Last week, the streets of Barcelona overflowed with protesters as an estimated 1.5 million people took to the streets to demand independence from Spain for the region of Catalonia. Under the slogan, "Catalonia: a new European state," marchers waved bright red and yellow flags, chanted in the Catalan language and sent a stark message to the government in Madrid.
With their own unique culture, dialect and history, Catalans are increasingly looking for greater autonomy on the path to secession. Should they continue to press forward, it could very well threaten to tear apart Spain and send tremors across the rest of the continent. Before you yawn and ask yourself why anyone should care about what flag flies over Las Ramblas in downtown Barcelona, consider the following: there is hardly a major country in Europe that isn't facing increasingly defiant secessionist movements which could eventually redraw the map of the entire region.
In Great Britain, Scottish nationalists are gearing up for another attempt to break free of English rule as they prepare for a referendum in 2014 that could split the country apart.
Belgium has been rattled in recent years by growing calls for Flanders to go its own way and leave Wallonia behind in order to preserve its Dutch flavor and heritage. In June 2010, the party which won the largest number of seats in the Belgian parliament was the pro-independence New Flemish Alliance.
And France has also been grappling for decades with Basque and Corsican separatism.
Each of these movements, of course, is different and is operating under unique historical and political circumstances. But they all share one thing in common: they scare the heck out of European leaders, who rightly see them as threatening the Garden of Eden of territorial integrity which has enabled their countries to flourish.
In this case, however, many European governments have only themselves to blame, for it was just over a decade ago that they created a damaging precedent which now threatens to boomerang on them all. Indeed, the West's "original sin" goes back to 1999, when NATO launched military strikes against Serbia to compel it to grant independence to the province of Kosovo.
For 78 days, NATO aircraft flew more than 38,000 combat missions over the former Yugoslavia, carrying out a widespread bombing campaign which included the extensive use of Tomahawk cruise missiles. Whatever one may think of the Serbs, Europe and the United States were in effect seeking to force a sovereign state to relinquish part of its territory. It was an unthinkable act of interference in the internal affairs of another country.
The Kosovo Liberation Army, a terrorist organization, was engaged in a campaign of violence against the province's legally-constituted administration. By what right did Washington and Brussels step in to try and impose a settlement to their own liking?
Nearly a decade later, this initial error was further compounded when Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence in February 2008. More than 90 countries, including the United States and most of the members of the European Union, went ahead and recognized Kosovo, while Serbia, Russia, Georgia, Spain, China and others have not.
For the past four years, the International Steering Group, comprising 23 EU countries, the US and Turkey, had been overseeing Kosovo, and earlier this month, on September 10, they ended their supervision, declaring the province to be fully independent.
This was a grave strategic mistake, for it sets a dangerous precedent that can now be seized upon by secessionist movements all over the world. If Kosovars have the right to break away from Serbia, then why shouldn't Scots be able to leave the United Kingdom, and Quebec be allowed to leave Canada?
In other words, where does the right to secession end? In northern Kosovo lives a sizeable Serbian minority. Under the example set by their neighbors, they too should now theoretically be able to break off from Kosovo if they so desire. As should Serbs living in the Krajina region of Croatia. By encouraging Kosovo to secede, the West has opened a Pandora's box of endless problems and disputes, any of which could easily descend into violence and chaos.
They can argue that Kosovo was different as much as they wish, but it will not matter to those looking for an excuse to foment instability and discord. Don't be surprised if Europe is racked by louder calls for secession in the coming years.
Ironically, many of these same Western countries which do not wish to allow their own provinces to go have no qualms about demanding that Israel give up Judea and Samaria. Their hypocrisy is astonishing: they want to force Serbia and Israel to do what they themselves are unwilling to countenance.
Israel has thus far wisely chosen not to recognize Kosovo for the simple reason that our decision-makers understand the slippery slope such recognition would create. The Jewish state should continue to stand by Serbia in this regard, both for their sake and for ours.
The road to a free Catalonia and a chaotic Europe may have begun in Kosovo, but there is no telling where it will end. Europe's leaders would do well to try and turn back the clock on Kosovar independence, if only out of pure self-interest.
Facilitating Kosovo's break from Serbia may seem like an act of humanitarian grace. But in the end, it will likely rebound on the rest of Europe with devastating consequences.