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Behind the Irish crisis

The new coalition government portrays the crushing defeat of Fianna Fail as a cathartic, revolutiona

The beginning of the economic transformation of Ireland announced itself to me one morning when I was living in Mexico City in 1995. It was there in a headline in the New York Times: "Irish economic growth lifts hopes". The article mentioned rapid growth, booming exports and high rates of new jobs - not what I usually associated with the country I'd left behind eight months before.

Mexico, too, had been the object of worldwide acclaim for its economic performance. Sweeping aside the protectionism that it had championed throughout its 60 years in power, the Institutional Revolutionary Party had opened Mexico to globalisation. The country was booming and millions got hold of a credit card for the first time. Mexicans thought they were about to realise the dream of becoming a first-world country. Watching from the White House, George H W Bush said that Mexico was rising again like the Aztec eagle. The man credited with this wonder was President Carlos Salinas. But just as his six-year term was ending, in 1994, Mexico crashed into crisis: the value of the peso plunged and millions of investors pulled their money out. The International Monetary Fund intervened with a huge bailout. Salinas was blamed for the disaster. His humiliation was so great that he was forced into exile. He chose to live in Ireland.

A few months after settling in Dublin, Salinas gave an interview to the Irish Times, in which he enthused about his new home. He remarked on two national characteristics of his hosts that particularly appealed to him. One was how easily they put their faith in people. "They trust a lot, the Irish," he said admiringly (or perhaps incredulously). The other trait was the strength of the country's desire to be sovereign, which reminded him of Mexico. Sovereignty has a long pedigree in Ireland but, contrary to the impression of the exiled former Mexican president, people often saw it as fragile or unreal. In the New York Times article advertising what was to become the "Celtic Tiger", a young engineer at an American-owned computer chip company in the west of Ireland confided that it was only in the previous decade that the Irish had become "increasingly aware that we control our own destiny".

No longer. The major economic decisions to be taken by the new Irish coalition government will be framed by the interests of the IMF and the European Union, which, between them, have loaned Ireland €85bn. Trust has disappeared - trust in the banks but most of all in Fianna Fail, which used to regard itself not as a mere political party but as a national movement. (Éamon de Valera's granddaughter Síle told a party meeting in the early 1980s: "We all have our very special Fianna Fail faith, as it were, in which we all believe.")

Fianna Fail was so accustomed to power that, on the rare occasions it was consigned to opposition, it was, in the words of the historian Joe Lee, "psychologically orphaned". Nobody has been forced into exile but the scale of the defeat of Fianna Fail - Ireland's own institutional revolutionary party lost 51 of its 71 seats in the election on 25 February - is comparable to the scale of Salinas's humiliation in Mexico.

What is left? Even if the new government succeeds in renegotiating the interest rate on the IMF/EU loan (almost 6 per cent), the Irish will have to endure what Enda Kenny, the new Taoiseach, referred to during the election campaign as "an interminable night" of higher taxes, wage freezes, unemployment and emigration.

At the special conference where the Labour Party decided to join Fine Gael in coalition, delegates were forewarned by their leader, Eamon Gilmore, that at future conferences they would have to pass through "a forest of placards" because of the harsh policies the government would have to implement. Several speakers in favour of coalition recalled how people they had met while canvassing had broken down in tears as they attempted to describe how the crisis had affected their daily lives. Gilmore urged that Labour had to go into government for the sake of "the people who came on the doorsteps to us and cried".

Fine Gael presented the election as catharsis. Kenny described the result - his party's best ever - as a democratic revolution. It was an attempt to capture the zeitgeist, to insinuate that the removal of Fianna Fail from power was akin to the end of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. But the suggestion that what happened on polling day in Ireland amounted to an overturning of the established order was far from the truth.

Leaving aside gains for Sinn Fein and a loose alliance of left-wing independents, as well as Labour's strong showing, the major winner was a conservative party whose general outlook for most of the past 78 years has been barely distinguishable from that of the party it defeated. This is all the more puzzling because the crisis in Ireland, although part of the worldwide market failure in finance, had particular local roots. The major cause of the collapse of the Irish banks was not sub-prime mortgages or abstruse financial instruments, but reckless lending to property developers who, as a class, have long-standing connections with politicians. Given the depth of betrayal by the bankers and the fusillade of polemics against the political system over the past three years, why has the Irish electorate been so conservative?

The Irish economic crisis has been documented as a collective calamity affecting the entire population. Photo spreads of the ghost estates, shells of unfinished houses abruptly abandoned by builders when the money ran out and stories of those who remortgaged modest properties to buy now worthless apartments in Bulgarian resorts have suggested that heavy losses have touched everyone. They haven't.

During my visits to Dublin over the past three years, I have been puzzled to see fashionable restaurants still full not only on Fridays and Saturdays but on Sunday evenings and weekdays as well. Such resilience suggests that there is a stratum of Irish society for which the recession is an inconvenience, rather than a catastrophe.

