- - Thursday, October 1, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Two political movements are colliding in Europe, with unpredictable results.

The emergence of a growing European bureaucracy in Brussels once seemed to undermine the traditional nation-state concept, and had buried regional differences. But a powerful united Europe has restored regional nationalisms — in Scotland in the United Kingdom, Brittany in France, the northern region of Italy, and Slovakia in the old Czechoslovakia.

Just when the European Union seemed firmly established and accumulating power, it has been hit by two crises. One is the threat to the common currency, with member nations of the Euro at odds with each other on credits and purchasing power. The avalanche of migrants from the Middle East and Africa reveals Europe as unable to advance a common migrants policy, caught between a declining birth rate and the need for a continuing labor pool, and the cultural threat posed by the swarm of Muslim migrants.

The European dilemma was vividly illustrated when a majority of voters in Catalonia voted for independence. It’s the most economically advanced region in Spain, with a per capita gross national income higher than the average in Europe. Its 7.5 million persons produce 20 percent of Spain’s gross national product and a third of its exports. Barcelona, its most important city, is a growing center for international business, now ranked sixth in Europe.

With an ancient language and cultural traditions, Catalan nationalism has been the subject of Iberian political debate for decades. Catalan autonomy was one of the issues which brought on the bloody civil war of 1936-40, and the nationalists comprised the strongest underground opposition to four decades of the Franco dictatorship.

With the restoration of the Spanish monarchy, the central government has conceded more and more to the region. Spain’s new constitution of 1978 recognized Catalonia among various distinct communities but laid down its doctrine of “indissoluble unity.” In 1979, the Catalans approved by referendum a new autonomy statute giving them more authority for healthcare, education and culture. In 2006, still another autonomy charter, negotiated with the socialist government then in power in Madrid, increased Catalonian fiscal and judicial powers, describing Catalonia as a “nation.”

But in 2012, Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister from the conservative People’s Party, rejected Catalan President Artur Mas’ call for greater authority to tax-and-spend. Last year Sr. Mas’ referendum — in defiance of Madrid — resulted in 80 percent voting for independence but with only 37 percent voting. In the recent election, the two parties representing independence won at least half the regional parliamentary seats, with a promise of independence in 2017.

The migration of low-skill manufacturing to other parts of Spain has driven its politics even further, hit hard by the downturn in Spain’s booming economy before 2008. Unemployment, especially among the young, has stood at 23 percent, well above the 12 percent for the nation.

In Madrid, Sr. Rajoy is caught in a squeeze, with national elections scheduled before December. With strong nationalism in growing the neighboring Basque country, he cannot make further concessions to the Catalan “independendistas.” Other EU governments, faced with similar challenges, have warned that an independent Catalonia would not be welcomed into the Union. This would deny the common currency to Barcelona, important to the increasingly sophisticated international business center. Dark clouds gather over the continent.

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