Catalonia: A Disaster Waiting to Happen?

Citizens protest against the independence movement in a march in Barcelona at the weekend.
Photograph: Brais G. Rouco / Barcroft Images

Guest Contributor: Diana Soller

Let’s get straight to the point: self-determination of peoples. It is a very laudable theoretical concept. All peoples should have the right to choose the nation they wish to belong to, especially when they have a distinctive culture and a different language, as well as political and economic viability to build an independent state. And we, Europeans, ex-colonialists, field with guilt for our ancestors’ acts, tend to favor the rebels, independently of the justice and the consequences of their cause.

Historical Rationales for Independence

But there is also the other side of the story: in his most recent book, Michael Walzer uses three case studies of the past, India, Algeria and Israel, whose legitimate claims of independence where much more consubstantiated, to prove that “liberation movements” do not represent the expression of the majority will (people are much more concerned in surviving and moving ahead with their lives in troubled times), but the position of a separatist elite who builds a narrative and does everything they can to convince the population that their intentions are fairer and their view of history is much more accurate than the one the status quo power has been trying to impose.

In practice the paths towards independence are sinuous and trapped. They are played in a dangerous arena where almost everything is admissible for the cause of independence. It is an opportunistic and dirty game where the two sides are waiting for a weakness of the rival. It generates violence. In more extreme cases, it generates civil war. In the most extreme cases, it generated ethnic cleansing. At the regional level it generates instability. Very often it is contagious to sleeping separatisms that start to reevaluate their possibilities. Of course, we think, nothing of this kind is going to happen in Catalonia. After all, it is the 21st century, and this is Europe. But let me remind you of two things: on the one hand, the two sides of the conflict, Barcelona, and Madrid, have already reached extremes that we never thought possible in a democratic context. On the other hand, the last few years have demonstrated that nationalisms, of the emotional, ideological, centrist, and extremist kinds are not a relic of the 19th century. They are alive and kicking. Remember that history does not repeat itself but it rimes. Nationalisms are back, now in a context, different from the past. And we, in Europe, are ill prepared to deal with them.

The Catalan Case

How did we get here? The Catalonian separatism has a long lineage. The national day of the region, September 11, is related to the events of 1714, when Barcelona lost its autonomy to Spain in that War of Succession. In the 20th century, the mores and the language were trampled violently by the bloody Civil War and then by Franco’s regime, trying with particular roughness, to dissolve the Catalonian culture. The collective memory of these events has been passed along generations, as the testimonies from Barcelona, since the mock referendum of October 1, published in the international press, have been claiming. The nationalist feeling was partially placated (ironically) by the 1978

Kap-Catalonia_0
Cartoon: Kap

Constitution, that inscribed the right to regional autonomies in the context of the “indissociable unity of the Spanish nation”. But, albeit Catalonia’s acceptance of the founding text of Spanish democracy, the relationship between Madrid and Barcelona was always ambiguous. The Generalitat has always tried to find ways to further autonomy, while the central government has always been keen on protecting its powers. But for considerable period, the regional government was in the hands of moderates. First, a right-wing coalition, the CiU was ahead of it (1978-2003) and then it was replaced by its left-wing equivalent, a coalition led by the PSC, the Catalonian branch of the PSOE (2002-2010). The radical separatists were relayed to the margins, namely ERC, a leftist republican party that tried an independence coup a couple of years before the civil war and the several anarcho-unionist groups, also very active before the war.

However, minority ideas tend to fall asleep but never die. And the Catalonian separatism woke up due to three main factors: first, the economic crisis of 2008, that generated a feeling of injustice as Barcelona profits (around 20 percent of the Spanish GDP) were redistributed to the poorer provinces; second, the judicial process moved by Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party, between 2006 and 2010, that resulted in the removal by the Supreme Court of the status of “nation” (ambiguous) that had been approved in a legal local referendum. The SC alleged reasons of unconstitutionality and the PP claimed reasons of balance between unitarists and regionalists; and third, the political change in the composition of the regional government, that started to be ruled by the coalition “Together for Yes” (to the independence) that mixes, since 2015, the CDC of Carles Puigdemont, a right liberal party that became separatist as a result of the policies of the central government; the ERC, the republican independentist party of the 1930’s; and the CUP a left wing separatist movement composed by several small radical groups. Together they have qualified majority at the Generalitat, even though their only commonality is the independence of the autonomous region.

The Volatility of Nationalist Separatism

This change went relatively unnoticed, but aligns with the similar rise/growth of diverse populist movements across Europe (old nationalisms, new times). But this particular one has a different element: the nationalist separatism is a much more sensitive issue, more emotional, and capable of mobilizing passions. Which usually is a Molotov cocktail in politics.