In the last week of the election campaign, I spent an evening canvassing with Lucinda Creighton, a young, articulate, high-profile, right-leaning member of parliament for Fine Gael for the seat of Dublin South-East. In pre-boom Dublin, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the large Georgian houses in Belgrave Square in Ranelagh were given over to student flats. Now, one after another, they have been lavishly restored with polished granite steps, gleaming varnished doors and shining brass knockers. The front yards are strewn with tasteful gravel and likely to have parked in them BMWs and Jaguars. Fine Gael's eager body of canvassers attacked these streets with energy.

What was remarkable about that evening was how we heard no anger on the doorsteps. Nobody cried or broke down with a tale of burdens or hardship. At one door, a man in a pink shirt assured Creighton that she would get his vote even though he had previously voted for Fianna Fail. The candidate began to assure him that she understood it must be a hard decision. But he looked at her as if she were naive or misguided: to jump from Fianna Fail to Fine Gael would cause him no torment at all, he said.

A personal story opened a window on this serenity. It is the way of Irish politics that voters use their parliamentary representatives to solve their home problems, so the Fine Gael candidate was often presented with stories of individual difficulties. One man said he had heard that Fine Gael was proposing to introduce capital gains tax on house sales. He explained that he had recently developed epilepsy and would not be able to look after himself when his adult children finally left home. To pay for a place in a nursing home, he would have to sell his house. But a capital gains tax might deter him, and then where would he be? Creighton assured him not to worry; a capital gains tax on homes was not in the manifesto.

This man had bought his house in 1986. Despite the collapse in asset prices, anybody who bought a house in Ireland in the 1980s or 1990s is still sitting on a lot of wealth. Irish house prices quadrupled between 1996 and 2007. Just as many of those who survived the famine of the mid-19th century prospered and became more powerful among a greatly reduced population, this time there will be a substantial class of people who will benefit from the Irish crash.

The winners from the famine - strong farmers, the Catholic Church - formed the bedrock for the conservative society that Ireland is today. Because modern Ireland was born in difficult economic times, Irish politicians failed to develop an idea of what a wealthy Ireland should look like. Irish independence coincided with the destruction of a globalised economy during the First World War: it was the age of autarky.

The men who took power in the first gov­ernment in independent Ireland in 1922, the founders of Fine Gael, had given all their attention to political and cultural independence but little thought to the economic goals of the new state. For ten years, they ran Ireland with Vic­torian austerity, pursuing balanced budgets and sound money. Then came Fianna Fail, with its credo of self-sufficiency. Éamon de Valera, who was to dominate Irish politics for the next 30 years, questioned whether the standard of living in western Europe was "the right and proper one" and committed his country to what elsewhere would be regarded as righteous poverty. It was a policy that, for a moment, captivated John Maynard Keynes. In a celebrated lecture in Dublin in 1933, attended by de Valera, Keynes affirmed: "Were I an Irishman, I should find much to attract me in the economic outlook of your present government."

But the rapid advances all over Europe after the Second World War left Ireland falling farther behind. While the masses on the Continent had fridges, washing machines and Vespa scooters, in Ireland, as the visiting German writer Heinrich Böll noted, they made do with the Mass, movies and cigarettes. In 1956, the Irish Times summed up the differences in economic policies between the two civil-war parties for voters as: "You can drink a little more under Fine Gael or smoke a little more under Fianna Fail."

As the political scientist Tom Garvin argued with some brio in his provocatively titled book Preventing the Future: Why Was Ireland So Poor for So Long?, published in 2004, Ireland was held back by inadequate education, a reactionary Church and the dead hand of class and vested interests.

By the end of the 1950s, Ireland's population, at fewer than three million, was the lowest ever officially recorded. With hundreds of people leaving small towns every week to take the boat to England, contemporary commentators worried that the Irish nation might survive, as one writer put it, "only as an enervated remnant in a land occupied by foreigners".

In 1958, the Irish government made a momentous policy shift, opening the country up to trade and foreign investment and preparing to apply to join the European Economic Community. The man to carry out this policy was Seán Lemass of Fianna Fail. He was almost 60 when he came to power, having long laboured in the shadow of de Valera. In July 1963, a month after John F Kennedy made a journey to his ancestral home, Lemass appeared on the front cover of Time magazine. He was credited with "lifting the Green Curtain", as if the opening up of the Irish economy was the equivalent of a peek behind the Iron Curtain.

In prose that prefigured the future Celtic Tiger era, Time marvelled at the "new factories and office buildings, the Irish-assembled cars fighting for street space in Dublin, the well-dressed people shopping in supermarkets" and "the waning of national self pity". Even the movies were forcing change. The then justice minister, Charles Haughey - Lemass's son-in-law - revealed that sex had become so frequent on screen that the censors had been told to go easy with the scissors "or else our cinemas won't get any films at all".

The 1960s brought television and free edu­cation, as well as more titillating nights at the pictures. The decade also marked a watershed in political culture. Lemass, as one of his contemporaries from the independence struggle remarked, came into office a poor man and was poor when he retired as Taoiseach in November 1966. In a recently published study of his career, there is a photo of Lemass, son of a draper, looking dapper on his way to work in a dark woollen overcoat with white flecks.

In another picture from four years later, taken in the grounds of Stormont on the morning of his historic and unannounced visit to Belfast in 1965, the first by a prime minister from the Republic of Ireland to the North, he is wearing the same overcoat.

Such unconcern for style would never do for his son-in-law. Haughey epitomised a new relationship between politicians and men on the make; "the men in the mohair suits" became a catchphrase for those who occupied the intersection of politics and business in the 1960s. When he finally became Taoiseach, in December 1979, Haughey was as famous for the monogrammed shirts that he bought in Paris, with "donations" from his friends in business, as for any of his other accomplishments.

A pattern had been established in that first boom of the 1960s. Ireland had been so poor for so long, so consumed with issues of identity, sovereignty and language, that it neglected to develop a philosophy of the money culture.

In 1964, a year after Time's profile of Lemass, a young historian and future politician named David Thornley noted the death of the policy of economic nationalism. "What is remarkable to the point of incredibility," he wrote, "is the passiveness with which this change has been accepted inside a single generation."

Five years later, Conor Cruise O'Brien returned from the United States to contest the 1969 election for the Labour Party in Haughey's Dublin seat. During the campaign, he regularly drew attention to Haughey's dubious finances but the issue had little traction.

“I don't think my attacks on him did me any good or him any harm," O'Brien recalled later. "The electorate doesn't take in a thing like conflict of interest. They thought it was a straight case that I was envying this rich man - it seemed a kind of standard political exchange within
the system."

At the turn of the new century, when the Irish economy had experienced several years of remarkable growth, a celebratory book of interviews was published with business leaders who had made their mark. It was the moment when the boom - which was based on the convergence of sensible policies with a fortuitous demographic moment, when most people were of working age - was drawing to a natural close, and before the artificial boom that was based on property took off. Sober appraisal of fortuitous circumstances was out; self-congratulation was in.

The editor of the collection, a business consultant named John J Travers, praised "a distinctively Irish enterprise spirit"; one could only conclude, therefore, that its signature traits of "ability, imagination and passion" were in short supply in other nations. He put his faith in the morality of entrepreneurs: "While a government framework of regulation and law is essential in achieving the balance between individual and community interest," he wrote, "the ultimate determinant of that balance will be the culture, beliefs and value systems of the individual members of a society."

The events of the past few years have exposed how much of this faith was misplaced. The overwhelming sense in Ireland is that the wealth of the boom years that was not creamed off by a golden circle of initiates has been wasted and lost for a generation that should have inherited it. Regulation, law, culture and value systems all proved inadequate to prevent the elite from making spectacularly poor judgements.

Ireland faces years of austerity to pay off the debts of its banks. Some kind of managed default may yet be the only option, because it is difficult to see how ordinary taxpayers can continue to carry the burden. Ireland has limited options for generating wealth: it will have to continue to be open to the world, which is why keeping its corporate tax rate at 12.5 per cent has become such an unlikely symbol of sovereignty. Ireland's aim for 2016 - the centenary of the Easter Rising - is, according to Kenny, to be "the best small country in the world to do business in". But can the country's politics be reconstituted on the basis of such a narrow obsession?

The nearest thing to an articulation of the economic philosophy of the government that presided over the boom and bust was in a speech made in July 2000 by Mary Harney, then deputy prime minister, to an audience of visiting American lawyers in Dublin. Geographically, she said, Ireland was closer to Berlin than Boston but: "Spiritually, we are probably a lot closer to Boston than Berlin."

The Irish economy that her government had shaped, Harney said, was created primarily to appeal to corporate America. "We have cut taxes on capital. We have cut taxes on corporate profits. We have cut taxes on personal incomes. The result has been an explosion in economic activity and Ireland is now the fastest-growing country in the developed world. And did we have to pay some very high price for pursuing this policy option? . . . The answer is no. We didn't. This model works. It allows us to achieve our full economic potential for the first time in our history as an independent state."

In his Dublin speech in 1933, in which he flattered de Valera, Keynes remarked that the Great Depression had made people disillusioned "not because we are poorer . . . but because other values seem to have been sacrificed unnecessarily". His words capture well a sense of the way many people in Ireland feel about their current ruin.

It is fashionable to ridicule de Valera for his pious notions about a frugal society and what Garvin called his anti-economic views. De Valera's Ireland was impoverished, Garvin argued, because its leaders thought "in static and rural ways and in ethical rather than scientific terms". It was necessary to jettison this thinking for Ireland to become rich. It may be necessary to think in ethical terms for Ireland to work out how to be rich once more.

Maurice Walsh is Alistair Horne visiting fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford and teaches at Kingston University. His latest book, "The News from Ireland: Foreign Correspondents and the Irish Revolution", is newly published in paperback (IB Tauris, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special

ALEXEI FATEEV/ALAMY
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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

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After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

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The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater