The Bells of Barcelona Toll for Europe

Spain, Barcelona, La Rambla at night

President Trump got bad advice about the secession crisis in Catalonia. When Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy visited the White House last week, he said that Spain’s northeastern region would be “foolish to secede.” On the contrary, the gutsy Catalans are the world’s poster-boy for populism. Their independence movement is a real revolution. America shouldn’t meddle in Spain’s internal affairs, to be sure, but we ought to recognize  a kindred political movement when we see it. Ultimately, the Catalan independence movement is a response to Europe’s demographic cataclysm.


Here’s what I wrote in Asia Times today:

Political analysts are blinking in disbelief at yesterday’s events in Catalonia, trying to recognize the political phenomenon that took the world by surprise over the weekend. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, a revolutionary movement has asserted its power over an important European region. The conduct of the Catalan independence referendum was a thoroughly organized insurgency involving the whole of civil society, from the region’s Catholic Church to the organs of public safety. Unlike the failed independence movements of Quebec or Scotland, it was not a top-down affair promoted by a small political elite with the sentimental support of a popular minority. Unlike Italy’s Lega Lombarda, it was not a regional lobby fighting for more control of tax revenues. Catalan’s independence movement is the genuine article.

Never in postwar European history have tens of thousands of citizens collaborated in a campaign of civil disobedience so well planned that it successfully countered the mass deployment of national police and the paramilitary Civil Guard, and with sufficient grit to take nearly 1,000 injuries requiring medical treatment. The Catalans kept more than 2,000 voting stations open and saved their ballots from seizure, allowing more than 2.4 million of the region’s 7 million residents to vote.  Ninety percent of them supported the establishment of an independent Catalan republic.

To frustrate the Madrid government’s attempt to suppress the referendum, the independence movement coordinated the occupation of hundreds of polling stations by ordinary citizens, including families with children. It persuaded the regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to stand off the Civil Guard and National Police, as in this video published by the Catholic-Monarchist newspaper ABC:


It organized the fire brigades of Catalan towns to form human shields between the polling stations and the Civil Guard. It established mechanisms to hide the ballot-boxes from the national police and transport them to a secret site for counting. Where the national police forces broke through, ordinary citizens defended the vote with their bodies, resulting in nearly 1,000 injuries, against roughly a dozen injuries for police, in a display of determined but non-violent resistance.

The Catalans did so with the explicit support of their Church, 400 of whose clerics signed an independence manifesto last week, including some bishops. Unlike the anti-clerical left-wing movements of the past, the Catalan revolutionaries evinced thoroughly bourgeois goals. As a revolutionary movement, the Catalans better resemble the Americans of 1776 than the French of 1789, the Russians of 1917, or the Catalan revolutionary government of the late 1930s that ultimately was crushed by Francisco Franco. They are tired of subsidizing the backward money-sinks of Spain’s southern provinces; they are hard-working and productive, and want to separate from the economically irreparable parts of Spain.

In retrospect, the panic on the part of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is easier to understand. Universally condemned for overreacting to the Catalan independence movement, Rajoy had few choices. He knew that he was dealing not with a few grandstanding politicians but with a movement that reached into the capillaries of civil society. If he failed to kill it in its cradle, he would not have another opportunity to stop it. Thanks to the thorough organization and grit of ordinary citizens, Rajoy failed miserably. His statement yesterday that “there was no referendum” rings hollow. It recalls the famous deathbed statement of the mid-19th-century Spanish prime minister, the Duke of Valencia; asked if he wanted to forgive his enemies, he said, “I have no enemies. I killed them all.”

Catalonia, to be sure, has trampled on the Spanish Constitution. But constitutions depend on the consent of the governed, and Catalonia refuses to be governed by Madrid. Rajoy now faces a political crisis without a clear solution. His minority government depends on the support of a Basque regional party, and the Basques are sympathetic to the Catalans. The governor of the Basque Autonomous Region proposed yesterday that Madrid adopt a British or Canadian solution, allowing the Catalans to vote on secession as did the Scots in 2014. The difference, of course, is that the Scots depend on British subsidies and voted to stay, while the Catalans subsidize the rest of Spain and would vote to leave. The Basques well might follow.

This is an existential crisis for the Spanish state, for reasons I laid out on Sept. 30. Spain is at the cusp of a steep rise in the proportion of elderly dependents (from 25% of the economically active population to an insupportable 50% by 2050). The question comes down to who will be eaten first in the lifeboat: with the lowest fertility rate of any large European country, Spain cannot support its elderly, and the Catalans want to maintain themselves first.

There is a great deal of speculation about the possible knock-on effects in the rest of Europe. Catalonia is a singularity. The notionally separatist Lombard League has no stomach for a real fight, and no ambitions to create an independent country, as the League-affiliated mayor of Bergamo explained in an interview yesterday. The Lombards merely want to keep a higher proportion of their tax revenue. The Italian regionalists are playing comedy, while the Catalans are enacting a tragedy: They perceive this moment as one of existential import for their future existence, and will not back down.


The first response of the rest of Europe, to be sure, will be to ask the Catalans as well as the Rajoy government to put the genie back into the bottle. We are well past that point. After demonstrating that mass civil disobedience could defeat the heavy-handed efforts of the national government to suppress them, the Catalans will not turn back. Nor should they. Europe’s infertility leaves the more productive regions of Europe with the choice of impugning their own future by picking up the retirement bill for the continent’s dead beats, or going their own way.

The Catalan movement is a singularity in modern politics. But an important motive for the independence movement is the order of consumption in the European lifeboat. As I wrote on Sept. 30, the unifying theme in Germany’s Sept. 24 election was voter repudiation of bailouts of Germany’s neighbors. That was the brunt of Brexit, whose supporters rallied support by declaring that they would rather give more money to Britain’s National Health Service than to the EC budget.

Ernest Hemingway’s leftwing account of the Spanish Civil War was titled “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” In this case, do not ask for whom the bell tolls: It tolls for Europe.


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