While new nations were created in Eastern Europe and beyond by the break-up in the 1980s of the state of Yugoslavia followed later by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, borders in Western Europe have largely remained firm since the end of the Second World War.
So the crisis in Spain resulting from Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence has introduced a new dimension which could affect the future of the European Union itself.
Despite this apparent stability, however, there continue to be underlying divisions in many parts of Europe in the shape of numerous nationalist separatist movements or communities within established countries seeking greater autonomy or outright seccession.
Examples include Corsica, Bavaria, Lombardy and South Tyrol in Italy, the Basques in Spain and Flemish-speaking Flanders and the majority French-speaking Wallonia in Belgium. There are also ongoing tensions in Britain, not least Northern Ireland and Scotland which held an independence referendum in 2014.
The grievances of such movements have not resulted in the break-up of established countries.
But events in Catalonia are particularly controversial given its role as the base of republican resistance during the Spanish civil war, and, as the nation is now a leading member state of the EU, they have taken on a wider significance.
Catalonia’s quest for independence dates back to the 18th Century. In modern times with a population of 7.5 million and as an economic powerhouse it has considerable autonomy and its own regional parliament.
The Spanish government has declared its bid for independence to be unconstitutional and illegal and has imposed direct rule on the region after stripping the Catalan government of its powers.
It has also charged the now former president, who has fled to Brussels and may be detained under a European Arrest Warrant and his ministerial colleagues with sedition, rebellion and misuse of public funds.
All this has already caused serious political turmoil in Spain, not least because a successful independence bid by Catalonia might inspire other regions to follow suit.
As for the EU, even though respect for the rights of national minorities is one of the bloc’s key values, separatist and secessionist movements conflict with its aim of ever-closer political union.
Thus, the EU will always support the territorial integrity of its member states. However, the fallout from this crisis could be damaging for the EU project.
Viewed from faraway this side of the Atlantic, it must be right for the rule of law to prevail and for the Spanish government to take strong measures to counter Catalonia’s illegal actions. It is hard, however, to see how confrontation and heavy-handed action - in particular police brutality in attempting to thwart the independence referendum in early October - can work in the long-term if a majority of the population refuse to co-operate.
The first step is an election on December 21 called by Madrid. Thereafter, recognition of Catalonia’s nationalist ambition by the offer of even greater autonomy may be necessary, bolstered by financial incentives to a region that contributes so strongly to Spain’s economy.
Democracy is based on the consent of the people and the willingness to accept a government’s authority under the rule of law. So, negotiation will always be more effective than the use of force which cannot be imposed indefinitely.
History has taught us this time and again.