Firstly, the euro crisis is returning, as growth falters in the major economies of the EU – Germany, France and Italy; and recovery in the hard-hit southern tier of the EU is thus proving even more difficult.
Secondly, events in Ukraine have shattered any remaining illusions that the post-Cold War world was one in which democracy and economic liberalism reigned supreme, and in which all major countries played by the same rules, within the familiar structures of world order, established progressively since the Second World War.
Mr Putin has made it abundantly clear that he does not subscribe to these ideals, or to these ways of behaving. The countries and peoples of Eastern Europe are rightly worried about their security. Those of Western Europe have been shaken from their complacency, but are proving slow to adapt to the new, more threatening – and more expensive – reality.
A number of governments and commentators draw the conclusion that this is not the time to, as they see it, add to Europe’s worries by taking seriously the movements for self-determination in Western Europe, be this in Scotland or Catalonia. They maintain that such movements are propelled by the economic crisis, and point to the Ukraine as an example of the evils of secessionism. This is to analyse wrongly what is going on in Europe, and hence to draw sloppy and wrong conclusions.
The self-determination movements in Western Europe are not fundamentally about money – although unfair fiscal arrangements are often an irritant. These movements are fundamentally about a better representation of their citizens’ distinct interests and a better accommodation of these ancient nations within the European Union. In other words, about a higher-quality democracy.
The re-emergence of these strong movements has more to do with the emergence of Western Europe from the political constraints of the Cold War, and, above all, the establishment of the framework of European integration. In the case of Catalonia, it is also stimulated by the fact that the movement from dictatorship to democracy in Spain was not accompanied by the promised greater freedom and democracy at the regional level, as well as the due respect and protection of its cultural and linguistic singularities.
Moreover, the contrast between what is happening in Western Europe and events in Ukraine could not be clearer. By supporting Ukraine, the countries of Europe are seeking to uphold the principles of democracy, the rule of law, peaceful resolution of conflict, and the illegitimacy of changing borders by force. The separatists in Crimea and the east of Ukraine, and their Russian backers, subscribe to none of this. They have sought to secede by force of arms and subversion of the state. It is an ideological as well as a security conflict. The Pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists can never achieve the international legitimacy they want because of the means they have chosen to assert it, and the unacceptable values which these means lay bare.
Meanwhile in Western Europe, pro-independence movements are seeking to advance their causes using the democratic principles and processes so absent in Ukraine. The people of Scotland have just ended a two-year referendum campaign, and voted in record numbers on their political future. The government of the UK, in accordance with the same democratic principles, committed themselves in advance to implement the results of the referendum. The governments of Europe should be using this forcibly as an example to the Russians of how things ought to be done – of the legitimate way to resolve deep-seated secessionist issues.
Such processes are not a diversion from the ideological battle with Russia. They can help fight that battle. Unfortunately, however, the government of Spain is undermining this, by refusing to address the political issue of self-determination with the political tools furnished by democracy. Instead, they are using purely legal arguments and processes to frustrate the expression of a people’s will. In the long run, this is not sustainable. And it is barely credible that an important West European state should act in this way at this time.
Albert Royo-Mariné is secretary general at the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia