Ayesha Hazarika: Catalonia is a minefield for Nicola Sturgeon

Catalonia is a minefield for the First Minister, she needs to tread very carefully, writes Ayesha Hazarika.

Protesters hold up signs to demand the release of imprisoned Catalan leaders Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart at a demonstration for Catalan independence in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

I was in Barcelona a few weeks ago for a friend’s 40th birthday, a wonderful occasion which allowed us to enjoy the best of that beautiful city – almost a bit too much. At a club in the wee hours, my Irish friend and I were regaling in our global independence and freedom as empowered women in our 40s who were about to be in our prime and how nothing could stop us now.

The next time I heard from my aforementioned friend was when she texted to say she had fallen over getting out a cab, broken her ankle and was in hospital. The moral of the story is always get travel insurance.
Barcelona is a city many of us have a connection with. Not only is it a welcoming, fun, stylish and visually stunning place to wander – or stagger – around, you can sense its rich regional heritage, culture, fierce pride, and prosperity. When La Rambla was hit by a terrorist attack in September, it felt close to home.

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Catalonia could declare independence at meeting on Thursday
Protesters hold up signs to demand the release of imprisoned Catalan leaders Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart at a demonstration for Catalan independence in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

And of course, the current stand-off between Madrid and Catalonia feels relevant and politically proximate because of the Scottish independence referendum.

I take part in a TV panel show called CNN Talk and in our recent discussions about Spain, commentators and viewers almost immediately started talking about Scotland even though the politics, economics and history are very different.

A Catalan friend is quick to chide me for comparing the Spanish situation to Scotland and she’s right.

Protesters hold up signs to demand the release of imprisoned Catalan leaders Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart at a demonstration for Catalan independence in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Catalonia is an economic cash cow for the rest of Spain and there are real fears for how it will manage if the region breaks away. That is one of the reasons people in Madrid have taken to the streets to show their desire for unity, although there are also powerful emotional and historical reasons.

Emotions run high on the other side too.

It is easy to forget that for 40 years, Spain was ruled by a dictator, General Francisco Franco, who took a pretty brutal view of Catalonia. The region’s culture, language and seperate identity were stamped upon and forbidden.

Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy evoked memories of Franco with his violent crack-down on people who tried to vote in the independence referendum a few weeks ago.

There is another big difference between Scotland and Catalonia – namely that the Westminster and Holyrood governments negotiated a fair, proper and peaceful referendum.

This was the right thing to do, even though the UK government didn’t want Scotland to leave and many thought it was too risky. It was also right to fully enfranchise the population of Scotland and allow young people to vote. This made the referendum come to life in what was a true democratic exercise.

Yes, it was divisive but referendums always are. They are often about issues that people feel incredibly passionate about and which have built up for years, so voters engage much more than in your run-of-the-mill election campaign. We saw that the independence and EU referendum campaigns, although there was little appetite to even engage in a discussion about whether to get rid of the first-past-the-post voting system in the proportion representation vote.

There was a lot of heat around Scottish politics in 2014. We all remember rowing with family and friends, people on trains and buses, and random people in bars.

Or maybe that was just me. As a political adviser for the Labour party, I helped the unionist campaign and remember various disastrous outings when English politicians came to Scotland to campaign in scenes reminiscent of TV satire The Thick Of It. I am still haunted by a car crash visit to Edinburgh by Ed Miliband which became known as the “Scrum at the St James Centre”.

It’s almost a blessing the building is getting torn down.

But credit to both sides that the referendum was conducted in a calm and safe way and the result was, on the whole, respected.

The SNP leadership appear to be trying to persuade their more ardent members that there is no public appetite to revisit the issue and to remind them that there is an important day job to do – actually run Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon has been judicious and sensible in her response to the situation in Catalonia and she is wise not seize upon it to stir up division here in Scotland. Her plea for both sides to find a legal solution is right.

Of course, all eyes will be on how Scotland reacts if Catalonia goes for a unilateral declaration of independence and if Madrid reacts by placing the region under direct rule, seizing control of the police and even broadcasters.

If the disgraceful scenes of police violence and heavy-handed tactics from this month’s referendum are repeated, then Sturgeon will be under pressure from some party members to recognise Catalonia as an independent country.

This will be a problem for her. Although Madrid would be in the wrong if it responds in this way and the Catalan pro-independence movement would seem like political martyrs, Sturgeon should resist the siren calls from some nationalists.

Instead, she should stick to being a responsible international leader by condemning the violence, pressing for a peaceful and legal solution and calling for the EU to take more of an active role in mediating a solution.

The only solution is to give the people of Catalonia a proper referendum where everyone has the chance to vote without the threat of violence. Turnout at the last referendum was low because it was declared illegal by Madrid and many people who wanted to stay part of Spain didn’t participate. Giving everyone a legitimate, binding vote is the only way to settle this.

Tension between Madrid and Catalonia is part of a bigger and more troubling trend and is something the EU should care about a lot more than it currently does.

Threads of nationalism, populism and independence are being pulled from the political fabric of Europe.

Just last weekend, there were referendums in Italy about increased autonomy for Lombardy and the Veneto. We all remember the Basque separatists because of the terrorist group ETA and there is a growing clamour for independence in Bavaria in Germany.

Elections in France, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic have shown signs of rising anti-immigration, anti-EU and nationalist sentiment with a thirst to break away from established democratic institutions, governments and ‘business as usual’ politics.

It is telling that Donald Trump’s first speech to the United Nations declared it was now all “America First”.

And of course, we have Brexit coming down the tracks. It feels like the old orthodoxy of multilateralism is giving way to unilateralism, nationalism and populism.

There is no question that people feel discontented by and disconnected from big government and faceless bureaucrats.

The EU needs to wake up to this or face a much bigger crisis.

But whether simplistic, emotional, romantic ideas – like “making stuff great again” or “taking back control” – provide a panacea for these grumbles remains to be seen.