The Kosovo precedent: is Spain next?

The Kosovo precedent: is Spain next?

26th February 2008, Comments 0 comments

Basque and Catalan nationalists may not want to open up Pandora's Box

Kosovo may lie on the other side of Europe and the dusty streets of Priština may be a far cry from the leafy boulevards of Barcelona or Bilbao, but the breakaway province's declaration of independence from Serbia on 17 February has served to get nationalist minds ticking and mouths chattering in Spain's more restive regions.

In the week since Kosovo's parliament announced its decision to break unilaterally from Belgrade's rule, barely a day has passed without a politician in the Basque Country or Catalonia mentioning Europe's newest would-be state. Catalonia's parliament has debated it, Basque representatives have deliberated it and nationalists in both regions have expressed support for a move that they believe sets an important precedent in national self-determination. The response from the Spanish government has been no less emotive - and even more audible on the international stage.

In refusing to recognise Kosovo's declaration of independence, Spain is swimming against an international flow of recognition for the new country, led by the United States, and, in quick succession, by the EU's four largest members: Germany, Britain, France and Italy. Nine days after the split was declared, a majority of EU countries have either recognised Kosovo or are moving toward doing so, making Spain a particularly discernible black sheep in claiming that the province's unilateral declaration of independence is illegal.

Serbian protestors burnt EU and US flags - along with the American Embassy in Belgrade - during anti-Kosovar protests last week but waved Spanish ones, and the Serbian government and its Russian allies have applauded Spain's stance. Madrid, for its part, has denied that its own separatist problems have any influence over its policy, and that, like Moscow, it is merely acting out of concern over the potential for further instability in the Balkans following the wars of the 1990s.

"This has nothing to do with Spain [...] we just don't want to open Pandora's Box in the Balkans," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos said after meeting with counterparts from other EU countries in Brussels on 18 February.

Despite the government's altruistic claims, Kosovo's independence has clearly put many Spanish politicians on edge, just as it has given renewed encouragement to Catalan and Basque nationalists. Former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González, for instance, has argued that the Kosovars have "sown a dangerous seed" that could lead other minorities in Europe to try to follow in their footsteps. Manuel Fraga, the founder of the conservative Popular Party, has warned that someone in Catalonia or the Basque Country could conclude that they "can do the same."

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, much to the chagrin of the Spanish government, has weighed in on the issue, accusing countries like the United Kingdom, France and Germany of double standards for being willing to support the Kosovars but not the Basques or Catalans. And some political analysts have claimed that Kosovo's independence may mark the beginning of the end of the traditional state.

"This will benefit movements that seek to redraw the map of Europe based on ethnic, linguistic or cultural criteria," argues Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris.

All this is music to the ears of many Basque and Catalan nationalists who have dreamt for decades of independence from Spain. But while they may welcome the chance to turn up the volume on the debate about statehood, separatism and self-determination in Europe, few would want to find themselves where Kosovo is today. For though Kosovo has declared itself independent, it will remain very much dependent on EU and outside help for many years, with Brussels already committed to ensuring the new state's security and stability. In fact, without having assurances from the United States and the big EU members in advance of its 17 February decision, it is highly unlikely Kosovo would have taken the step at all, and, if it had, it would have all but certainly had little more than symbolic importance.

"Kosovo is not viable by itself and the EU will end up running the place. I don't think Catalan or Basque politicians would want that or be able to sell it to voters," argues Michael Keating, a professor of political science at the European University Institute in Italy. "There really are no parallels between the situation in the Balkans and the situation in Spain."

Indeed, though they merrily toasted Kosovo's freedom with sparkling wine at the beginning of last week and criticised the Spanish government's refusal to recognise it, their celebratory mood has been tempered by the violence that has been reignited both within Kosovo and during anti-Kosovar protests in Serbia. For nationalist movements everywhere, it is a sobering reminder of the dangers of opening Pandora's Box.

February 2008

[Copyright El Pais / ANDREW EATWELL 2008]

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