Yesterday’s election victory for Catalan separatists, including humiliating losses for the ruling center-right Partido Popular, denotes yet another setback for the grand project of European unification and a challenge for a continent divided between a strong north and a lagging south. The Catalan separatists won a thin majority in the regional parliament, leaving them precisely where they were before the Oct. 1 referendum on secession from Spain – with a small plurality in favor of breaking away and a large minority determined to stay. The election result, though, has dire implications for Partido Popular leader Manuel Rajoy’s minority government, and for European cohesion in general.
Nationalism is a ghost that refuses to be exorcised. As Annette Prosinger wrote in a front-page commentary in the conservative German daily Die Welt. “This election was in reality a referendum on the independence movement. The result will astonish all of those who bet on the disenchantment of the Separatists. The magic is more tenacious than people thought: It has overcome everything: The drop in tourism and economic investment, the flight of enterprise from Catalonia, and the rejection that the independence movement received from the EC. The supporters of the independence movement were not unsettled by the fact that none of the glorious promises of Carlos Puigedemont and his group came true, and that prospering Catalonia has become a crisis region.”
The term “disenchantment” (in German, Entzauberung) is deeply fraught in the German language: it was the watchword of the Romantic movement that incubated European nationalism during the 19th century, calling for the “re-enchantment” of a world left disenchanted by the Enlightenment.
To say that Europe faces a crisis of identity is a vast understatement. With total fertility rates below 1.4 births per woman in Germany, Italy, Spain and all of Eastern Europe, the nations of Europe are at a demographic turning point past which their cultures may become so diluted as to defy any future attempts at reconstruction. The Catalans speak their own language despite centuries of Spanish attempts to suppress it; the first Bible translation printed in Spain was in Catalan – not Spanish – in the year 1478, and the Inquisition burned every extant copy. They are the most productive and outward-looking Spanish region, and their capital Barcelona is one of the world’s great global cities, but a majority of Catalans will accept economic hardship in order to restore their identity.
Catalan aspirations reverberate in Germany, where the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) emerged as a right-wing protest party first in opposition to Berlin’s beneficence to Southern Europe, and emphatically in protest against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2016 decision to accept 1.2 million Muslim migrants. In a Youtube video, AfD leader Nikolaus Fest defended Catalan nationalism in the clipped accent of his native Hamburg.
The AfD’s enthusiastic view of developments in Catalonia has no direct bearing on policy; despite its 12% showing in Germany’s September elections, it remains a leper party that none of its larger peers will countenance. But the AfD has accomplished in Germany what the Catalans have accomplished in Spain: it drew sufficient votes away from Merkel’s Christian Democrats to prevent Merkel from forming a majority government. Spain already has a majority government under the Partido Popular, which lost 8 of its 11 seats in the Catalan regional parliament yesterday. The nationalists remain a minority in Western Europe, but a big enough minority to paralyze the pre-existing political configuration.
In Austria, the right-wing, anti-immigration Austrian Freedom Party has become the first “ultra-right” (that is, nationalist-populist) party to enter a European government.
Nationalism meanwhile has become a governing movement in most of Eastern Europe. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia are in open revolt against the European Commission, which demanded that every European nation accept a quota of migrants. In the name of protecting their respective cultures against large-scale Muslim migration, the Eastern European governments formed the so-called Visegrad Group to oppose European policy and now face sanctions.
The revolt against European integration has spilled into foreign policy. Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Bosnia-Herzegovina broke with European protocol and abstained from this week’s UN General Assembly vote against the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israel, which embodies the oldest and most successful nationalism in the world, has become an improbable source of inspiration to the Eastern Europeans, whose Jewish populations were mostly exterminated during the Second World War.
When bond traders got to their desks in Europe this morning, the first hot potato they dumped was not the debt of the Spanish state, but rather Italian bonds. Italy has twice the outstanding public debt of Spain (at $2.3 trillion), and remains the most vulnerable among European debtors. The European Central Bank’s so-called quantitative easing program expanded the bank’s balance sheet to 38% of European GDP. Its purchases of Italian debt will have financed the whole Italian budget deficit at artificially low interest rates between 2014 and 2019. The quantitative easing program will be phased out during 2018 –sooner rather than later if German desires prevail – and Italy will have to find a way to get its state finances under control.
Politically, Italy is in no position to do so. Italy remains the sick man of Europe, with an economy that is still 6% smaller than it was before the global financial crisis of 2008. Italy also is the focal point of Europe’s immigration problem, which has shifted from the Balkan route to Germany to the sea route across the Mediterranean. Italian popular hostility to immigration is far stronger than in Germany or Austria, and anti-migrant populist parties are likely to make gains in Italy’s national elections (which might be held as early as March). Despite scandals and convictions for tax fraud and other offenses, Italy’s populist billionaire Silvio Berlusconi appears back in national politics.
That is why Catalonia’s elections are bad tidings for Europe this Christmas Eve.
Note: My essay on the return of European nationalism, “The West Must Restore A Sense of the Sacred,” appears in the December-January issue of the British monthly Standpoint.