Catalonia Crisis: Red Flag for Unfulfilled Balkan Agendas; Diagnostic Tool for Democratic Values and Practice in Europe

It has been a rough couple of years for liberal democracy in the West. A romantic nationalist-driven vote for Brexit (which exposed a tragicomic lack of seriousness and planning), the visceral paleo-nativism of Donald Trump, and a series of unprecedented challenges to postwar liberalism in continental Europe have driven those who believed the triumph of democracy was just a question of development and time into retreat. The German election was freighted with continental expectation that a new impetus would follow; French President Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping speech on Europe tapped into this. But the unconstitutional independence referendum in Catalonia, and the heavy-handed response of the Spanish government, have tempered that nascent hope, reminding that the idea of “Europe” remains an aspirational ideal more than an ever-finished state of being, both for its members and aspirants.

The impact on EU enlargement policies demonstrates flaws in both the enlargement process and the Union itself. Unsurprisingly, all those in the Balkans with unfulfilled agendas immediately seized upon Catalonia as a talking point and potential leverage to pursue their goals, without regard to the contradictions in their selective reading. EU candidate Serbia issued demands for the EU (to which it is, in theory, a supplicant) to explain its “double standards” in accepting Spanish efforts to prevent the referendum while the majority of its members had recognized Kosovo independence; Republika Srpska’s demands for “self-determination” predictably became even more insistent; and Vojvodina’s comparatively quiet autonomists seemed to waken anew to the possibilities of wider autonomy – or even independence.

This selective grasping for convenient rhetorical ammunition is hardly a new phenomenon in the Balkans. And while it is patently untrue that “separatism in Europe…started in Slovenia,” there is no question that until Russia’s catalyzing and driving war in eastern Ukraine, the violence associated with separatism (and that driven/supported by a neighboring center, as with Serbia vis-à-vis the Republic of Serb Kraijina and Republika Srpska) was most vividly on display with the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Facile parallels are easy to draw. It is complacent and too intellectually lazy to presume – as some do – that a civilizational divide (or EU membership) permanently insulates the West from maladies long associated with Eastern, Central, and Southeastern Europe. But the differences between the ongoing crisis in Spain with Catalonia and the fundamentally unreformed Balkans are at least as important as the similarities.

First of all, and most importantly, Spain is a democracy with rules that were negotiated among its nearly 40-million citizens for over three decades following the death of dictator Francisco Franco – rules to which Catalans were actively involved in devising and accepting. This has no parallel to Yugoslavia. The SFRJ, despite being a federative state composed of republics, was built on the predicate of the ruling League of Yugoslav Communists, and most importantly its President Tito, as the only connective tissue.  Despite its government having enjoyed greater popular legitimacy than any of the states in the Soviet bloc (as well as greater liberalism and meritocracy at its apogee), it never developed mechanisms of institutional and legal accountability. This allowed nationalists throughout, but initially and most potently Slobodan Milošević at the center, to exploit this vacuum to their various ends.

Parallels to Kosovo and Republika Srpska are also fatuous. In Spain’s democratic history, Catalonia has not had its constitutional autonomy revoked, been subjected to minority rule or martial law (all of which occurred in Kosovo under Belgrade’s rule); has not been subjected to (or driving) ethnic cleansing (the RS was indeed created this way); and has not experienced other such political or physical oppression.  On the contrary, it has had a level of autonomy that is sweeping by any European measure.  And more broadly, until last Sunday, Spain was pointed to as an anomaly in a positive sense: it lacked a rising radical right/hardline anti-immigrant party, despite its clerico-fascist past and its location on a major migration route. Moreover, it still remains to be seen if a majority in Catalonia actually support independence.

The events of Sunday have been polarizing – a fact for which the governments of President Carles Puigdemont in Barcelona and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Madrid share responsibility. A wider truth, applicable globally and acutely visible in the former Yugoslavia from the early 1990s until today, is that political hardliners need each other. The good news is that in Spain they are not the sole arbiters – and that thus far the heavy-handed state police and Guardia Civil action to stop the unconstitutional referendum has not metastasized into popular or ethnic violence.  The path forward will rely heavily on the cooler heads in the political opposition and wider society to defy top-down efforts at escalation, as well as determining whether the reaction to Sunday’s referendum, rightly termed “irresponsible” by Prime Minister Rajoy, has critically or irreversibly damaged the previously strained yet hard-won social contract in Spain. It cannot be repaired, or reconstructed, by force. Demonstrators in Barcelona and Madrid on Saturday displayed a popular sense of a need for dialogue and civility, even as Prime Minister Rajoy and Catalan President Puigdemont continued to entrench their positions.

The EU was supposed to provide framework security and a safety net for the process of irreversibly growing the values of liberal democracy among all of its members. But this grounding in values was implicit; it was never part of the inter-state architecture of what has become the EU. The lack of a super-majority constituency based on commonly held values has become readily apparent in recent years. It is hard to imagine an EU that can progress, in whatever form, without addressing the void, of the oft-decried (and real) “democratic deficit” in the Union. The presumption that once a country joins the club it has irreversibly graduated into the ranks of liberal democracy has been undercut by the avowed “illiberal” statements and actions of Viktor Orban and Jarosław Kaczyński, who have demonstrated to others in the ranks that one can deviate from the rules without consequence. The rise of illiberalism under President Trump in the US similarly reminds that liberal democracy can never be taken as “done,” and that the real test of the strength of the system lies with structures (independent judiciary, free press, organized civil society) and the ability – and will – of citizens to engage.

But in the long hangover of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the blithe presumption that the democratic evolutionary path was inevitable and inexorable was reflected in the EU’s approach to new members, and particularly to the Western Balkans. The seeming success of the first waves of integration made it all seem easy, the focus on the EU membership institutional and legal checklist made it easy to avoid understanding the extent to which these values had been absorbed into the country’s population.

There is potential good news: while there is a clear shift to the right, publics have rejected radical exclusivist politics, when marketed as such, at the ballot box, despite voicing deep disquiet at rapid economic and social change over which they rightly feel disempowered. But that evident disquiet demands attention, lest it be further exploited and fuel illiberal, disintegrative tendencies. This requires leadership at the state level and within the EU itself. At present, Chancellor Merkel may provide a steady base, but the vision, ambition and urgency is more evident from Commissioner Vestager, MEP Guy Verhofstadt, and French President Macron. Time is of the essence in developing a vision – and a mechanism to achieve it – in which EU citizens can feel viscerally and personally invested.

The EU – the West – has forgotten how to make arguments in support of the values they presume to promote, yet it is at this time that citizens are looking for firmer meaning and reassurance in a time of continuing socio-economic upheaval, as well as an expectation (promoted by modern technology) of palpable participation. The social contract constructed in the wake of the Second World War provided a vision for decades; this longevity helps to explain the laziness of leaders in failing to continue to make the case for liberal democracy to its citizens. Social and political values can never be taken as “given”; they must be consistently re-assessed, refined, forged and maintained through acts of consensual and collective will, effort, and investment.

The bottom line is that Europe’s freedoms cannot be defended while maintaining loopholes and dead-zones, both within the Union and in its anteroom. While the EU’s inter-state construction has impeded (or rather, as Toby Vogel has previously written, deterred) engagement on intra-state matters relating to fundamental freedoms, this is scarcely sustainable as a community of values. Its credibility to citizens – and those who wish to become EU citizens – depends on its ability to uphold its standards. This ought to apply to members and would-be members alike.

Nobel Prize for Literature winner (and Briton) Kazuo Ishiguro encapsulated the zeitgeist well: “This is a very weird time in our world; we’ve sort of lost faith in our political system, we’ve lost faith in our leaders, we’re not quite sure of our values…” That retreat from values, in search of security, clarity, or greater fortune is evident in the US, Britain, and elsewhere. Trump’s shutting out refugees, wishing to build walls, and calls for “fair trade,” fall under this umbrella. So does the desperate and amoral neomercantilism promoted by the most vociferous proponents of a “clean” (e.g., unilateral, hard) Brexit. But also the odd strains of what might be termed the reactionary left evident on both sides of the Atlantic also propose a retreat from liberal, representative democracy. The rights, freedoms and values encapsulated in the EU, Council of Europe, OSCE and NATO foundational documents remain correct – and in need of defending. Democracies are created and persist due to broad agreement on the rules. Reaffirmation of the foundational values of the European Union, from the top-down and the bottom-up, and a commitment to their further development and defense, demands initiative and leadership. President Macron, Chancellor Merkel, Commissioner Vestager, and MEP Verhofstadt have all shown some such mettle. But their alignment as a caucus, assembling others, to promote a strategic vision with which Europe’s citizens can identify, remains to be done.