Economic Separatism in Europe: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
As Europe's economy collapses, a new brand of separatism is arising in Europe: Economic separatism. Ironically, a closer look indicates that these separatists will only be recapitulating the errors of their current arrangements -- and should they win independence, it may profit them nothing.
Catalonia is probably the first place to start. It is Spain's Ruhr, an industrial and economic powerhouse. Along with the Basque country, Catalonia is one of the engines which has kept Spain afloat and prosperous for many decades. It is now clamoring for independence from Spain. Thirty percent of Catalans recently protested in the streets of Barcelona, demanding separation from Madrid.
A central complaint among Catalans is that they are massively subsidizing the rest of Spain. They see the central Madrid government as a money pit where their taxes go and never return. They are tired of floating the rest of the country while their provincial bridges, roads, and physical plant go unmaintained. The Catalans want out.
The central government collects most taxation payments then redistributes them to Spain's 17 self-governing regions, which run their own schools and hospitals. Each year Catalans say they pay 16 billion euros more in taxes than the regional government spends.
Overall, Catalonia is Spain's richest region, but the drain amounts to more than $2,700 per individual per year.
To be sure, there is a reservoir of historical and linguistic grievances as well. The province has its own language, Catalan, which was suppressed for many generations; and Spain, particularly the fascist regime under Franco, has tried to wipe out Catalan nationalism for over a century.
The Catalans are resisting -- peaceably. The provincial school system now teaches in Catalan, to the fury of many conservative Spaniards. However, this time, economics has been added to fray.
If Catalonia spooks the Spanish, the Basque region must terrify them. Unlike the Catalans, who are using legal, political, and peaceable means for separation, the Basque have not been afraid to take up arms in the past. Every conversation about Catalonia is spoken with the Basque specter in mind.
There is no need to recapitulate how the Basque have fought the Madrid -- and Paris -- government for decades -- first against fascist Franco, then against the present Spanish government, and sometimes against the French, all the while with a large degree of popular support. Nor should there be any reason to review their unique language and history. All of this is fairly well-known.
What is less well known is that the Basque region is the most heavily industrialized, modern, and productive region in Spain on a per capita basis. Man for man, the Basque are even outperforming the Catalans; there are just fewer of them.
Basque country has a unique tax system with fiscal autonomy from Madrid. CAF exports 77 percent of the trains it makes. That's typical for Basque country. People here make up about 4.5 percent of Spain's population, but they contribute nearly 10 percent of Spanish exports.
Impressively, the Basque region presently has only half the unemployment of Spain. The Basque are all but economically independent of Spain.
Right now, unlike the rest of Spain, the Basque economy is performing admirably well.
In 2010, the Basque GDP was 34% above the Spanish average and 40% above the European Union's average -- roughly equal to the per capita GDP of Germany.
The Basque are not remaining quiet. They want out. Unlike the Catalan, the Basque have muscle; and while the Spanish central government publicly exudes confidence that it has militant Basque separatism finally defeated, no talk of Basque secession can be so easily dismissed. In the past, it was language and history that separated the Basque from Spain. Now it is the economy as well.
The specter of losing Catalonia and the Basque Country bodes ill for Spain. Without these regions propping up Spain, the rest of the country might join the ranks of the third world.
However, for all their financial success, the Basque and Catalans have this in common. Large constituencies of theirs regularly vote Socialist. The Basque ETA, which had a degree of popular support, was a Marxist group. Socialist Parties exert a major influence on Catalonia.
While it is true that there is a center-right pro-independence Basque Nationalist Party (the PNV), there is also a large impetus for a new left-wing pro-independence Basque party (Bildu).
Amazingly, the Catalans want to become independent and then rejoin the European Union as a separate state. It is like an addict changing his dealer and thinking his heroin fix will improve. Rather than striking for liberty, they seem to want merely a change of master. How much difference does it make if Catalonia, as part of a Spain subsidized by the rest of Europe, subsidizes the province of Andalusia in the south, versus if they subsidize Greece, as an independent Catalan state, with no subsidy from the rest of Europe for themselves?
What will happen is not clear. Maybe the Basque and Catalans are waking up. Maybe not. But if all they do is exchange masters, their independence will serve them no benefit.
Scotland is now seeking independence as well. A referendum is being set for 2014.
Scotland has a lot of assets on its side -- it has a Silicon Glen -- but the call for independence seems to rely heavily on a questionable assumption of a good return from the North Sea Oil Fields, and that England will surrender 90% of the oil proceeds to Scotland.
Again, we see the same pattern. The Scottish National Party is decidedly leftist. The Scots also want to immediately join the European Union upon independence, and the European Union would demand that Scotland adopt the euro. This is Catalonia all over again, only with a shot of whiskey and some haggis.
There is one major difference. The Basque and Catalans are doing extraordinarily well. The Scots want to break away while underperforming compared to England. Of course, England's grab on the North Sea Oil Fields may be responsible for this -- and Scots nationalists play the issue up -- but the numbers are not so clear if England or Scotland would benefit from a separation with or without Scotland getting the oil. Scotland has higher welfare costs.
What is clear is that if Scotland joins the European Union, she too will only be trading masters.
Then there is the move for the independence of Flanders, which is being fought for linguistic, historical, and economic reasons -- not to mention Flemish anger at EU-enforced immigration. The Flemish have avoided the trap of extreme leftist leanings, but they sometimes veer too far to the right.
Northern Italy is a secessionist's feast, with South Tyrol wanting to rejoin Austria, while others groups want to join Slovenia. Venice wants to become a city-state again!
Northern Italians want to form a state called Padania, and to stop subsidizing the poorer South. Again, the same forces at play, but beyond the scope of this article.
The Basque are certainly the most worthy of freedom. Their language, history, and even genetics (Rh- factor) distinguish them. They have fought hard for their freedom -- sometimes honorably, other times not. Their economic performance is spectacular. But the Basque are faced with having to confront both Spain and France, which together constitute an insuperable team. At best, the Basque will get only their Spanish provinces -- and not even Spanish Navarre, which was once their seat of power. Most likely, they will have to settle for the little autonomy they have now. History plays tricks like this. The worthy often have no options.
Scotland seems undecided. It does not even seem prepared for independence. The economic figures are murky as to whether they would even benefit. If one wants independence for economic reasons, the books must balance out. Scotland does have a case for independence on ethnic lines alone, but it should dispense with the economic argument. However, even there, the ethnic differences between the Scottish and the English are far smaller than between the Irish and the English. The Irish claim was/is good. The Scottish case is not so clear.
The Catalans have a substantial claim. There is a linguistic difference. There are historical differences. There is an economic difference. But until they dispense with their hyper-leftist sentiments, and their love of the euro, the Catalans had better re-consider an exchange of tyrants. If not, all the Catalans are fighting for is Home Rule, which is what they have already. There are some nations who have no options but to accept Home Rule. Sadly, the Basque may have to live with it. The Catalans don't.
At the very least, even if the Catalans join the EU, they should insist on their own currency.
Washington fought for independence, not home rule, nor for a dominion status. God did not bring the tribes of Israel out of Egypt to make them lesser bondservants to the Canaanites. Heaven shines on those who seek liberty...but not on those who want to exchange tyrants.
Mike Konrad is the pen name of a writer who runs a website called http://latinarabia.com, where he discusses the Arab subculture in Latin America. He is American.