Last week was spent obsessed with Gaza. In the end, nothing changed. A war was fought without an Israeli ground assault but with massive air and rocket attacks on both sides. Israel did not have the appetite and perhaps the power to crush Hamas. Hamas did not have the power to compel Israel to change its policies but wanted to achieve a symbolic victory against Israel. Both decided that continued fighting made little sense and allowed the Americans and Egyptians to bless a settlement. Everyone from Iran to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood played a role, and then the curtain on this act went down. It will come up again. It was not trivial for those who lived through the conflict, but in the end it changed little.
In this context, focusing on Catalonian elections would seem frivolous, but it is the nature of geopolitics that the quiet and odd may have more significance in the long run than the events that carry noisy headlines.
Catalonia is a region in northeastern Spain. Its capital, Barcelona, is the second-largest city in Spain and the country's industrial and commercial hub. Catalonia is also a region that for decades has had a substantial independence movement seeking to break away from the rest of Spain.
In a regional election held Sunday, the movement for independence remained strong but also became more complex. The regional president, Artur Mas, had called early elections as a way of measuring support for a referendum on secession. Mas' party actually lost 12 seats in the election, though another independence-oriented but more left-wing party doubled its seats. Together, the pro-independence parties increased their share by one seat and have the necessary two-thirds majority to force a non-binding referendum.
Without going too deeply into the morass of regional politics, the long-standing dispute between Catalonia and Madrid has been deepened by the financial crisis and the issue of how the burden will be shared. Originally, Mas had not supported independence but rather greater autonomy for Catalonia. However, he did want a deal with Madrid in which the austerity burden placed on Catalonia would be mitigated. Madrid rejected the deal, which drove Mas toward advocating independence and calling the early elections. With Sunday's election results, the independence movement has become more intense and more radical. The mainstream pro-independence party lost, but smaller and more left-wing parties made gains, a trend we expect to grow in Europe as the economic strains increase.
Europe's Border Imperative
Since World War II, there has been an underlying principle in Europe that borders are sacrosanct, that they will not be changed. The fear has been that once borders become an issue again in Europe, the tensions that tore Europe apart prior to World War II would re-emerge. This was not universally respected, of course. Serbia's borders were forcibly changed after the Kosovo war (and Spain is one of four EU countries that did not recognize Kosovo due to its own secessionist movement). But the idea of one state making territorial claims on another was contained.
What was not contained was the self-revision of national borders. The two most famous cases were the "velvet divorce" of Czechoslovakia, where two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, emerged peacefully. Nor, obviously, did that principle preclude devolution, or the fragmentation of countries into smaller nationally based entities, in either Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union itself. A wave of countries buried in larger transnational entities emerged in Europe in the 1990s, sometimes peacefully and sometimes not.