Catalonia or the art of self-flagellation


Picture of Robert Cox
Robert Cox

Senior Advisor to the European Community Humanitarian Office (1993-1998) and former European Commission Representative to Turkey

“If left to itself it will die and vanish into the void from which it should never have emerged. If, on the contrary, it is persecuted, it will have its martyrs and its life-span will be prolonged far beyond its natural term.”

The Duc de Richelieu’s half-truth about the French Revolution applies to today’s Catalonia – and Spain.

Premier Rajoy’s obsessive and bull-headed behaviour and rhetoric over Catalonia’s bid for independence was one thing. But, after the obligatory bluster, a wiser man would quietly have told the police to lay off, ostensibly take a few notes and then stand discreetly aside with truncheons out of sight.

There was every chance that the referendum would have been a damp squib for the independence camp. As it was, only 42.3% (Catalan government figures) of the electorate turned out to vote. Even adding those prevented by police violence from voting (including “no” voters, for that matter) would hardly have made much difference to the overall electoral mathematics.

Many wise people believe the EU, subsidiarité oblige, should stick firmly to its core mandate

There is little evidence that Catalans would be better off outside Spain. And the chances of any other European country recognising a self-proclaimed independent Catalonia were always remote.

The real winner of Sunday’s poll in Catalonia is the deeper division riven through Catalan society.

Referenda have a way of doing this as the deteriorating post-Brexit-vote politics of the United Kingdom are currently showing. People involved in conflict resolution will tell you that “solving” a problem by winner-takes-all is a sure recipe for worse trouble to come. Referenda so often produce a marginal winner, a marginal loser and no buffer or room for compromise. Like red lines, referenda are proving to be one of the more stupid practices of modern politics. You hook yourself on the result and you have no way of unhooking yourself.

An unreported victim of this weekend’s wreckage in Catalonia is Spain’s capacity to play its full part in the new and constructive politics now getting up steam behind the future evolution of the European Project. And, moreover, at a time when Spain was demonstrating impressive economic recovery, and thereby boosting its credibility. Franco-German initiatives are fine. Add an important additional partner like Spain and prospects are brighter still. Club-footed, Mr Rajoy has just thrown that opportunity away.

Is this the sort of situation in which the European Union should through in its weight?

Referenda so often produce a marginal winner, a marginal loser and no buffer or room for compromise

Many wise people believe the EU, subsidiarité oblige, should stick firmly to its core mandate. Too often it has bogged itself down in trivia. But what is happening now in Spain is not trivial. Upheaval in an important political and economic component of the EU, like Catalonia, soon rapidly spills over into the wider European scene, so much are we interconnected. It becomes “EU-domestic”. Overcoming resistance to EU “interference” is hard.

In reality, of course, the EU does “interfere” in the life of its Member States: European Court of Justice judgements do just that. Commission monitoring of national economic performance, debt and deficit levels, and so on, is just that. So is policing of state aids and other competition misdemeanours. Greece in crisis was effectively put under EU trusteeship. So, to some extent were Spain, Ireland and Portugal. And, outstandingly, Polish and Hungarian behaviour over legal, constitutional and human rights abuse is a major and legitimate EU concern.

Mr Rajoy might not like it but many other Spanish – and other European – citizens can be persuaded that the political crisis in Spain is of legitimate concern to the EU institutions which can and should offer a possible pathway towards solutions. Citizens in conflict seek recourse in law. Social partners stuck in a dead-end negotiation seek arbitration. When national mechanisms for conflict resolution get jammed, recourse to a third-party arbitrator is the only way out.

Why cannot the EU be that arbitrator?

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