The events that have been succeeding since October 1st are the culmination of all these BN-VL292_3fiFq_M_20171005132131tendencies: painful collective memories politicized by a coalition reaching the regional parliament thanks to protest votes against Madrid’s policies; all this in combination with a disastrous management of the Catalonian issue by the central government (including the King Felipe VI). Plus, Barcelona took advantage of the weakness of the chief of central government, Mariano Rajoy, who needed two general elections and almost a year to form a minority government.

This was the context of last Sunday’s referendum in Catalonia. Madrid had the law on its side. It forbidden the public consultation for reasons of unconstitutionality, but the Generalitat was more astute: it disobeyed, and dragged to disobedience more than two million citizens. Nothing was legal in the referendum: plastic ballot boxes, aleatory vote sites, on-line electoral lists of doubtful accurateness, and a very low affluence (around 42 percent) that indicates, according to specialists, that the unitarians simply did not bother to vote, considering the consultation bogus. These arguments would have been more than enough for Rajoy, with the support of Felipe VI, to declare the nullity of the act and move on. As it already happened in the past.

But Madrid lost its mind. So, it sent 12,000 civilian guards to preclude the voting. In this counter-information war, we know that the national police used force against the population (although we do not know how often), we saw mossos d’esquadra (the Catalonian regional police) crying and, according to hospital records, there were almost 900 injured (even though we ignore the extensiveness of the wounds). What remains from October 1st is the image of the Catalonian people enduring the police intervention against them in the name of independence. TV cameras from around the world captured enough images of disproportional violence to leave Madrid’s international image in the mud and to revolt thousands of Catalans that so far had been happy with the status quo. Rajoy, they say, is an “independentists’ maker”. And in fact, he is. In 24 hours he did more for the independence cause than all separatists together. In democracy, when one has the law and at least part of the legitimacy on their side the use of force against the population (who possibly believed in the goodness of the idea of independence) has two consequences: one loses the morality battle and the support of the population. The independentists won a double victory: they opened a larger gap between then and Spain (and Europe), very difficult to get over and they won the sympathy of the “international public opinion”. If this concept, popularized by Jürgen Habermas during the demonstrations against the Iraq war, is vague and imprecise, its practical effect is well known.

What next?

And now what? There are three possible scenarios. For now, the most likely is a growing tension between the parts, as Carles Puigdemont is likely to declare independence unilaterally this week and Mariano Rajoy has threatened to use all means at his disposal to stop him. It is difficult to predict the endgame of escalation. In politics there are few things as dangerous as separatist nationalism for reasons described above but too important to forget: internal violence, regional instability, and domino effect. Europe is full of separatist movements that might see the Catalan moment as an opportunity put forward their claims for self-determination and autonomy.

The second scenario is that Madrid and Barcelona overcome their differences and start to negotiate (as the population ask them to do this weekend in very large demonstrations). However, the possibilities are scarce and the conflict already reached a high point and depending on Puigdemont’s call a potential point of no-return.

Which take us to the third scenario: bringing in an external referee, a mediator. The successive crisis of the European Union almost made us forget that the main goal of its creation was to avoid that war would return to the continent. And it does not matter how critical each of us might be, the truth is this goal has been fulfilled (except for the Balkans that were Europe but not EU). We reached a critical point where Brussels should refashion its peace-making credentials. Pretending Catalonia is none of the EU competency is the sort of decision that did not pay off in several situations in the past. Let’s hope that Europe is willing to mediate, if called upon, this internal crisis, because peace in the continent must be one of the main values that unites member-states. And lastly, if something goes really wrong in Catalonia, a Pandora Box will be opened challenging the integrity of member states. The Catalan crisis could have greater unforeseen and unwanted consequences on the integrity of the EU than a bad Brexit.

Diana Soller is a research follow at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations (Lisbon) and a weekly columnist at the daily Portuguese newspaper Observador.

The original version of this article was published in the Portuguese newspaper Observador, on October 6, 2017 and can be read here: http://observador.pt/opiniao/uma-batata-muito-quente/ . 

(COPYRIGHT 2017 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

2003, When the CSDP still mattered…

Tobias Schwarz/Reuters
Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

Once upon a time, the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) used to matter. Ten years ago in an essay written by Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas (read here my review of Habermas’ book on the Euro crisis) in the french newspaper Libération, both thinkers called for the deepening of a common European foreign policy. It was at the time when the US, under the Bush administration, had already flexed its muscles against the will of the international community and unleashed its military power against Iraq. It was a time when the US, under a conservative administration influenced by neoconservative ideas and values, was behaving as an imperial power.

Source: Libération, 31 mai 2003
Source: Libération, 31 mai 2003

A decade later, the 2003 war in Iraq still matters for several reasons: first, Iraq is after over a decade of war and state-building a new heaven to a terrorist network, ISIS; second, the 2003 war announced the beginning of global shift of power and the decline of the liberal world order; third, it discredited the power and relevance of international institutions, especially the United Nations.

