The Catalan Referendum – The Impasse

europe in the 1800s

The European Political Map Before the Unification Movements of Germany and Italy

Doesn’t the path of history look obvious when viewed through the lens of time? A hundred years ago the actions and subsequent reactions of states or politicians seem obvious. Events which so troubled our forefathers are taught by the simplicity of a needlewoman’s thread and as the embroidery becomes a tapestry and we see the pattern so clearly that even the simplest student can follow it.

But look into the future and the clear patterns distort, the threads tangle. After hundreds of years of association and unification, do we face, in Europe today, the first cuckoo of the spring of disunion?

For years countries and empires have sought to be come bigger and stronger, only to reach a point where their size became unequal to the binding energy of their armed forces. Then the empire shrank back to a size at which it could enforce its borders. The Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Napoleonic expansion, the colonies of many European powers, and finally the German demand for Lebensraum each subsided in the face of determined, and usually armed, opposition. Each ultimately failed.

From the 1815 Congress of Vienna which sought to surround France with powerful neighbours, we have been raised on the idea of strong nation states. On two of its borders, the outcome was clear. Italy under the guidance of Cavour and muscle of Garibaldi unified nine states into a common entity, while Germany, a mishmash of Prussia and thirty nine confederated states – Principalities and Duchys – finally coalesced under Bismark’s canny leadership into one powerful German Empire. Meanwhile, in post civil-war America confederate states re-entered the Union as the US lived up to its name as the United States.

The end of the second World War saw another European unification plan rise from Europe’s ashes, unlike in Vienna one hundred and thirty years earlier, the mood was not to surround Germany with strong states but to bind states together. Firstly an Iron and Steel Community, then a Common Market and finally an European Union. And this has been the modus operandi for the last sixty plus years as the European Union proceeded to bind twenty nine countries together.

But something changed. Small countries wanted to emerge from the amorphous blob of togetherness. After three hundred years, the Scots challenged the English, not in the old way with claymores and dirks, but at the ballot box.

After forty years, the UK decided the amorphous blob of a distant Europe no longer suited it and now we have Catalonia using the same ballot box tactic to break away from Spain. A ninety percent ‘Si’ vote, even on a substantially reduced turnout seems pretty emphatic and impression was that Spain had not wanted to engage in the debate, which left the separatists little option.

But where next? Can the thread of history tell us anything? There are no exact parallels. The British law of tort is wide-ranging body of rights, obligations and remedies applied by the courts in civil proceedings. Previous cases help define outcomes. What previous case do we have in the case of state separation? Most recently the USSR dissociated into several new countries in a dramatic fashion on 26 December 1991. It will be long remembered for what followed: hyper-inflation wiped out the savings of its pensioners as the new countries, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, etc., forged a new pathway. Each experienced life as a new and independent state and it was not easy. Even today, Russia has its teeth in Ukrainian Crimea and its tanks in Eastern Ukraine.

In post Brexit Britain, paralysis has beset the government. Now we have a new vocabulary of meaningless new words: Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit, No Deal and even Bad Deal. The saga goes on and on. It may be the “will of the people” but it will not be easy to untangle the threads of history.

At least there should be no mass slaughter.

The will of the people freely expressed must be obeyed otherwise, is there any way for democracy to survive?

Let us hope that Spain and Catalonia recognise that as they embark on a new tapestry of Iberian history.

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