next week’s column on demographics, pensions, and problems in Europe’s bond market. But keeping Spain and Europe together is a first step toward an economic recovery.