Sunday, September 24, 2017

Why the Catalonia Crisis Matters

As most readers are probably aware, the Kingdom of Spain is in the midst of a crisis. The Catalans are threatening to break away and issue a unilateral declaration of independence in spite of legal rulings from Spanish courts that such a thing would be illegal and threats from the central government in Madrid to have Catalan leaders arrested if they go ahead with their promised referendum on independence. As most are also probably aware, this is not a new problem, Catalonia has been threatening to break away for some time now nor are they the only ones. This also comes at a time when the Kingdom of Spain is still dealing with an economic crisis, the migrant crisis and at a time when it seems that the Spanish have less holding them together than in ages past.

Even this, as most students of history know, is not a recent problem but one that has become, sadly, the rule rather than the exception. When the Spanish have been united and all pulling in the same direction, they have accomplished astounding things. Spain reached unprecedented levels of wealth and prosperity, social cohesion, blazed new trails in exploration, conquered empires and subdued continents under such conditions. Spain was once the backbone of western Christendom, the power which ensured the Catholics rather than the Protestants retained Belgium and France and which played no small part in the retention of Catholicism in much of central Europe during the Thirty Years War. All of that, unfortunately, seems like a very distant memory that few today feel any connection with. Since the French Revolutionary Wars, roughly, Spain has been in a period of recurrent internal unrest. The country which triumphed over enemies as diverse as the British Empire, the French Empire and the Ottoman Empire found itself unable to triumph over the enemy within which has been internal divisions.

It was the internal divisions fostered by the invasion and occupation by the Napoleonic French which first caused the Spanish empire to crack and begin breaking apart. Efforts to deal with this were, at first, successful but, alas, internal squabbling in Spain itself prevented such victories being followed up. The struggle between constitutional and absolute monarchists seemed to have been done when King Fernando VII, backed by his Bourbon cousin King Louis XVIII of France, restored himself to power but his death then set off a series of conflicts over the succession; the Carlist Wars. There were a number of these and, though the Carlists were never victorious, their persistence meant that the Spanish were mostly focused on fighting each other rather than external enemies. That, unfortunately, was only the beginning as the divisions became only worse with time.

During the reign of Queen Isabella II, despite the Carlist trouble, the Kingdom of Spain did seem to be on the cusp of a rebound. Efforts to reclaim lost territories or forge new relationships to Spain’s benefit were going well, Spain had the fourth largest navy in the world, rebels in Cuba and the Philippines were successfully subdued and one former colony, the Dominican Republic, even returned willingly to submission to the Spanish Crown. Spain seemed on course to recover its lost glory and former place of prominence as one of the great powers. However, not only did the Carlist opposition persist but their enemies, the ruling government, began to fragment and begin fighting amongst themselves. Queen Isabella II, unacceptable to the Carlists, proved too conservative to be acceptable to the liberals who had previously supported her. She was forced out and the ruling elite decided to give monarchy one more chance.

As the division over the Bourbon succession seemed hopelessly permanent, the Spanish government decided to start over from blank paper with a new dynasty, importing the Italian Duke of Aosta to be King Amadeo I of Spain. This solved nothing, another Carlist uprising flared up and the party which had brought in the new king also began fighting among themselves so that, after less than three years in Spain, King Amadeo I declared the country ungovernable, abdicated and went home to Italy, sorry that he had ever attempted such an enterprise. This resulted in the, thankfully short-lived, First Spanish Republic as the revolutionary party, which had always opposed the monarchy, was bolstered by the fact that the monarchists seemed unable to maintain a functioning monarchy anyway. The republic did not last long but it set a dangerous precedent and should have been a warning to all that if the monarchy was to only be a source of division, a republic would be given a chance.

As it was, King Alfonso XII, son of Isabella II, was put on the throne. He defeated the latest Carlist rebellion, suppressed another in Cuba and was able to get some degree of calm in the political sphere at home by allowing both liberals and conservatives to take it in turns governing the country. They were still divided of course, but seemed willing to accept the rule of the other while they waited for their turn to come again. Prosperity began to return once the Spanish stopped fighting each other and got back to the business of doing business. Unfortunately, the reign of King Alfonso XII was a short one. He died in 1885, just before his twenty-eighth birthday. The throne passed to his son, King Alfonso XIII, and soon the old divisions began to reappear. A relatively new part of this division was the emergence of the Catalan nationalist movement. Although somewhat present in the past, it began to emerge in a new way with the First Spanish Republic and received a large boost after 1898 and the defeat of Spain by the United States. The leading industrial region of Spain, Catalonia lost the markets for her manufactured goods in Cuba, Puerto Rico and The Philippines after that war.

