Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The ghost of Franco

I wrote recently of how Greece and Cyprus have systematically allowed their own petty nationalistic concerns to distort EU policy. But it would be a mistake to view this sort of misbehaviour as being an exclusively Balkan or South East European failing. It is being reported that Spain has requested a delay in Kosovo’s declaration of independence until after Spanish elections on 9 March, for fear that recognition of Kosovo’s independence might encourage separatist sentiment among Spain’s Basque population and complicate the results of the poll. Abusing his position as EU foreign policy chief, the Spanish Socialist Javier Solana has been trying to hold back discussion of Kosovo’s independence until after 9 March to avoid creating problems for the Spanish Socialist (PSOE) government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

This Spanish tendency, to put selfish nationalistic concerns above Balkan stability, is nothing new: in 2002, Solana negotiated the unworkable ‘State Union of Serbia and Montenegro’ in a futile attempt to avert Montenegro’s independence. When Montenegro nevertheless went ahead and held a referendum on independence in 2006, Solana insisted that at least 55% had to vote in favour, for the EU to consider the vote for independence as valid. This was, it seems, not only in order to make Montenegrin independence more difficult, but also to ensure that the threshold for votes for independence in other parts of Europe be kept high. When the people of Montenegro nevertheless voted in favour of independence by over 55%, Solana was quick to insist: ‘This is not a precedent for anyone, it is just for the situation in the Balkans. Anyone who compares Catalonia and the Basque Country with Montenegro is suffering from delirium tremens.’ In other words, Solana and other Spanish nationalists are indeed afraid that the secession of countries like Montenegro and Kosovo might become a precedent for the secession of Catalonia or the Basque Country, and will therefore try to obstruct such acts of secession. If the latter are successful, however, the Spanish nationalists will then argue that there is not really a parallel anyway. They want it both ways.

The United Kingdom, of course, is a multinational state with ‘separatist’ movements of its own, represented by the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein. Nevertheless, the UK supports Kosovo’s independence. This raises the interesting question of why Spain is afraid of Kosovo’s independence inspiring its own ‘separatists’, but the UK is not. One answer might be that the British government is more rational than its Spanish counterpart, and realises that Kosovo’s independence will not, actually, have any bearing on the domestic politics of the UK, Spain or any other West European state. Ultimately, if the people of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, or indeed the people of Catalonia or the Basque Country, want independence, then they will not be deterred from seeking it by a failure of Kosovo’s bid. After all, there are plenty of successful precedents that ardent pro-independence patriots can look to, from the secession of the Netherlands and Portugal from the Spanish crown in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the more recent secessions of Croatia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Montenegro, etc. Conversely, while Basque and Catalan nationalists welcomed Montenegrin independence, there is no evidence that it actually boosted their fortunes.

The knee-jerk Spanish hostility to Balkan ‘separatism’ is simply a reflection of paranoia, and a reminder that the legacy of Franco’s dictatorship, which came to an end only in 1975, has not really been overcome. The fascist assault on Republican Spain in 1936 was inspired in part by the desire to crush Catalan autonomy and safeguard a unitary Spanish nation-state. While Republican Spain granted extensive autonomy to the Catalans and Basques, Franco’s Nationalists abolished this autonomy and pursued a policy of forced assimilation of both nations. The autonomy was re-established following Franco’s death in 1975 and the restoration of democracy. But the Spanish political elite’s continued hostility to ‘separatism’ indicates that the ghost of Franco still lingers. Nor is this the only such indication. Spain continues to lay claim to the British territory of Gibraltar, on the Spanish coast, while refusing to recognise Morocco’s similar claim to the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, on the Moroccan coast. The Spanish claim to Gibraltar was revived under Franco, who ultimately closed Spain’s border with the territory. Spain continues to make life difficult for the people of Gibraltar.

A West European state whose foreign policy toward South East Europe is motivated by domestic political concerns of this kind is clearly not a healthy entity; nor is it one that can play a constructive role in the EU. The obvious cure is for Spain to complete the transition to democracy begun in 1975, and recognise the right of Catalonia and the Basque Country (i.e. the Catalan and Basque Autonomous Communities) to secede from Spain, should they wish to do so. The question of whether other autonomous communities of Spain, such as Galicia, should possess this right should also be addressed. This may or may not lead one day to one or more territories breaking away from Spain, but Spain – properly democratic and freed from the fear of separatism – would be a winner either way. And a Spain that achieves such political maturity at home will cease to play such a destabilising role abroad. 

Monday, 21 January 2008 - Posted by | Balkans, Basque Country, Catalonia, Former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Spain

1 Comment

  1. […] Democracy And Secession Marko Attila Hoare thinks that Spain is not a fully democratic country. He says, […]

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