The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Whatever happens in Catalonia, its anger with Spain is a sign of things to come

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Confusion is still the order of the day in Catalonia. The region's standoff with Madrid could reach a tipping point Friday, nearly a month since the Catalan government staged a chaotic independence referendum deemed unconstitutional by the Spanish government. The Catalan parliament is scheduled to meet at noon to determine whether it will unilaterally declare independence. If it does — or maybe even if it doesn't — Madrid is expected to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which would authorize direct rule over Catalonia and the dissolution of its regional government.

Doing so would mark the most alarming moment in Spanish political history since an attempted coup in 1981. The move would probably deepen the chaos gripping Spain, prompting more heated protests in Catalonia, emboldening opposition to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — who critics say is in part responsible for the crisis — and raising the surreal prospect of two rival administrations seeking to govern in Barcelona.

There's also plenty of ire directed at Catalonia's secessionists. Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont, who came to power with the backing of a coalition of local pro-secession parties, has twisted and turned since the referendum, trying to assert authority while carefully avoiding a firm decision on independence.

He pulled another ambiguous maneuver Thursday, deciding not to call new elections in Catalonia that could have provided a path out of the crisis. In a statement, he said he had not received satisfactory “guarantees” from Madrid that a new election could take place in “ordinary conditions” and accused the Spanish government of “doing politics from an 'against the Catalans' rationale rather than doing politics 'with the Catalans.'”

Puigdemont's opponents argue he and his allies played an unnecessary game of brinkmanship that they were bound to lose. “The scenario of independence is one that we cannot allow and which will not happen,” said Spanish Economy Minister Luis de Guindos on Spanish radio Thursday. “They’re caught in a mousetrap. It seems their own decisions are producing vertigo.”

Catalonia, one of the most prosperous and cosmopolitan corners of Spain, is hardly united in its desire for independence. But even if Madrid succeeds in snuffing out the current secessionist gambit, the movement for the right to self-determination in the region will hardly disappear. “Don't let them steal our republic in backroom deals,” said Mireia Boya Busquet, a leader of a leftist Catalan pro-independence party, told reporters. “Bring it to the streets. Where it started, and will win, despite everything.”

Catalan aspirations are deep-seated, anchored in the region's distinct history and cultural identity. But the momentum for independence catalyzed only in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as Catalans saw their robust region being dragged down by a cratering Spanish economy. Catalan officials say the region still pays about $12 billion more in taxes each year to Madrid than it gets back.

These frustrations are not exclusive to Catalonia. A number of fledgling secessionist or autonomy movements in other parts of Europe, from Lombardy in Italy to Flanders in Belgium to Scotland or even London in Britain, are grounded in the belief that their regional interests are not being served by the national politicians who call the shots. Over the past year, we've tended to think of nationalism in the West in the context of angry, right-wing populist movements, fueled by disaffection with elites and hostility to immigrants. But another trend to watch ought to be the impatient regionalism of more metropolitan parts of Europe, frustrated by the backward politics of their nation-states.

“For Spain and Italy it is clear: the mixture of austerity, corruption and political sclerosis at the center has limited the reality of regional democracy,” Guardian columnist Paul Mason wrote. “It has pushed autonomous regions such as Catalonia towards independence and places such as Lombardy and Veneto” — two wealthy Italian regions which held nonbinding autonomy referendums this week — “towards seeking fiscal autonomy from an essentially dysfunctional central state.”

Mason argues that such regionalism, yoked to big cities, has a more organic logic in the 21st century. “In large cities with dense networks of information and culture, you can survive globalization. In small towns it is harder,” he explained. “So the logical economic strategy is to create a 'region' or small nation focused on one big city, and develop the suburban and rural economy in synergy with that city, not the bigger unitary state. If Barcelona were not a massive global success story, the impetus behind Catalan nationalism would be smaller.”

Of course, the nation-state is hardly on its way out. The European Union, for one, has been hobbled by the nationalisms of its member states. But that doesn't change the growing impression that many Western countries are finding it harder and harder to deal with the economic and political forces tearing at their societies.

“On the one hand, European nations are increasingly unable to address the global challenges brought about by technological innovation, migration, climate change, or financial flows,” wrote Daphne Büllesbach and Lorenzo Marsili of European Alternatives, a civil society organization promoting transnational politics on the continent. “On the other hand, the nation state is being challenged from below. From Barcelona to Naples, citizens increasingly demand the right to greater participation in the decisions that affect their lives.”

Catalonia's flawed bid for independence is an expression of that movement from below. “There is every prospect of cities demanding more self-rule as relations deteriorate with nations that seem to need and resent them all at once,” wrote Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh, arguing that the right-wing nationalism of supporters of Brexit in Britain or President Trump in the United States may further stoke this divide.

“If conservatives cherish the nation state, they cannot become a one-sided lobby for the angriest provinces,” Ganesh wrote. “That is an abusive relationship, not a country. The long-run threat to nationhood comes from productive, outward-facing regions that look at their domestic stragglers and feel — to steal a phrase — shackled to a corpse.”

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