An impetuous push for independence by the Catalans, coupled with a ham-fisted hardline response from the Spanish Government in Madrid has given the country its biggest constitutional crisis in the 42 years since the death of the dictator General Franco. When the Scottish Nationalists tried something similar, our then Prime Minister, David Cameron, nipped in the bud, a potential crisis that threatened to break up the union. He did it by giving Scotland a referendum. It was a nerve-wracking time in our political history but in the end the union survived because of the strength of the arguments against splintering. Cool heads will have to triumph as well in Spain.
But the Spanish and Catalan crisis is no longer a domestic squabble. It touches at the very core of what it means to be a nation state in Europe. Until Brexit, populist challenges to the Brussels establishment had been safely contained. But Europe is now restless, very restless. The winner of the recent Czech election, Andrej Babis, is a businessman who has led a charge against joining the Euro, deeper integration and EU quotas for migrants. In Hungary Viktor Orban does not hide his dissatisfaction for the EU commission and Juncker in particular; in Poland a reshuffle is expected to usher in more hardline Eurosceptics. Italy’s richest regions have just voted for greater autonomy from Rome. The rise of populist movements with separatists pulling in voters is massively on the rise. And what does the Commission do to contain all this? It merely bungs poorer regions with money to finance infrastructure projects.
What will it take, for a complacent EU Commission to start to notice that European solidarity is collapsing on its watch? The failure to guarantee EU external borders? The creeping erosion of the Schengen zone? The end of a common currency? Maybe a resurgence of violence in the Balkans? The notoriously bureaucratic and slow to react EU Commission needs to wake up and smell the coffee, as they say, and fast!