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Looking at Catalonia crisis in a wider context

The worst has come to pass, and the two protagonists of the Catalonia crisis have slid into open confrontation. Barcelona is unhappy with the marriage, and Madrid is unwilling to entertain a divorce. Madrid regards the pro-independence Catalan government as rebels, and the independence referendum as illegal and unconstitutional. But in the Catalan capital Barcelona, pro-independence parliamentary groups see things differently.
They have insisted on seeking divorce, and won the vote in the 135-seat Catalan Parliament 70 to 10, after anti-independence deputies walked out. This means that Catalonia, like Scotland during its own independence referendum in 2014, is deeply divided. There is no large majority with a well-defined idea about where it is going, its alternatives, and the future of coexistence with current domestic partners, Europe and the international community.
But in referendums a few days ago in two of Italy’s richest regions, Lombardy and Veneto, there were huge majorities (95.3 and 98.1 percent, respectively) in favor of stronger autonomy and more diluted relationships with the rest of the country.
The organizers neither sought full secession, nor made the results binding. This shows their deep understanding of Italy’s fragile structure and interesting contradictions during a critical period in the history of Europe, and indeed the whole world. In Italy, contrary to what we see in Spain, the political players seem more patient, although economic, cultural and linguistic differences are as common.
While there are Basque and Catalan speakers in northern Spain, there are German and French speakers in northern and northwest Italy, respectively. And while there are both radical and socialist Spanish leftists confronting the remnants of Francisco Franco’s fascist legacy, there are radical and socialist Italian leftists confronting the fascist legacy of Benito Mussolini.
Furthermore, as there exist active secular and pluralist trends throughout Spain, Italy’s left managed during the Cold War to dominate the councils of major cities, including Rome, the political capital and spiritual center of Catholicism.

These days, although the history of nations is full of myths and folklore, wise leaders are becoming more realistic. The notion of globalization in Europe now needs to be redefined; the same goes for Arabism in the Arab world.

Eyad Abu Shakra

In fact, no large or medium-sized European country is free of secessionist currents. Religion in Europe has never been a sufficient element in bringing about unity. Christian states have fought long wars, showing that religion on its own is never a uniting factor. Indeed, Christian powers led the opposing coalitions of both world wars, with the Ottomans being the exception in the first, and the Japanese in the second. This also applies to Muslim states.
Neither are religious sects enough to create a secure union or even alliance. Germany and Britain are both predominantly Protestant, Russia and Ukraine are predominantly Orthodox, and in Spain (and to a less acute extent in Italy) secessionist fires rage in Catholic regions against a Catholic center.
In the Middle East, Turks, Kurds and Arabs are not only predominantly Muslim but also Sunni, yet there is an old conflict between Turks and Kurds. Moreover, after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was deposed, the country’s Kurdish leadership sided with Shiite political parties and militias against Sunni ones; this continued up until the last few weeks.
Even sharing a landmass is not enough to turn neighbors into one country. Sweden and Norway share the bulk of the Scandinavian Peninsula, and Spain and Portugal share the Iberian Peninsula, but still they have remained independent.
Speaking the same language did not convince the American colonies to remain loyal to Britain, and did not prevent Canada, Australia and New Zealand from achieving independence. Nor did it tempt Spain’s colonies in the Americas to unite as one nation.
Last but not least, there is the element of ethnicity. Purity of race does not exist in major societies exposed to historical trade routes, or in territories fought over by liberators and conquerors.
Common ethnicity or race does not automatically ensure political unity, otherwise we would not have known animosities and wars between members of the same ethnicity, such as between the Russians and Poles who are both Slavs, the English and Germans who are both Germanic (the British royal family is of German origin), and the Pashtuns and Tajiks of Afghanistan, both of whom are Indo-European.
What creates nations are the interests of the people, if they have the right to choose freely and responsibly in a democratic environment. These days, although the history of nations is full of myths and folklore, wise leaders are becoming more realistic. The notion of globalization in Europe now needs to be redefined; the same goes for Arabism in the Arab world.

Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article is also published. Twitter: @eyad1949