BRANDON J. WEICHERT| THE WEICHERT REPORT
At the Asia Times Online, Spengler, a preeminent geopolitical analyst, has written another fantastic article assessing the current crisis in Catalonia. Spengler (as per the usual) is correct when he challenged American President Donald J. Trump’s silly assertion that the Catalans would be “foolish” to leave Spain. In fact, Spengler believes that the Catalan people would be foolish to stay.
As do I.
The Catalonia region is home to 7.5 million people who, despite being Spanish citizens, have little in common with their Spanish countrymen. They share no real allegiance to Spain and they speak a Romanticized language other than Spanish (in this case, Catalan). Calls for independence have been murmuring in the background. However, after recent events in Spain (notably the brutal Spanish response to the calls for independence), the question of independence has become a primary motivator for the Catalan people.
Catalonia is not the first, but indeed one of many separatist movements that pervade Spanish politics. Whereas the Catalans are getting all of the attention because of recent events, the biggest question mark is that of the Basque separatist movement. I suspect one of the reasons that the Madrid government is coming down so hard on the Catalans is because they fear, if Catalonia goes, then the Basques might well be next.
As you know, The Weichert Report‘s top viewed article has been on the question of Albertan separatism in Canada. The situation in Catalonia is similar to that of Alberta: Catalonia is wealthy and it subsidizes the rest of the country. In the case of Alberta, it is their vast oil wealth that makes Alberta the Texas of Canada–and a prime target by Ottawa regulators and tax collectors.
The Catalans, while lacking in oil resources, still contribute 20% of Spain’s economic growth and its population “contributes far more to the national budget in tax revenue than it receives in spending,” according to Spengler. This explains why the Spanish government is fighting so hard to suppress any independence movement (and why the Ottawa government in Canada is so opposed to the rise of any separatist or center-Right movement in Alberta): a country with an ailing economy and a bloated entitlement state cannot lose a primary source of tax revenue. It would only lead to further economic and political instability.
Remember, also, the Spanish have not had an easy time over the last several years in terms of economic development and political stability. In 2013, a spate of articles describing just how bad the Spanish economy was doing came out and it laid out a bleak situation for most Spaniards. Government regulations were excessive (as were taxes). Entrepreneurship was down, coupled with an increase in the share of young people seeking to enter the highly selective federal government service, believing that was the route to success and happiness (since the Spanish government had thoroughly muted the entrepreneurial spirit through taxes and regulations).
For years, the Spanish had been a leading force behind the Green Economy. In such an economy, highly-skilled workers were required and lower-skilled, blue collar-type jobs were either minimized or outsourced. Under the Green Economy, for every three regular jobs lost, only one new, “Green” job was created–meaning hopelessly high levels of unemployment. It also led to a significant “brain drain” in the economy, since there was simply not enough opportunity or incentive for Spanish doctors, engineers, and other high-skilled workers to remain in the country (most end up immigrating to Northern Europe, especially to countries like Germany, as Spengler notes). Simultaneously, low-skilled immigration (and, therefore, low wage immigrants) poured into Spain from its former colonies in Latin America and North Africa, this only further depressed the bleak economic situation for most Spanish workers, and contributed significantly to greater political instability.
Of course, these trends could not continue unabated. Beginning in 2010, as the debt crisis consumed the flailing European Union, Spain was at the forefront of the economic turmoil. Even then, its bizarre economy was leading the country to ruin. Throw in the massively declining demographics of Spain and you’ve got yourself quite the self-destructive cocktail. The Germans bailed the Spanish out of their rut on the order €200 billion. However, as I have argued here since The Weichert Report‘s inception, neither the German people nor the people in Southern Europe will tolerate bailouts any longer (for the thrifty Germans this is throwing good money at a bad investment and for the desperate Southern Europeans, this is hugely humiliating–especially since the Germans never let you forget that they’ve bailed you out).
The bailouts and economic stagnation–undoing the purported promises and lofty goals of the “European economic miracle”–only exacerbated the rise in separatism, nationalism, populism, and localism within Europe (particularly in the south). In fact, the stagnant economy in Spain as well as the increasing pressure the Madrid central government has placed upon Catalonia has forced the Catalans to reassess their standing in Spain. How is it at all ethical that the Catalans would have such economic vitality within the otherwise torpid Spanish economy and yet have so little say in their self-determination? How is that upholding the inherent human right of democratic self-determination?
Last year, things got so bad, that a vote of no confidence shut the Madrid government down. What was the result? A Libertarian’s paradise, that’s what! When the central government shuttered itself for several months until a new government could be formed, rates of entrepreneurial activity increased and the economy–for the first time in years–grew marginally. This did not last long, however, as Madrid ultimately formed a new central government, and the taxes and regulations piled on the Spanish people once more.
The problem is that the period of multilateral institutionalism, centralism, and globalism is coming to a close. It was fun while it lasted. Thanks to this period, we got to read comedic assessments of how the European Union was the new superpower that would displace the United States (even as they almost exclusively relied on America’s military for security). Now, reality is really setting in. Centralization rarely holds the solution to humanity’s most vexing concerns. Coordination is great, but consolidation often proves destructive. Indeed, the European Union and other multilateral, supranational, or globalist bodies tends to have a leveling effect on ethno-religous and cultural minorities, such as the otherwise prosperous Catalans.
The Europeans fancied the EU as a sort United Federation of Planets from Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise. They were socialist, they prized democracy, and they valued peace and soft power above violent militarism (a serious departure from European history). Yet, the core European states (such as France and Germany, and also Great Britain for a time) refused to abandon their commitment to their own national interests. Throw in the insane commitment to acquiring as much power for the supranational government in Brussels, as well as the fact that Eastern Europe rarely shared the rest of Europe’s worldview, or that Southern Europe was anything other than an economic weight for the Northern Europeans, and the world should have seen how utterly insane the EU postulation was. Indeed, rather than resembling the Federation from Star Trek, the EU resembled the fearsome Borg (maybe they are Swedish!).
Rather than greater centralization, the world needs greater localism and nationalism. Technology has made it possible for even micro states, such as Singapore, for instance to be utterly independent and free of larger controlling states. The diffusion of wealth has suborned this trend also. And, while traditional power politics seems to be returning to the world, those wealthier and smaller states should be able to secure themselves by making deals with larger, more potent countries rather than being made to rely on the false promises of an EU accession agreement.
As an aside, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that in today’s world, Credit Suisse has given only the United States and the Small Developed Countries (Luxembourg, Singapore, Switzerland, Hong Kong SAR, Belgium, Ireland, Denmark, and Iceland) the highest ranking of “5.” Countries like Brazil and Russia, other two economic and military “dynamos” (supposedly) are only granted a “2” and China, the real rising power in the world, has been granted a measly “3.”
Fact is, the post-Cold War world order that was based on America’s “unipolar moment” is in its final death throes. Whenever an old order passes and a new one arises, there are violent dislocations, as new and rising actors challenge the status quo in order to create a new balance. During the collapse of the balance of power created by the Congress of Vienna following the Napoleonic Wars, the world suffered through a series of horrific nationalist movements, the rise of new empires, and a series of geopolitical crises between the rising empires and the old ones (i.e. the Agadir Crisis between the British Empire and German Empire, which set the table for the rivalries which played out in World War I, the final destruction of the old European order).
However one feels about the rise of these separatist movements in Europe–particularly in the case of Spain, which has remained at the bottom of most geopolitical hotspot lists for decades–Robert Kagan’s 2011 assertion that Europe is “returning to history” is being made truer with each passing day. The rise of nationalist-populist sentiment is nothing new to Europe. Though, to be certain, it is a significant change from the rhetoric that dominated the continent following the end of the Cold War. Given the ongoing economic turmoil within the European Union, the stark sub-regional divisions (between the wealthy north and the indebted south, for instance), the resurgence of Russia to the east, and the silent invasion of masses of people fleeing the turmoil in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, it stands to reason that the old national patterns of European politics are once again the dominant force on the continent.
Of course, as anyone who spent any time with me during my undergraduate years at DePaul University in Chicago will tell you, I’ve challenged the notion that nationalism ever really died in Europe (or anywhere else, for that matter). The Europeans, for instance, predicated their “Common Defence and Security Policy” (CDSP) on the notion of soft power, specifically championing human rights. Yet, as Walter Laqueur points out in “After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent,” the Europeans simply cherrypicked which human rights abuses to stand opposed to (and they were normally in countries around the world that had little economic or military importance to the various EU member states).
The EU, for instance, had no problem standing opposed to genocide in the African state of Chad, but it had much difficulty in opposing Russian aggression (that was specifically aimed at undermining European unity) in Georgia in 2008 or even in Ukraine in 2014 (thanks to Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas and oil). The bulk of European countries also enjoy selling technology and weapons to the People’s Republic of China, so the EU generally looks the other way on China’s egregious human rights abuses (and since sickly and wealthy Europeans acquire organs illegally harvested from Chinese prisoners, Europe generally ignores what happens in Chinese Laogais).
The globalist delight we experienced from the end of the Cold War was a mere hallucinogen; a large heaping of political Serotinon levels brought on by the glories of being both liberated from the nuclear will-they-won’t-they? dynamic of the Cold War as well as the explosion of wealth, technology, and interconnectivity (thanks to the wealth and technology) of the years following the Cold War. Now, however, the Serotonin levels have returned to their historical normal (in Europe’s case, they may actually be lower, creating a vast depression regarding the continent’s future). We have become accustomed to vast levels of wealth as well as the masses of new technological innovations.
