Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Catalonia - What Are the Issues?

This article is a guest blog article written by Walter Finch who usually blogs on political issues and media over on A warm welcome to World Politics 101. Happy reading.

With the arrest of two organisers of independence demonstrations in the Catalan capital of Barcelona on Monday, for the crime of sedition against the Spanish state, things are hotting up again on the Iberian peninsula.
 In the first session of the Catalan regional government after the incredible scenes of the flawed Catalan independence referendum on the 1st of October, the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont sensationally declared independence... and then suspended it, pending negotiations with the national government in Madrid. This fudging of the issue came as a disappointment for the Catalan independence supporters gathered in Barcelona and other regional cities and towns in Catalonia, and an almighty relief in Madrid and other capital cities in Europe. Then Madrid set a deadline for clarification over whether Puidgemont really had declared independence or not, which was ignored, and the most recent development have been these two arrests, and suddenly after a lull people are out in the streets of Barcelona again complaining of political prisoners. The next explosive development could be Madrid's suspension of Catalan autonomy, the removal of the Catalan government and direct rule of Catalona from Madrid.

These have truly been some breathless and bewildering weeks in Catalonia and Spain. Catalonia, a wealthy region in the north east of Spain with its own language and distinct culture, has always been a reluctant member of Spain. Low-grade murmurings about declaring independence have taken on fresh impetus and urgency in recent years, only to be continually stonewalled by the national government in Madrid. The possibility of Catalan independence - or worse; secession - is one that cannot be countenanced in Madrid, which would see a diminishing in its tax receipts and its overall power and prestige, and most crucially, it could open the floodgates to secession by other regions within Spain. Thus, Madrid has refused to consider any possible solution to the issue that might open the door even slightly to the possibility of an independent Catalan republic.

Both sides talk in the language of the law and democracy respectively. However, these high ideals disguise the truth; that this is just about two factions competing to achieve a mutually exclusive goal. Generally by any means possible. One of the key problems that Madrid faces is that it is very tough to envisage any long-term solution to the matter if it is unwilling to take any risks. Solutions that so far have involved police violence and political arrests only serve to poison the ground further and alienate an even larger proportion of the Catalan populace. 

From the Catalan perspective, Madrid intransigence to discuss the matter of independence or even just a referendum is mirrored by Catalan intransigence to demand something which they know Madrid can never admit (independence). Even a referendum is considered too great a risk - have a look at Brexit. And so the problem for the Catalans is that anything less than an independence referendum would be little more than what they already have. The one concession that Madrid could offer would be greater fiscal autonomy for Catalonia - would that really satisfy the independentistas? 

When we look at how this entire scenario might play out, there seems to be one rational strategy for each side. Madrid must resist efforts to heavy-handed escalation, and must position itself as the mature, responsible adult to Barcelona's unruly teenager. Crucially, Catalonia has very little outside support for its independence bid (apart from in the Russian state media), from the EU or neighbouring countries, who view secessionism and instability as general undesireables in themselves. Catalonia possesses no military to resist Spanish measures to reassert control. Madrid could, in theory, just wait for the movement to run out of steam.

For the independentistas in Catalonia, their task is of course more uphill. Their objective should be to force Madrid to agree to a legitimate referendum on the matter not unlike the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 (which resulted in a rejection of Scottish independence from the United Kingdom). Madrid would be loathe to agree to it, but in the end its chances of victory would be favourable and it would be the best way to resolve the issue once and for all. If it becomes clear that a strong majority within Catalonia did not consent to be governed by Madrid, with continual large scale protests and civil disobedience, the pressure would mount on Madrid to front up and give the people a vote on the matter. Indeed, it could become logical to agree to it early on in order to nix growing independence momentum, which currently still stands at below 50% by most polls. Without a fair and open vote on the matter, the question will persist indefinitely.

The whole issue raises the spectre of secessionism across Europe and beyond - one that has been remarkably quiet over the years. Many if not most countries have at least one restive region which might quite like to go it alone were the opportunity to arise. Generally, however, these movements very much occupy a fringe and are not taken too seriously. Were the Catalan issue to give neighbouring separatist movements increased impetus, it is clear that the neighbouring governments would not take it too kindly. It is quite standard for countries to resist separatist movements. But to what extent can national governments suppress them and at what point do they cross from being fringe and loony to a legitimate political aspiration? After all, both Turkey and Russia have been more than happy to use the military for this purpose, yet no EU country would be happy to point to either as a good example to follow.

Ultimately, in a liberal democracy, the governed must give the government their consent to be governed. Separatism is to be discouraged; not with police batons and state repression, but by far-thinking policies and strategies that entice the entire populace to desire to remain citizens of the nation. Where there is a separatist sentiment, the carrot should be favoured over the stick. Alas for Spain and Catalonia, Madrid does not see it this way. However, it should be noted, it is this heavy-handed, repressive approach to the issue which may backfire and actually permit the separatists to get their way. So perhaps they should be grateful for the obstinacy of Madrid after all.

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