Additionally, the war created a serious transatlantic and European split. Two months after the American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Euro-Atlantic community was deeply divided. Former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, (read here the review of the documentary starring Rumsfeld) made a distinction between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe in order to distinguish on one side, France and Germany – strongly opposed to the war and the neoconservative agenda -, with the new EU Member States on the other supporting the US in its military endeavor. In Europe, the United Kingdom, under Tony Blair, was the keenly expressing its alliance to the US marking an even deeper degree of alliance in the special relationship.

In some way the 2003 war in Iraq was a wake-up call for Europe and its Member States. The EU ought to be more autonomous in foreign affairs. The question of EU foreign policy is not new as one can go back to the failed European Defense Community tentative of 1954. After several failures (EDC and EPC), it was finally addressed, materialized and institutionalized in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty with the creation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CSFP), composing the second pillar. Six years, later, during the December bilateral meeting in Saint-Malo between French President Jacques Chirac and

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), called since the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon as the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), was born. The reason for the two European military powerhouses to seek for a civilian-military instrument, autonomous from NATO, was to assert European security in its region and neighborhoods. The CSDP was born in the ramble of the Balkans – war in Bosnia and Kosovo -, when the EU was unable to stabilize its neighborhood without the intervention of the US/NATO forces.

2003 marked the beginning of the lengthy Iraq war, but as well the use for the first time the CSDP. Three CSDP missions were launched in 2003:

  • EUPM BiH mission, the first CSDP mission, a Police Mission in Bosnia & Herzegovina (2003-2012)
  • ARTEMIS DRC mission, a military operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (2003)
  • CONCORDIA Fyrom mission, a military operation in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (2003)
Source: EEAS
Source: EEAS, 2014

For the first time of its history the European Union (EU) had some sort of civilian-military instrument, the CSDP, in order to project power and stabilize the near and broad neighborhoods. Despite the deep division between ‘venus’ and ‘mars’ (remember Kagan?), 2003 was a year of reflection and action for the EU and its Member States. Not only the CSDP was deployed, but at the end of the year, the EU adopted its first European Security Strategy (ESS) titled A Secure Europe in a Better World. The ESS served several objectives:

  • first, to re-unite the EU Member States;
  • second, to give a strategic direction to the Union now active a civilian-military actor;
  • third, to respond to the 2002 US National Security Strategy (NSS). It was really an ideological fight between preventive action and unilateralism (US) versus ‘effective multilateralism’ (EU).

As argued by Derrida and Habermas, the “war [in Iraq] made Europeans conscious of the progressive and announced decline of the common foreign policy” (in french, “la guerre a fait prendre conscience aux Européens du naufrage depuis longtemps annoncé de leur politique extérieure commune”). 2003 was the beginning of a new era in European actions on the global stage ending abruptly with the collapse of global markets ensued by the Eurozone crisis in 2007. In some ways, the short period, 2003-2007, was the golden years of EU foreign and security policy.

Aside from the global financial crisis, has the CSDP been one of the victims of President Obama? During the Bush years, the EU had in some degree found an ‘enemy,’ a person that it could materialize an opposition. It was unilateralism versus multilateralism, international law versus impunity. With the election of President Obama, US foreign policy in regard to Europe has been very different. The message once was ‘do not overshadow and duplicate NATO’ (see the 3Ds of Madeleine Albright, refer p.10) and let the US take care of European security. Sloan even called US foreign policy towards the CSDP the ‘yes, but’ policy; ‘yes’ Europe can develop its CSDP, ‘but’ NATO is the predominant actor in European security. With President Obama, the American strategy shifted to a ‘yes, please’ strategy. Since the US (remember former Defense Secretary Gates) has called on the EU to share the burden, the EU has been unable, or even unwilling, to answer the call.

An important component in the EU defense and foreign policy engine has been the Franco-British couple. Aside from the 2010 Defense agreement, both countries have not been aligned politically, economically and strategically in recent years. Britain, under David Cameron, has been more consumed about bringing back powers to European capitals than seeking for contributing to the integration process. Britain’s big European policy is directly embedded on the eventual referendum on the future of Britain’s EU membership. Cameron certainly won’t seek for deeper integration in defense and foreign policy matters. The latest appointment of Michael Fallon as Defense Secretary, a conservative and euroskeptic favorable to Britain independence, may contribute to widening the gap between continental Europe and the island. In the case of France, Paris has been over-active in launching a military operation almost every year (Libya in 2011, Mali in 2013, and Central African Republic in 2014). Each time, the CSDP was sidelined.

imagesDerrida and Habermas in their 2003 essay underscored the importance of a common foreign policy as part of the European construction. They argued on the importance of a european citizenry and identity. Without it, it is difficult to foresee any sustainable European Union or common foreign policy striving in the coming decades. Ten years ago the CSDP seemed possible even though the Union faced a serious political and strategic crisis caused by the Iraq crisis. Today, the idea of a CSDP seem improbable considering the powerful domestic forces, the economic slowdown and rise of populism. At the end of the day the Bush years may have been the greatest thing for the CSDP.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission)