Leader: Europe and its discontents

The Catalan crisis, and the continuing rise of right-wing nationalists, betray the limitations of the EU.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The European Union was born as a post-national project. Its founders dreamed that the atavistic loyalties that had twice brought destruction on the continent would wither away. The 1957 Treaty of Rome proclaimed the aspiration of “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.

Since the end of the Second World War (notwithstanding the Balkan Wars of the 1990s), Europe has enjoyed the longest period of peace since the Pax Romana (27 BC to 180 AD). But today its peoples appear ever more divided. The EU’s creation was intended to deter secessionism, yet its existence has encouraged this by emboldening regionalism and reawakening dormant nationalism.

“If in Europe you’re not a member state, you’re nobody,” observed the former Catalan minister Josep Huguet i Biosca in 2004. For Catalan, Scottish, Flemish and other nationalists, the multinational, quasi-federal EU is an umbrella under which they aspire to shelter.  The transformation of Spain has been a source of pride for Europe. It joined the EU in 1986, 11 years after the death of Franco, and its membership has helped to entrench democracy and prosperity. But Catalonia’s bid for independence threatens to reverse this progress. Following last year’s Brexit vote, the EU is confronted by the potential disintegration of its fifth-largest national economy.

As a comparatively young democracy, Spain’s overriding priority is to maintain the unity of the kingdom. But Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government’s treatment of the Catalans has merely bolstered the separatist cause. The beatings inflicted by riot police on Catalan voters during the 1 October referendum revived memories of the Franco era, when the region was brutally suppressed.

Rather than punishing the illegal vote, the Spanish government should have ignored it, or, emulating the UK’s approach to Scotland, sought agreement on a legal referendum (opinion polls have shown that a majority of Catalans oppose independence). The Spanish government’s imposition of direct rule – and the triggering of new regional elections on 21 December – has allowed Mr Rajoy to regain some political authority, even if he has already squandered moral authority.

In Britain and elsewhere, many on the left have instinctively sided with the Catalans. Yet the situation is complicated. For some Catalans, secession is a self-interested quest to free Spain’s richest region from subsidising the rest of the country (just as some libertarians advocate London’s independence). For others, it is a revolt against the austerity measures imposed at the behest of Brussels. As an organisation of nation states, the EU has inevitably avoided confrontation with Spain, limiting itself to calls for restraint. The UK, Belgium and Italy, among others, have their own secessionist tendencies to contain. Europe is confronted by increasing disunity both within and between its member states. In Hungary and Poland, authoritarian governments are challenging the rule of law and free movement. In Austria and the Czech Republic, Eurosceptic and populist parties made gains in recent elections. Britain has shown no desire to reconsider Brexit.

The election of Emmanuel Macron as French president, the re-election of Angela Merkel and the eurozone’s improved economic growth have encouraged hopes of EU revival. But the Catalan crisis and the continuing rise of right-wing nationalists (including in France and Germany) betray its limitations. Unless the EU can achieve political and economic renewal, it risks presiding over a new era of disintegration. 

The Weinstein Effect

Harvey Weinstein’s exposure as a serial sexual predator has emboldened women – and some men – to speak out about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and beyond. This week, the Weinstein Effect, as it has been called, reached Westminster. A list compiled by junior Conservative researchers of rumours about at least 40 Tory MPs has been leaked (and has been seen by the New Statesman).

As Helen Lewis and Stephen Bush write, the insular world of Westminster is fertile ground for bullying, sexual harassment and even sexual assault, with the victims often pressurised to keep silent because of party loyalty. However, the now infamous list also contains details of consensual relationships – as well as unusual, though not illegal, sexual acts. Conflating these with abuse and assault is wrong.

The abuse of power structures at work, as happened with the film producer Mr Weinstein and the young actresses he targeted, is unacceptable and requires immediate and proper redress. But issues of private morality such as infidelity are matters for one’s own conscience. The same goes for sexual tastes, unless the person is a public moralist whose hypocrisy deserves to be exposed. 

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over