People wave Spanish flags during a pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona © AFP

Overwhelmingly, national governments across Europe display little or no enthusiasm for the cause of Catalan independence. They want Spain’s leaders to exercise restraint in handling the separatist challenge. However, governments in Berlin, Paris, London and elsewhere do not wish Spain to break up or think that the secessionists have legal or political grounds to do so.

On closer inspection, the EU’s united front disguises a weak link or two. Take the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia. As Catalan secessionists pushed forward with their campaign, vocal expressions of sympathy for the separatists have come from Slovenia. “Many Slovenian hearts beat for the Catalan people,” said Borut Pahor, Slovenia’s president, on October 1, the day of the chaotic referendum on independence that Madrid declared illegal.

The Slovenes’ emotional bond with Catalan separatists is understandable. Only 26 years ago, their own land broke free from communist Yugoslavia and won full independence for the first time in its history. The Slovenes draw parallels between their experience as a small nation, living under what they saw as Serb domination of the Yugoslav federation, and that of the Catalans, chafing under the supremacy of Madrid.

Catalonia’s separatists think along similar lines. Carles Puigdemont, leader of the regional government, visited Slovenia in 1991. He admired the peaceful, democratic methods which the Slovenes had used to achieve their goals. Just as George Orwell immortalised Mr Puigdemont’s region in his 1938 book about the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, so Mr Puigdemont has been paying homage to Slovenia. Arguably, however, there are more differences than similarities between the cases of Slovenia and Catalonia.

In 1989 pro-independence politicians amended Slovenia’s constitution, emphasising the right of national self-determination. In April 1990 they staged free, multi-party elections. In December 1990 they held a referendum on independence. The vote in favour and turnout were above 90 per cent. In June 1991 Slovenia declared independence. After a struggle against the Yugoslav army known as the Ten-Day War, Slovenia was home and dry.

In Catalonia, the population is nowhere near as united behind independence as the Slovenes were. In the October 1 vote, 90 per cent voted for secession from Spain, but the turnout was a mere 43 per cent. Voters opposed to independence boycotted the referendum.

Moreover, Slovenia in 1989-91 was a compact territory inhabited almost entirely by Slovenes. There was only a small Serb minority. Slovenia had no contiguous border with Serbia. This distinguished Slovenia from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose Serb populations, backed by neighbouring Serbia, fought the Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in wars that lasted from 1991 to 1995.

Catalonia lacks Slovenia’s compactness. According to a 2013 Catalan government census, about 46 per cent of the region’s people speak Spanish as their main language, against 36 per cent who use Catalan and 12 per cent who speak both equally. It is clear that a majority of the Spanish-speakers wish to remain part of Spain.

Another difference concerns leadership. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, can be faulted for an overlegalistic and heavy-handed approach to the Catalan crisis. But he is not Francisco Franco, Spain’s former dictator, and he is not Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian strongman of the late 20th century, either. Spain is a democracy. Communist Yugoslavia was acquiring democratic features towards the end of its existence, but more at the level of its republics, especially Slovenia, than at the centre.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that, like Greece in the 1820s and Italy in 1860, Slovenia’s bid for independence attracted the support of powerful foreign governments. Catalonia, like Iraqi Kurdistan, does not have such support.

tony.barber@ft.com

Letter in response to this column:

Europe should not intervene in Spain / From Dr Niccolo Caldararo, San Francisco State University, CA, US, UK

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