The Shattering of Europe; It's Not Just Scotland. Almost Every Major European Nation Is Threatened by Breakaway Movements. History Tells Us the Result Could Be Bloodshed, Chaos and Suffering; SATURDAY ESSAY
Byline: by Dominic Sandbrook ESSAY
THE year is 2022, and in the gilded splendour of his Brussels headquarters, the EU President is facing a tricky dilemma.
Pressure is building on him to finalise his latest budget -- yet the problems seem intractable. With so many small new nations scrabbling for funds, agreement seems impossible.
Catalonia, for example, is demanding deep cuts in EU administrative expenses, while the Scots are calling for higher welfare subsidies. The new states of Lombardy and Tuscany are at loggerheads, the Corsicans are still in the doghouse after their government's latest corruption scandal, and the Walloons haven't paid a penny into common euro funds for years.
The new map of the Continent, a crazy patchwork of competing states governed by an interventionist European Union, tells the wider story. The age of the strong nations has gone, and Britain has joined Italy, Spain and Belgium on the scrap heap of history.
This may sound a fanciful scenario, yet recent events across Europe -- including the looming independence referendum in Scotland -- tell a very different story.
Six days ago, the people of Spain's most prosperous region, Catalonia, voted overwhelmingly for parties favouring the breaking away from Spanish rule. As a result, almost two out of three seats in the Catalan parliament are occupied by politicians who want an independence referendum.
The parallels with the situation in Scotland, where Alex Salmond's SNP has secured a referendum for 2014, are irresistible -- although since the Catalans are too busy fighting among themselves, it is unlikely the Spanish state will disintegrate overnight.
Still, it is not impossible. And it is worth remembering that this is far more than an obscure local squabble.
Spain has Europe's fifth biggest economy, while Catalonia is by far its richest and most dynamic region. The biggest Catalan city, Barcelona, is not just one of the Mediterranean's most enterprising metropolises -- it is the EU's fourth biggest city by GDP.
The Catalans have their own language, flag, cuisine, literature and parliament. Their economy is the same size as Portugal's and, as anyone who has visited Barcelona and seen the ubiquitous striped flags will attest, Catalan culture is drenched in separatist feeling.
FEW Catalans have forgotten their appalling treatment under the dictatorship of General Franco who, as late as 1975, was still trying to suppress local feeling beneath the jackboot of Spanish fascism.
Many Catalans resent paying taxes to poorer Spanish regions, and believe they would be much better off on their own.
To an outside observer, therefore, an independent Catalonia would not be inherently absurd. Yet if the Catalans did break away, they might trigger a collapse of the entire Spanish state. The Basques would be certain to demand independence, while other regions, such as Galicia and Aragon, might follow suit.
This is a story with special resonance for us in Britain.
Like the Spanish, we live in a geographically and ethnically diverse country -- once the epicentre of one of the world's great empires, now bound together by the legacy of history under a popular but elderly monarch.
Though few people today seem to realise it, the future of the United Kingdom is in the balance. While the Catalans are still arguing about their referendum, the Scottish Nationalists have already arranged theirs for 2014.
To the great relief of those of us who passionately believe we are better together, polls show the Scottish separatists heading for defeat.
But that could quickly change, not least because the cunning Mr Salmond has won the vote for 16 and 17-year-olds, who are thought to be more radical than their elders.
It is, in other words, perfectly plausible that in two years, Great Britain will no longer exist. …