When President Trump met Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at the White House last week, the topic of Catalan separatism naturally came up. Choosing his words carefully, Trump said, “I can say only speaking for myself, I would like to see Spain continue to be united.” Such a personal statement, while probably satisfying the U.S. foreign policy establishment, stops well short of condemning the Catalan independence referendum, held this past Sunday. Trump’s caution is well advised, but he should know that the Catalan separatist movement offers significant opportunities for U.S. foreign policy, with few risks. Sunday’s result, a huge majority in favor of independence but a disappointing turnout, means that the issue will not go away and may soon require an American response, particularly if violence continues.
The referendum’s ambiguous outcome was virtually assured by the heavy-handed tactics employed by the Spanish government before and during the voting. Raids on printing offices, legal threats against mayors, and violent police actions had the dual effect of motivating those committed to a “yes” vote and scaring off voters opposed to independence. Rajoy’s government would have done much better to permit the referendum, while warning that it had no legal binding effect. A defeat for the referendum, or even a close victory, would have put the brakes on Catalonia’s independence movement for years. As things stand, there is a good chance that the Catalan Parliament will issue a declaration of independence, and start seeking international support.
But the European Union is not being consistent. Some of its officials are actively supporting a second Scottish independence referendum as a way of punishing Great Britain for the Brexit vote. Moreover, the European Union must hesitate before spurning a new nation with 7.5 million people and a gross domestic product larger than those of half the European Union’s members. Thus, the declaration of an independent Catalonia would mean a crisis for the European Union, providing an opening for the United States. By proposing favorable trade relations, and offering to serve as a bridge between Catalonia and the United Kingdom, Trump could plant the seeds of a rival trade partnership, giving the United States considerable leverage over the increasingly anti-American European Union leader.
An independent Catalonia also challenges the United Nations. In his recent speech to the General Assembly, the president emphasized the sovereignty of nations, the persistence of nationalism and his general skepticism about the relevance of the United Nations. Catalans who support independence are natural allies in Trump’s effort to rehabilitate nationalism and assert the primacy of sovereignty.
A declaration of independence would underline the hypocrisy of the world body, which has recently embraced independence for East Timor, Kosovo and South Sudan, none of which have the economic or political foundation for nationhood that Catalonia does. (To say nothing of the United Nations and its ceaseless championing of independence for Palestine, an aspiring state with no resources and no commitment to the foundational United Nations goal of peace.) Combined with the landslide victory for independence in Kurdistan, Catalonia’s vote demonstrates that Trump was right about the continued importance of nations and nationalism. He should embrace it.
Further, there are no significant risks to encouraging Catalan nationalism. While U.S. relations with Spain would undergo serious strains, the common interests of the two countries, plus the overwhelming importance of the United States as a trading partner, insure that such strains will be short-lived. Spain’s greatest leverage would be a threat to terminate the U.S. Navy’s basing rights. Knowing that Catalonia could offer itself as a replacement, this would be a hollow threat.
Nor does Trump need to fear a wide-ranging “ripple effect” resulting in regions all over Europe declaring their independence. Other than Scotland, no other restive region in Europe has taken the steps that Catalonia has to make independence a viable option. If there is a ripple effect, it will be in the form of more serious autonomy negotiations between central governments and regions. The centralizing tendencies of European governments, and of the European Union, will be significantly checked. This is a positive development in its own right, but also good for the United States, since it would weaken the European Union as a rival economic and political force, thus contributing to another foreign policy priority for the president.
Edward Lynch, Ph.D., is chair of political science at Hollins University, where he teaches courses on foreign policy and international affairs. He served in the White House during the Reagan administration.