© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Independence Referendum In Catalonia Raises Questions For The Rest Of Europe


Over the past couple of years, we've often had cause to wonder if the European Union might be coming apart over some very divisive issues - the debts of fiscally strapped southern European countries to wealthier northern Europe, especially Germany, the disproportionately large burden of the refugee crisis on countries at Europe's periphery, and the rise of nationalists who bridled at concessions of sovereignty to Brussels.

Well, the violence surrounding Sunday's referendum in Catalonia in support of independence from Spain points to another question - is a European member country in danger of coming apart, and might others follow? Well, today there was a general strike in Catalonia, and Spain's king went on national television to rebuke the Catalan leadership and to stress the illegality of the referendum.

Joining us from London is Anton La Guardia, who is deputy foreign editor of The Economist. Welcome to the program once again.

ANTON LA GUARDIA: Nice to be with you.

SIEGEL: And first, what's the significance of the Catalonian vote and the controversy over it for other countries in Europe?

LA GUARDIA: Well, I think there are two things to look at. First of all, do events in Catalonia create a precedent for other would-be secessionist, independent movements around Europe? And it's easy to think of them - Scotland, obviously, Corsica in France. The second issue is if Catalonia were ever to become independent, what does it mean for the EU? Does it count as part of the EU automatically or do they have to reapply? And the EU has debated this and come out and said, you know, a breakaway country would have to reapply for membership, which obviously makes independence less attractive for the people who would like to leave.

SIEGEL: Was Europe unusually quiet about the events on Sunday in Catalonia where the Madrid government's response to this referendum was pretty ham-fisted?

LA GUARDIA: I think the EU is unusually tongue-tied. The statement that they came out with was a mixture of trying to please all sides, saying, you know, the referendum so-called was illegal, but they also expect, you know, in brackets Spain to live within its democratic norms. So they hedged and would really rather the problem went away rather than having one more difficult, explosive issue on the sort of litany of problems that they already have, as you listed.

SIEGEL: One dimension of the Spanish conflict is the distinct ethnic identity of Catalonians and the Catalan language. Another dimension is people in a rich region wanting out of a generally poorer country. Can you think of a region in Europe or a country in Europe that has solved that kind of problem fairly creatively and might serve as a positive model for Spain holding together?

LA GUARDIA: So there are a number of richer bits of Europe that would like to break away. One can think of Flanders in Belgium and northern Italy, which is much richer than southern Italy and feels that a lot of the money that is raised in taxes in northern Italy is misspent either by politicians in Rome or on wasteful projects in the south. Has any country solved it? Well, you know, I mean, lots of countries have transfers within from richer to poorer regions.

You know, the country I'm sitting in is one such. Britain has, you know, London, which generates vast amounts of wealth because of financial services, and that then is spread out to regions to, you know, support poorer regions particularly in the north that have deindustrialized.

SIEGEL: Where do you think we go from here? What happens next in Spain?

LA GUARDIA: Well, I think that both sides need to step back. Prime Minister Rajoy runs a minority government, and he has gained a lot of support in the rest of Spain by taking a hard line against independence movements. I think that he will have to negotiate a deal that, you know, gives Catalonia greater language rights, maybe greater rights to hold onto the money that is raised there.

And I think that, you know, in the end there has to be an orderly process by which Catalans are asked, do you want to remain or not remain in Spain? I think to deny the right of people who feel themselves somehow to be different, to be a separate nation the right to at least debate the issue is counterproductive.

SIEGEL: Anton La Guardia, deputy foreign editor of The Economist in London, thanks for talking with us today.

LA GUARDIA: Nice to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.