In fact, after the 2008 Great Recession (at least in the West), we’ve become accustomed to declining wealth and access to capital as well as economic stagnation–thereby giving rise to those nationalist-populist forces lighting Europe ablaze. And, as the great physicist Dr. Michio Kaku has cautioned people, there are limits even to Moore’s Law (which states that computer technological development based upon silicon computer chips is exponential). In fact, Dr. Kaku and other physicists propose that we double down on the development alternative computing power, such as quantum-based computers, in order to avoid the limitations inherent in silicon-based computers. So, even in the once predictable limitless promise of technological innovation in the post-Cold War period, nothing is assured.
The lack of assurance, coupled with rising insecurity, and economic stagnation is forcing an end to America’s post-Cold War “New World Order” and the rise of something else entirely. We are experiencing the revenge of history as well as geography and the return of the importance of the study of geopolitics (which most American universities have abandoned because of fears that the subject is “racist”). Not only are old powers, such as Turkey, Russia, Iran, and China on the rise, but so too are ancient nationalist passions, such as those of the Catalans.
It’s interesting to note that even eight years prior to the turbulent period that Spain (and much of Europe) is experiencing separatism was a non-starter. In that year, Juan Jose Ibarretxe of the center-right Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) tried to push through an independence referendum from the Basque region of Spain and was struck down by the Madrid courts. It seems shocking at first glance that the Basques would not be the leading force behind the push for independence from Spain (seeing as that Basque separatists waged a 40-year insurgency against Spain). Over the years, the once-independence-minded PNV has abandoned any real pretensions for independence, especially in light of Madrid giving the Basque region increasing levels of independence (quite similar to how the Canadian government in Ottawa treats Quebec). Indeed, in 2008, calls for separatism in the Basque region did not rise above 16.9%. And they generally do not rise above 30%.
Despite the fact that not even the PNV has real plans for independence–and that Madrid has allowed the Basque Country to develop a form of semi-autonomy–many people in the region still believe independence is necessary, they’re just looking for the right time (and leader). In fact, I believe with the rise of the Catalan independence movement reaching a crescendo–and Spain’s horrific response to the movement–calls for independence will be high. This is especially true, in light of the fact that historically calls for Basque independence tend to significantly increase if there appears to be another separatist cause on the rise elsewhere in Spain. And, if the Catalans get what they want, then the calls for Basque independence will be deafening (and the response from Madrid would be swift).
In his piece, Spengler rightly assesses the dangers of Spain’s continued demographic plight. Indeed, this is but a small part in the ongoing demographic collapse of the human race. Europe is merely leading the way. Conservative commentator Mark Steyn argues that this is the result of socialism and its destructive ethos. I am inclined to agree. The loss of religious faith among Europe’s inhabitants seems to have a direct correlation–if not causation–for the precipitously declining demographic figures in Spain (as well as the onerous regulations and taxes imposed on most members of the EU by the government in Brussels). The EU sought to fundamentally transform Europe from a hodgepodge of competing and militant nation-states into a supranational body predicated on equality, unity, and human rights.
They failed. In the new age of nationalism and, yes, imperialism, the EU has no place.
During the 2010 Greek Debt Crisis, I had a meeting with the great Vaclav Klaus in Chicago. He and I spoke of the systemic crisis afflicting Europe. We both agreed that, irrespective of whatever the EU did regarding Greece, it would be irrelevant. He concurred with my assessment that Greece, and the bulk of the Southern European states in need of bailouts (including Spain) should effectively file for bankruptcy, leave the Eurozone, and return to their national currencies. Of course, at the time, there was much pushback on this kind of solution. After all, restarting the old national economies would have been devastating (but when is any kind of bankruptcy painless?). However, had this process been enacted seven years ago when it was first suggested, these Southern European states would have been on their way to economic stabilization and political unity. Now, the people being most harmed by continuing to remain subordinated to these sclerotic central governments are taking matters into their hands and demanding freedom.
Catalonia, whether it officially gets to separate or not, has left Spain. Next will likely be the Basque Country. Then, Spain will splinter. But it will not be the last of Europe’s splintering. It will be but the first wave of several perturbations that bust apart the EU. These forces are unstoppable. As I’ve argued repeatedly on Capitol Hill and at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C.: there’s no going back to the “way things were” since the end of the Cold War. We are in a new era where the Westphalian nation-state retains its primacy in global politics. American policymakers had better start preparing for that day when the EU and likely also NATO cease functioning. That day is coming sooner or later, as evidenced by the plight of Spain.
It’s time for a new balance of power, it’s time for new American policies toward Europe.