Breaking up is hard to do

Catalonia's leading pro-independence party suffered an unexpected and embarrassing defeat this week.

Spain Election 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Spain Election 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Voters in the Spanish region of Catalonia, which includes the picturesque city of Barcelona, shocked observers this week by voting against independence, despite a strong pro-secession movement.  Interestingly, this electoral rebuke occurs as Scotland is starting preparations for its own referendum on leaving the United Kingdom, and even the United States is hearing whispers, somewhat facetiously, of secession by “red states” who resent the re-election of US President Barack Obama.
For centuries, bigger was better.  Nations wanted as much territory and resources under their control as possible, leading to empires, colonization and rapid expansion across (nearly) vacant territories.  Recently, however, the trend has been to breaking up into smaller, more cohesive components.
The dissolution of the former Soviet Union showed how surprisingly quick and simple dismantling a 70 year old country could be.  By contrast, the collapse of Yugoslavia demonstrated that these could also be prolonged and bloody affairs.  Often the break ups are by mutual consent, such as the replacement of Czechoslovakia with the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  However, the partition of Ethiopia and Sudan, which created newly sovereign states of Eritrea and South Sudan, respectively, came only with great cost and after considerable bloodshed.
With a strong national identity and a distinct language, Catalans have always seen themselves as differing fundamentally from the Castilian-speaking majority with whom the share the Iberian peninsula.  Wounded pride has festered over the years among Catalan nationalists with each allegation of bias and preference they made against Madrid.
The phenomenal success of Barcelona’s soccer team in Spanish and European competitions has been an important source of pride and identity for Catalans, with its 100,000 seat stadium, the Nou Camp, a regular site for flags and banners and chants supporting independence.  The team’s motto, “More than a Club,” unmistakably coveys the belief that, in addition to its sporting triumphs, the team plays an important political and sociological role in Catalonia.
However, when the Convergence and Union Party, the leading pro-independence party, decided to make this week’s election a de facto referendum on breaking from Spain, it suffered an unexpected and embarrassing defeat.
The practical issues of independence appeared to weigh on voters’ minds much more than its symbolic benefits.  For example, would an independent Catalonia automatically be a member of the European Union, or would it have to go through a lengthy process of applying for membership?  Catalonia is among the richest parts of Spain, but much of that wealth depends on Castilian-speaking consumers based elsewhere in the country.
Unfortunately, many of Spain’s leaders, comfortably ensconced in Madrid, seem indifferent to the effects of their actions and language on Catalan feelings and sensibilities.  Unlike Queen Elizabeth, for example, who makes an effort to spend considerable time in Scotland, King Juan Carlos of Spain is rarely seen in Catalonia.
Importantly, Catalonia drive towards independence mirrors a similar process unfolding within the United Kingdom, as Scotland continues its push to break away from an English-dominated central government in London.  The upcoming referendum for an independent Scotland, scheduled for 2014, is encouraging would-be separatists across Europe and around the world.  Even Americans have got in on the action as fundraising drives to support the “Yes” vote in Scotland have successfully taken place in the United States.
Practical concerns, however, also hang over the upcoming Scottish vote.  Questions are being raised over what impact secession would have on, for example, lucrative British defense contracts that current support much needed jobs in Scotland.  Leading international figures, such as former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, have spoken out against the fragmentation of Europe impeding effective cooperation with the United States.  Recent polls have also shown only about a third of Scots seem inclined to vote for independence over continued union.
As these debates unfold in Europe, the question of national unity has been re-opened even in the United States itself.  In the aftermath of the close, but definitive, re-election of Barack Obama, a popular protest movement has began in Texas to formally secede.  Interestingly, similar rhetoric was tossed around after George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, except then it emanated from the left of the political spectrum.
To date, the Texas secession movement has yet to progress beyond online petitions and bumper stickers, but the sentiment being expressed is clear, even if the chances of ultimate success are non-existent, especially given how poorly secession worked out the last time it was tried 150 years ago!
Standing behind genuine regional differences are legitimate grievances that many feel established political processes are leaving unaddressed.  The language of independence resonates in a way that prolonged discussions over the allocation of tax receipts does not.
As disappointed as many of Obama’s opponents were in his re-election, the benefits of unity clearly outweigh the fantastical attributes of secession, no matter how nice it may feel to be driving down Interstate 20, venting your electoral frustrations by proudly displaying your “Secede!” bumper stick on the back of your car.
Unlike the comic relief in Texas, the questions facing Catalans and Scots, as they negotiate their cultural identities within both nation states and the vast supra-state that has evolved out of Brussels, are more pressing.  However, all ultimately involve a political status quo that too many people feel is out-dated and out-of-touch.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.