Europe, the Catalan case and the rise of the nationalism

Nationalisms are rising again around Europe. This new wave of nationalism scares the old establishment and make the old fears vivid again. This is what is happening in Spain, where nationalism is an open question and it is urgent more than ever with Catalonia pushing for independence.

This autonomous community of Spain is pressing to become independent. Before the last referendum on October 1st, there have been other attempts, like the one held on November 9th, 2014. The major fear for the Spanish society and government is the possibility to tear the Country apart, composed of regional identities and languages[1], and to influence negatively the Spanish community.

Many separatists stated that the self-government of the Catalonia worked and that the next logical step is independence. The self-government for Catalans was the first in its genre in the Country, because of the adoption of their language that became the official one. In addition to this, other steps were taken, such as a fiscal co-responsibility and tax-collection powers assigned to the region. Health and education were decentralized to the community of Catalonia, followed by the prison system and the police force.

Many questions were raised around the last referendum, in particular regarding the legality of the vote. According to the Catalan government, the referendum was perfectly legal. But the Spanish Constitution allows exclusive referendum-calling powers on “matters of particular import” to the central government. The Catalan referendum was unilaterally called by a Catalan government decree and followed by two laws issued by the Catalan parliament in September, in order to provide a legal framework for the referendum. But both were considered illegal[2], as it has been also considered the content of the referendum itself. The Spanish Constitution states that sovereignty resides “exclusively and indivisible” with Spanish people[3].

Despite of the doubts around the referendum, Spain is facing its worst constitutional crisis after 1981. This crisis shows the existence of a fracture that puts, on one side, the representatives of a democracy guided by the people–that includes pro-independence wing (Podemos among the others) and the defenders of the status quo (among them the Partido Popular (PP), Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (PSOE), Ciudadanos) and Catalans pro-legal referendum, on the other side. The choice is between a policy oriented by the will of the people, characterized by insurrection-style politics and pro-institutions politics, which emphasize constitutional order and institutions. This dualism will characterize the future of Spain and will weigh on the future of the Catalans and of the others autonomous communities in the Country.

From a broader perspective, the Spanish dualism is the reflection of what is going on in Europe[4]. Nationalism is resurfacing outside Spain: in 2016, Britain voted to leave the European bloc; during this year, the presidential elections in France saw the confront at the final round between Le Front National, guided by Marine Le Pen, and the new party En Marche!, led by Emmanuel Macron; Germany is also at the center of the attention since when a far-right party, Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), entered the Parliament.

This new wave of latent nationalism, which the European Union tried to absorb, as happened in the past[5]. It is clear that the Catalan crisis is not just related to Spain, but involves also the EU relations with Spain and offers an important case-study for the future. If France has been able to stop the ride of the Front National, Brexit is still an ongoing process characterized by stops and new starts and Germany is still trying to understand which will be its political destiny, especially given the government crisis of these days. In addition to the threats to these traditional establishments, other countries causing concern. Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland[6], are experiencing a growing pressure coming from domestic far-right parties asking for independence from the EU and other measures that could complicate the future of the Union and the political and economic stability of the whole Europe, especially in these years of uncertainty where unity can be seen as a response to old and new threats.

How should the EU behave in the face of the rise of nationalism and in particular with Catalonia? From a macro point of view, the Catalan independence will not directly impact on the EU (unlike Brexit, which involves an entire Country). Catalonia will remain European, in particular, because the referendum will be impugned as illegal. At economic and financial level, the 20% of the Spanish GDP resides in the Catalan region, an area that hosts many Spanish and other European companies and a wide foreign community on its territory. According to the economic analysis on the Catalan independence, the secession of Catalonia from Spain and consequently from EU will put the region in a disadvantaged position since there will be a decreased production that would impact on the prices of the whole region and on the international markets. This could have consequences also for the companies in the province, making Catalonia less competitive[7].

In the event that Catalonia persists in the search for independence, what existing models could be used? Two are the available examples: Norway or Scotland. If Catalonia will gain independence in the future, the status that it should have is that one of Norway, which means being in the EFTA, SEE and in the Schengen area,  guaranteeing free circulation of goods and people, such as also Switzerland. This means, Catalonia inside the Euro-zone but with limited powers regarding the monetary policy[8]. The Scottish alternative would guarantee to Catalans the arrangement for a legal self-determined referendum. But sovereignty will rest with the whole of the Spanish people, as stated in the Spanish Constitution. The independence of Catalonia in this context will probably bring to a reform of the Spanish Constitution and the reinforcement of the recognition of Catalonia as a Nation[9].


Notes and references

[1] Two of the fathers of the 1978 Constitution were Catalans, and they made sure the fundamental law included the recognition of the three historical nations embedded in Spain: Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia. These three nations had managed to negotiate a certain degree of devolution during the Second Republic (1931-1936), and had approved “Statutes of Autonomy.” See: Costa Alegret, J. (2014, November 6). “Independence at the eleventh hour: the rise and rise of the Catalan independence movement,” Open Democracy. Retrieved from:

[2] The two laws are considered illegal from a procedural standpoint since they were voted without the 2/3 majority, as established by the Catalan Statute. In addition to this, the Constitutional Court was not involved in the oversight of the whole procedure.

[3] Vidal-Folch, X., & Torreblanca, J. I. (2017, September 26). “El Paìs analyses 10 claims commonly made by separatists to support their cause.” El Paìs. Retrieved from:

[4] Kingsley, P., & Minder, R. (2017, October 5). “Catalonia Separatism Revives Spanish Nationalism,” The New York Times. Retrieved from:

[5] Ibidem.

[6] (2016, May 23). “Guide to Nationalist parties challenging Europe,” BBC. Retrieved from:

[7] Miranda, R. (2017, October 1). “Tutte le prime tensioni fra Catalogna e Unione Europea,” Formiche. Retrieved from:

[8] Ibidem.

[9] de Borjas Lasheras, F. (2017, September 22). “Three myths about Catalonia’s independence movement,” European Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from: