Just when Europe is getting over the possible break-up of the United Kingdom, with the near miss on Scottish independence, it now faces the possible break up of Spain.
Catalonia, the prosperous north east region of Spain, famous for the sporting and cultural stronghold of Barcelona and timeless books by Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, is seeking to become an independent state.
At a time when some Russian parts of Eastern Europe have effectively broken away, such as Crimea and now Eastern Ukraine, this redrawing of territorial and ethnic borders in Europe is re-creating the very instability and conflict that encouraged millions of hapless immigrants to flee to the United States over the last two centuries.
The Catalonia move also has interesting implications for Ireland, and for Northern Ireland, given that it shows that the borders of a modern European state may never actually be permanent and be can perpetually re-drawn according to the wishes of its inhabitants.
Indeed, this week, Dennis Kennedy, a Belfast- based author and commentator on political affairs, argued in the Irish Times that Northern Ireland should reconsider its status within the United Kingdom.
Regardless of the continuing divisions between the two communities in Northern Ireland, the reality is that the UK is profoundly changing in terms of its political make-up and constitutional direction and Kennedy asserts that the only way that Northern Ireland could secure its future economic and political security would be by going for federal status within a re-united Ireland.
An added reason is the quite likely prospect of the UK leaving the European Union (EU) in the near future, which would leave the North in very awkward, isolated position given that the South of Ireland would still remain within the EU.
It is the same with Catalonia, which, like Scotland (had it left the UK), would find itself outside the EU, with apparently no hurry in Brussels about having such ‘breakaway parts’ re-admitted.
However, at the moment, the Catalan push for independence is regarded as a complete solo-run. It has not been agreed at all with the rest of Spain, which has a strong national identity but which is also comprised of a number of strongly assertive regions
Last week, 2,235,000 people voted in a referendum organized by the Catalan regional government and 80% plumped for independence, but the central government in Madrid has consistently declared such referendums are ‘invalid and illegal.’
It argues that Catalonia is a constituent part of Spain and has no right to decide on its own to break away. But, inspired by the recent Scottish referendum and the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Catalans are determined to keep going.
The growing impasse is a serious development which could create major instability at the heart of the EU. The recent Scottish campaign was a relatively benign vote by comparison and even if it had led to the break-up of the UK, such a ‘departure’ would have been relatively harmonious.
By contrast, there has been a long standing animosity between Madrid and Barcelona and a feeling in Catalonia that they have been economically ‘carrying’ the rest of Spain. Catalonia has a big chunk of Spain's population, but is also its economic and financial powerhouse.
There is also a strong sense of difference, with a distinct and special language, art and culture. Most Catalans can speak Spanish, but they are understandably very proud of their language, which is different but related to Spanish.
Catalan separatism has long been a force in Spain and the 7.5 million republic almost broke away in 1936 during the bitter Spanish Civil War. But that war was won by the fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who suppressed all such separatist movements, and was thus hated in Catalonia. Through brute force, Franco kept the whole Spanish republic together.
Democracy has continued to do so, but now, with growing regional separatism, it seems that increased democracy is leading to its disintegration. It was also once hoped that broader EU membership would accommodate such regional 'differences' in Europe, but it may only have deepened them.
The problem for Spain is that if Catalonia breaks away, or tries to, presumably other regions like the Basque country, and Valencia and Galicia could follow suit. The Basque region has produced the violent ETA terrorist group, now dormant but still in existence. ETA has, over the years, had close links to the IRA and Sinn Fein, and the latter has tried to encourage ETA along the purely political path. Sinn Fein also broadly and actively supports Basque independence.
Interestingly, Sinn Fein also supports the Catalan cause and Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams have been pictured holding the Catalan flag. However, critics and Unionist commentators have pointed to what they see as a contradiction here: that Sinn Fein is supporting the right of a region in the north east of a land mass to break away!
'What is the difference with Northern Ireland and the way it broke away from the rest of Ireland in 1922?' they ask. But for Sinn Fein the parallel is with Ireland breaking away from the UK in this period.
Either way, Sinn Fein and Irish nationalists generally will welcome the current Catalan action as evidence that no sate’s borders are set in stone, especially when they curtail the political identity and national wishes of a people, as the Spanish borders presently do.
From the current non-violent perspective, Irish nationalists will also be heartened by the fact that a popular movement for separatism and independence can be pursued peacefully, and through purely constitutional actions, even if these actions are not approved by other ‘actors.’
Although the Catalonia issue has so far been entirely peaceful, there is great concern, however, about what will happen if the Madrid Government continues to ignore the popular will of the Catalans. And how can the Spanish government ultimately prevent them leaving unless through an economic blockade, or military intervention? Again, it is the situation Ireland was in a hundred years ago, and which Ukraine was in last year, with the Crimea. The Madrid Government also rightly argues that there are millions of people living in Catalonia who do not want to break away, and want to stay under Spanish rule.
As happened with Scotland, the only solution may be for Madrid to grant Catalonia more autonomy and fiscal powers to dampen the appetite for independence. But this will surely also only fuel it, in which case we could be looking at the break up of modern Spain, a prospect that would cause alarm not just in Spain itself but in the rest of Europe, which has many such potential break-away bits. Either way, it shows that the current borders of European countries, even and especially in the UK and Ireland, are not necessarily there for ever.