Why examine the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own? Listening to the mock outrage and dire warnings of violence pouring from politicians and broadcast media over the next steps in Catalonia, the Gospel of Matthew seems strangely relevant. Rarely, in the modern age, has a moment of political transformation revealed more about the preoccupations of onlookers than the “Catalan situation”.
Of course, no-one knows precisely what will unfold as the Spanish Government seeks to assert its authority on the parliament, police, education system and civil service of the autonomous region turned independent state of Catalonia. And since the Scottish independence referendum was an official affair, whose outcome was always going to be legally binding on both sides, neither Europe nor the UK has had to prepare for a unilateral declaration of independence like the one announced last week.
But in the absence of certainty, long-unexamined beliefs are thrown into sharper relief.
Firstly, there’s the deeply-held belief amongst Eurocrats and EU leaders that Catalonia is set to trigger an explosion of secessionist movements across the continent. I was in Barcelona last week for a BBC World debate recorded before a painstakingly balanced audience of Catalan locals. Afterwards, a Spanish constitutional expert and former adviser to the EU said he feared that Europe was about to collapse back into a 21st century version of the Holy Roman Empire – a multi-ethnic complex of territories in central Europe that developed during the Early Middle Ages and continued until it was dissolved in 1806 by Napoleon. At its height it included three hundred states; some as large as Prussia, others as small as Liechtenstein and a cluster of “imperial cities” like Cologne and Strasbourg.
The Empire was not centrally controlled like modern states or modern Unions such as the UK or USA. Instead hundreds of individual entities were governed by a plethora of kings, dukes, counts, bishops and abbots. You can see why the prospect of returning to a patchwork carpet or Flickenteppich of small states scares the living daylights out of modern EU leaders. But is this fear rational? Is half of Europe waiting to explode into tiny states?
Many of the Inner Six who set up the EU - Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – have “separatist” movements of their own and obviously fear a flurry of Catalan inspired “breakaways”.
It’s also true that more than five million Italians took part in two referendums last weekend demanding more autonomy for Lombardy and Veneto. But the turnouts were low (57 per cent and 38 per cent respectively) and just like Catalonia, its mainstream leaders simply want more autonomy. But if Rome – like Madrid and indeed London – turns a deaf ear, independence may seem like the only viable solution. So is Italy really on the verge of break-up? Does Bavaria actually want to secede from Germany and present Angela Merkel with a Catalan-style constitutional impasse? Or are these worries like the exaggerated fears that Euro-scepticism would sweep the continent after Brexit – when it actually didn’t.
In any case, why should the distant prospect of constitutional change in Italy act as a break on the legitimate aspirations of the Catalans? If the EU doesn’t manage to put things into perspective and intervene to ensure break-ups are democratic and negotiated, they will reap the harvest their own territorial intransigence has helped to create.
Technically, the Prodi doctrine (named after a previous EU Commission President) asserts that a region breaking away “illegally” from an EU member will be automatically ejected and forced to reapply for membership, a process that could take years. In the meantime, the pariah state will be cut off from the rest of the EU, unable to trade easily and required to use a different currency. This doctrine however is a convention without any legal basis. If it’s enforced, the EU will cripple Catalonia, two-thirds of whose exports go to member states. Is that wise, economically or politically?
Far better for the EU to get ahead of the curve and either offer mediation or encourage an obliging member state to step forward – like Finland. The Helsinki government says it will not back one MP’s call for the Nordic state to recognise Catalonia, but the Finns have considerable form as negotiators. In 2005, Martti Ahtisaari successfully led peace talks between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government, and as a result the former Finnish President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Or what about Estonia, a country which itself declared UDI in 1991 and now holds the presidency of the EU Council? Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia might all still be under Russian control if their own unilateral declarations of independence had not been formally recognised by the Foreign Minister of Iceland.
Jon Baldvin Hanibalsson’s brave intervention is recognised by a plaque on the Lithuanian Parliament bearing the inscription “To Iceland - They Dared When Others Remained Silent.”
The “others” were the Inner Six of the EU. In short, big states have poor judgment when it comes to backing the right sides in constitutional disputes. The Estonians benefitted 25 years ago from the intervention of a small state – might they not even consider getting their own hands dirty now? Or does EU membership cause grateful new entrants to forget their own struggles for nationhood and parrot the interests of big neurotic states?
In a Newsnight debate last week, former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind said the Catalan situation represents “the worst crisis western Europe has faced since end of World War Two.” Really? BBC presenters on TV and radio repeatedly ask how street violence can be avoided, even though the Catalans are thoroughly versed in the methods of non-violent direction action, the world has seen that it was the Spanish Police that acted brutally, and Madrid’s decision to dissolve the Catalan Parliament will remove the only valid democratic interlocutor for the Catalan people. The decision to impose direct rule means Spanish central authorities are now in dialogue only with the streets. It’s their decision, and what happens next is their direct responsibility.
Western democracy urgently needs calmer heads to prevail. There is no grim inevitability to the siren suggestion that Catalan secession must end in tears. Europe is what we make of it. So who dares today, when others remain silent?