Flag of the Kingdom of Aragon
In the old days, Catalan nationalism had been tied to maintaining or regaining their privileges from the time of the Kingdom of Aragon. The unity of Spain had always been a fragile thing. Even when most of the country was under Moorish rule, the Christian kingdoms still fought among themselves and when unity was finally achieved it was only by marriage, only a personal union and the relationship between the people and the king was a contractual one. The people submitted to the Crown but only conditionally. Later, Catalan nationalist became more liberal. General Juan Prim, leader of the Revolution of 1868, which brought down Isabella II and ultimately replaced her with Amadeo I, was a Catalan. The First Republic was their great hope but, after its failure, they focused mostly on pushing for as much autonomy as possible and were not necessarily opposed to the monarchy. However, the increased divisions and unrest in Spain during the era of King Alfonso XIII, led to the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera who cracked down on any hints of separatism. Catalan nationalists then began to go solidly republican.

Catalan separatist flag
When King Alfonso XIII was overthrown and the Second Spanish Republic was declared, the Catalan nationalists went along in the hope of establishing Catalonia as a subsidiary republic. Needless to say, when the Spanish Civil War ended in victory for Generalissimo Francisco Franco, all of that was suppressed. Franco wanted an end to all of the bickering, infighting, regional unrest and political divisions that had been plaguing Spain for so long. Immediately before the victory of Franco and his Spanish nationalists, the leader of the Catalan nationalists declared the independence of the Republic of Catalonia before leaving the country and claiming to lead a government-in-exile. All hints of Catalan separatism were firmly suppressed by Franco and, though Franco was a monarchist, it is likely that his reluctance to not bring back an actual monarch until after his death was due to how divisive rather than unifying the Spanish monarchy had become.

Once Franco was dead and gone, however, the Catalan separatists came back in a big way. In 1979 Catalonia gained a degree of autonomy from the Spanish government and, after another vote in 2006, this autonomy was expanded. However, there has been no shortage of problems in Spain and there have been no shortage of Catalan separatists, on both the left and the right (or “right” as we are basically talking about socialists and liberals here) who are quick to offer Catalan independence as the answer. This is an old problem and one that has been building in its current form for decades at least. Why should any of this matter, particularly to anyone who is not Spanish? It matters because the Kingdom of Spain matters. Spain is never going to rise above its current lower-tier status if these internal divisions persist and if the Catalan nationalists are successful, the results could have far-reaching consequences well become the present day boundaries of the Kingdom of Spain.

The most unthinkable possibility would be if the vote results in a declaration of independence which the Catalans inflexibly stand by and which Madrid inflexibly opposes which would result in another Spanish Civil War. If, however, it goes forward and the government does not use force to suppress it, we are then presented with the very real possibility that other regions start to abandon the sinking ship that is Spain, no one wishing to be the last one left holding the bill for Spain’s massive debt. What happens when the Basques or the Galicians decide to follow the example of the Catalans? Then you have the cascade effect this could cause across Europe, starting with areas already known for their separatist tendencies such as Scotland in the UK, Flanders in Belgium, Venice or Sardinia in Italy, similar Basque and Catalan separatists in France, their example to be followed by the Corsican, Breton, Savoyard and other separatists. Will the Frisians of the Netherlands or the Bavarians of Germany be far behind? Where does it all end?

Many of these, most of them in all probability, have also stated their desire to carry on within the European Union, which means not so much true independence but more a desire to have the benefits of autonomy with none of the responsibilities. We would be left with a collection of tiny, powerless statelets which are, far from independent, all the more dependent on larger powers for their defense and access to profitable markets. Secessionists in places such as the American states of California or Texas could be (and in the case of Texas have) successful independent entities if their adopt the correct policies. Both have large markets, considerable farm land, their own energy sources and access to the oceans, the ‘highway of the nations’. The same could not be said for these tiny regions of Europe. In many of these places, the separatists do have some legitimate points on their lists of grievances in my view. However, the breakup of once major powers into powerless micro-states will not solve them or, at best, simply replace them with other, usually larger, problems.

I deplore the state that the Kingdom of Spain is in presently. However, I do not want to see Spain disappear from the map. With real unity and the correct policies, Spain could rise again to be a major power in Europe. I would like to see that. Further, I think it would be to the benefit of everyone if a revived Kingdom of Spain then went on to strengthen ties and form a stronger coalition of all the Spanish-speaking countries. If that could be accomplished, if all of the Hispanic lands could be united and all pull in the same direction, you are not just talking about a major power but a potential super-power. That is something I would like to see and I would love to see the cascade effect from that possibility, with other European countries doing the same.


