A country is in big trouble when cities or states it thought prosperous start clamoring for bailouts. Think back to the New York headlines of the 1970s (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”) or consider the states now careening towards bankruptcy (Illinois and California tops among them). But Spain has a bigger problem. It is a complicated constitutional federation that relies on the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia to pay a lot of its bills, and Catalonia is now saying to Madrid what Ford said to New York. The Catalan president, Artur Mas, has called elections for November 25, promising to interpret a big victory as a green light for a referendum on full independence. Spain’s government has declared, Spain’s Supreme Court has opined, and Spain’s national assembly has voted that such a referendum would be illegal.

All of Europe is broke, but Spain is broker, and for a long time Catalonia appeared to be even broker still. For years its public finances have been in disorder and its banks on the verge of collapse. But Catalonia remains the economic, research, and financial powerhouse of Spain. Many of its woes come from the need to carry the rest of Spain—with its bubbles and its scandals and its elaborate patronage systems—on its back. Catalonia has a trade surplus of almost $30 billion with the rest of the country, and loses 10 percent of its gross domestic product to the other regions through transfer programs. When a nationalist march in Barcelona, the capital, on September 11 drew huge crowds, Mas seized the moment to demand a less onerous fiscal compact from Madrid. Since that could have imperiled 1 or 2 percent of the Spanish budget, conservative premier Mariano Rajoy, already facing budgetary pressure from Euroean authorities, said no. Mas dissolved the Catalan parliament and asked the public for an “indestructible majority” to hold an independence referendum within four years.

Catalan nationalism is ancient, but the movement as we now know it dates from the 19th century, when the region’s industrial development turned the area around Barcelona into something dramatically more modern than the rest of Spain. Mas’s voters are not the ignorant, vindictive, and folkloric nationalists of caricature. His mentor Jordi Pujol always strove to distinguish his movement from nationalisms that were “exclusive, uncooperative, and often disrespectful.”

The movement has much in common with other breakaway movements gaining steam in Europe now. Scottish nationalists will hold a referendum on independence in 2014, and the new Flemish nationalists have just captured the mayoralty of Antwerp. The Catalan website In Transit has described all these movements as “cosmopolitan nationalism.” Pujol built the nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) party around gentle, cultured, center-right businessmen. He encouraged immigration, on the grounds that North Africans (or whoever) would have to learn the Catalan language, while internal migrants from Andalusia would be content to stick with Spanish. (He has only been half-right. The Achilles’ heel of the CiU in the Mas era is that the Catalan language on which the national identity rests is now spoken as a first language by only a minority in Barcelona.)

This kind of nationalism is not as unsettling as its predecessors. For much the same reason, it is not as logical, either. Catalans, like Scots and Flemings, do not seek a country for “ourselves alone.” They explicitly seek to submit themselves to the European Union’s system of “shared sovereignty.” Mas reportedly wants the wording of the referendum question to read: “Do you want Catalonia to become a new state within the European Union?” The legal scholar Antoni Abat Ninet has written that Catalonia must make clear right off the bat that it “assumes the supremacy of community law and intends to maintain stability in international relations and respect for fundamental rights.” The foundation Catalunya Estat is optimistic that, under international law—specifically the Vienna Convention of 1978—Catalunya could glide right into EU membership.

Scottish experts, too, have devoted a good deal of thought to whether their country can automatically maintain its membership in the EU. They are a bit less sanguine. In an opinion prepared for the British parliament, Graham Avery of the European Policy Centre in Brussels wrote that “Scotland’s EU membership would need to be in place simultaneously with Scottish independence.” But why? What if it weren’t? Would Scotland still want independence? Would Catalonia? These nationalists sound less like Garibaldi fighting for the unification of Italy than Eleanor Holmes Norton debating statehood for the District of Columbia.

Since parliament has already approved a referendum, Mas’s CiU is set to benefit no matter what happens. In ordinary circumstances, a lukewarm plurality wants independence. But as in similar votes in Quebec, big referenda fire people up. Earlier this year, a poll in the Barcelona paper El Periódico had 53.6 percent saying they would vote “Yes,” versus 32 percent on the “No” side. Mas is now six seats short of an absolute majority. If he gets one, he will have a lot of freedom of action. If he doesn’t, his republican right will have to make a coalition with the party known as the Republican Left (ERC). That would be fine, too. It would isolate the non-nationalists on the left, further damaging an imploding Catalan socialist party that has been the CiU’s main rival, and which has benefited from a cozy relationship with the Socialists in Madrid.

Madrid is resisting. Under the Spanish constitution, Spain must approve any secession. Lest the message be seen as ambiguous, the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly (276 votes to 42) in October to disallow the Catalan referendum. The conservative Euro-parliament member Alejo Vidal Quadras opined that an independent Catalonia would have to undertake the long process of reapplying for EU membership. The move towards independence shows no sign of stopping. Catalans, despite their recent history, may underestimate the grim resolve of their fellow Iberians. Spaniards, meanwhile, think Mas is playing some kind of game, and hope he might be willing to negotiate the referendum away in exchange for a generously amended fiscal compact. Tragedies often result when two sides each wrongly think the other is bluffing.

Catalan independence is a wish that has been harbored for centuries. There are cultural, economic, and moral arguments for it. But one must ask why it is happening the way it is happening, and why now. The answer lies in the EU, which is a project for dissolving the continent’s nation-states. The EU’s leaders might not say it, they might not even think it, but the logic is inexorable. It is natural for minorities within the traditional nation-states to profit from this dissolution. But eventually majorities will see it as a trick that has been played on them. There is nothing more dangerous in politics than a majority convinced it has been tricked.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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