Will EU Integration Create More Catalonias?

The more federalist Europe becomes, the less regions may see a need for the nation.

The fruits of European integration?

Photographer: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

The Catalan authorities appeared poised Monday to stop short of an official independence declaration after some important businesses based in Catalonia voted with their feet and at least 350,000 people marched for Spanish unity in Barcelona on Sunday. If the crisis is defused, it will be an important victory for Spain's uncompromising Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. But it should leave European leaders wondering whether they'd be able to keep separatism in check within a closer-knit European Union.

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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and French President Emmanuel Macron recently made impassioned calls for more European federalism. Between them, they talked about a common budget, a common military force, common immigration and tax policies, transnational elections. Would Europe's independent-minded territories -- not just Catalonia, but literally dozens of regions with active separatist movements -- be more tempted to secede if this much authority were delegated from the national governments to the union? Why, after all, should a region pay, and subordinate itself to, an intermediary if it can get a seat at the federation table?

The idea of a "Europe of the Regions" has been around since the mid-'80s (the Scottish Nationalist Party adopted "independence in Europe" as a goal in 1988), but its roots lie in the far earlier writings of the Swiss federalist ideologue Denis de Rougemont, who fantasized about reconstituting Europe from the smallest "base communities," which would coalesce into regions, and of Guy Heraud, who wrote of a federation of peoples or ethnics rather than countries. More practical iterations of these ideas were popular until the mid-1990s, when closer European integration had momentum. Then, according to University of Edinburgh's Eva Hepburn, the realization started setting in among regionalist and nationalist parties that the EU wasn't receptive to their aspirations. Hepburn titled her 2008 paper "The Rise and Fall of a 'Europe of the Regions.'"

Perhaps it's time to rewrite it as "rise, fall and rise." Both separatist movements that are most visible today, the Scottish and Catalan ones, are based on taking regions out of nations and into the EU as full-blown members. Granted, there is no majority support for secession in either of the regions, but the EU may be partially responsible for that. It has never indicated that regions seceding from its member states had a path toward accelerated membership. Even the Brexit cataclysm, which caused Juncker to dance a round or two with Scottish Nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon, didn't change that: Last month, the European Commission president said Scotland would get no special deal from the EU if it gained independence. 

It's even worse for Catalonia: Spain is not leaving the EU and, as things stand, even if a majority of Catalans voted for secession in a legitimate referendum -- something that didn't happen earlier this month -- Spain will block any attempt by a Catalan state to gain EU membership. All Juncker can promise the Catalans is that he'll "respect their opinion." That's cold comfort as companies leave Barcelona for other Spanish cities. The economic unsustainability of an independence bid followed by years of arranging a EU membership is obvious to many voters.

There's a contradiction inherent in Juncker's and Macron's federalist impulses. Both leaders see the EU as a union of states in their current borders. But their moves risk re-energizing regionalist parties within them. What if, in a more empowered Brussels, Juncker's successor and a European Parliament elected on supranational lists are more receptive toward new members that are now parts of EU states? They already have EU-compliant laws, procedures and values, so how difficult would it be to bring them in? The EU already has a strong regional policy, whose results are visible as investment projects in communities. A recent Eurobarometer poll showed 78 percent of Europeans were aware of the impact. It wouldn't be difficult for the European institutions to go down a level from dealing with the current nation states: They are already engaged with subnational entities.

As the federal center gets more powerful, Scotland and Catalonia could be joined by Flanders, Wallonia, Bavaria, Brittany, Normandy, Occitania, Galicia, the Basque Country, South Tyrol, Sardinia, Sicily -- the whole nightmare separatist map of Europe. Today, people in Europe are slightly more attached to their countries than to their regions or cities. But if a region suddenly gets a chance to become a country and there's no economic downside to it, no travel limitations, there's a chance this could be reversed. Today, voters often dislike Brussels because they have little direct control over what goes on there -- but they could be enticed by a counterweight, a more accountable government in a smaller country than in today's giant ones and with it more competent representation of their interests in the EU.

Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis sees such an arrangement as a potential solution to EU's crises. "The Catalonia crisis is a strong hint from history that Europe needs to develop a new type of sovereignty, one that strengthens cities and regions, dissolves national particularism, and upholds democratic norms," he wrote on Monday. In his version of the "Europe of the Regions" utopia, new, seceding states wouldn't be allowed to set up hard borders or cut off fiscal transfers to poorer regions, and they'd be required to accept triple citizenship: in the new state, the old state and Europe.

 Visions like that are a powerful reason for the heads of European nation states not to endorse more federalism. A stronger Europe might not need them. Juncker tries to have it both ways: proposing closer integration while also siding with Rajoy in the Catalan matter. But if dreams of a more united Europe are ever to become reality, then a far more idealistic crop of leaders -- ones prepared to sacrifice their own territories for a European ideal -- would be necessary.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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