  1. Some conspiracists have proposed that microstates play into the hands of the globalists. In the case of the Scottish referendum it was clear to see what was on the table.

    The secessionists I have spoken with in Trieste are very anti-EU, market oriented, and ambivalent on monarchy.

    Hans Adams II has demonstrated the microstate as the correct vehicle for governance. Although he admits the common market gave Lichtenstein a chance to compete. I am somewhat surprised to see you take the position of the macrostate. Localism better defends regional culture and offers choices so citizens can better segment themselves along side those who share their values.

    I am sure you have valid reasons for supporting the macrostate in this case. You always present sound arguments. Thank you for your blog.

    1. I am, evidently, not very good at explaining the difference between a sovereign state and an independent one. Micro-states can work very well but I have yet to see one that was actually independent. Monaco, for example, is a protectorate of France. They recognize that they could not function independently without France and so the French have special privileges. Liechtenstein is much the same. It has a customs union with Switzerland and does not pretend that it could be truly independent or, in other words, capable of functioning entirely on its own.

      Local control can be very beneficial, in many ways it is essential but at the same time, the states of the First German Empire would have lasted no time at all if left on their own. The states of the Confederacy would have fallen in much less than four years if they had not banded together and cooperated.

      The fact that so many of these plan on continued EU membership shows they are not striving for actual independence but at administrative re-shuffle of responsibilities.

    2. A popular reading of history views the middle ages as a time of decentralization, power sharing, and economic/regulatory competition between states. Proponents of this view offer that these conditions and the shared set of values of the Catholic church allowed for western culture to flourish beyond what was possible under the more centralized, authoritarian Roman system. Western individualism and personal responsibility (therefore choice) is then contrasted against the less developed nations which are often highly collectivist.

      Obviously no man is an island. Cooperation and trade is a benefit to us all. Concerning customs unions perhaps Lichtenstein could be considered a corner case in that it is a micro-state which can trade in an unrestricted manner. This can either be evidence to the effectiveness of free trade or perhaps the pragmatic purposes of the large state and regulation. Naturally my bias would be for less tax, more competition, and continuing in the trends which have elevated western culture.

      Some of the most vocal secessionists focus on the productivity of the region and their overall contribution to the economy. They don't want to pay for everyone else.

      Maybe it is impossible or impractical for a federation of small states to cooperate on issues of defense and commerce without forming behemoths like the EU. This can not be dismissed entirely as pessimism, but I think some optimism is necessary. Ultimately it is always possible to do better.

      Europe as collection of smaller principalities may not be a bad thing, under the right circumstances.

  2. I like the lofty ideal you have for Spain, but now I am conflicted on whether I would rather see Mexico as part of this restored Spanish realm or a resurrection of the Empire.

    1. I would rather see Mexico united with Spain, I would rather see Brazil reunited with Portugal but, if that is not possible, I would rather see them have their own emperors than more liberal republics. (Though I obviously support them, I do recoil a bit at the west having so many emperors, traditionally there should only be one or two)

    2. I see what you are saying, (Two Emperors=East and West Rome right?) but I kind of removed Mexico, Brazil and Haiti from the implications that the title has in Europe (even though the nations have European heritage in their history) so that might be why it does not bother me as much as it does you.

      Also, with the situation in Kurdistan, do you think you could also write up a post about Iraq as it stands right now?

  3. Your statement about the Hispanic world uniting behind one leadership and movement/goal is most stirring indeed. I myself wish for a similar thing albeit with Britain and the Commonwealth. There is no deeper desire in my heart and soul.

    1. As I hinted at, I would want the same for the English-speaking countries, the French and Portuguese-speaking countries too and so on.

  4. Indeed in this case, micro states and the break up of macro states is bad. However personally (mostly because I am a monarchist and yet a Czech nationalist), although it replaced a monarchy with a republic, it freed Czechs from the Austrian oppression and Czech in many ways was still fully independent and wasn't part of any international organization much (except for the LON). Also, so I am conflicted on whether I'd like a restoration of Austria-hungary. On one hand it would restore a monarchy from republics, on the other hand Czechs faced large repression in it and I wouldn't want to return to the era of Czech repression. If only the Russian empire survived as there was a planned treaty for Czech to be an absolute monarchy with the tsar's relative as king in return for an alliance

  5. Although I too want to see Spain remain as a major player, and as a monarchist (at least in ceremonially) I support the Spanish Crown, I support Catalan independence. People have a right to self-determination, both as a collective and as individuals. If the Catalan people want to be independent, I say let them. They have their own language, culture, dress, modes of thought, and, to a lesser extant, their own governance. I say let them go be new nation. Maybe they'll even make a monarchy (I mean, they won't, but we can dream)!


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