Joyce McMillan: EU must take lead in Catalan talks

It is some city, Barcelona. With more than four million people in its urban area, it is one of Europe's half-dozen biggest cities, a mighty Mediterranean port, and, by most global measures, a hugely prosperous centre of industry, culture, tourism and even football; and as capital of Catalonia, it sits at the heart of Spain's richest region.

During the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, it was the last major city to fall to Franco’s fascist troops; under Franco’s 36-year rule, Catalan institutions were abolished, the language was banned, and its culture was largely suppressed.

So it’s small wonder that when the old order began to change in the late 1970s – well within the living memory of people now in middle age – the Catalan people associated that new age not only with freedom and democracy, but also with the return of a political, cultural and constitutional recognition of Spain’s great diversity, not least in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

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They believed, with some reason, that the European Union would cherish regional diversity within all its nation-states, and provide the kind of flexible framework in which old conflicts – like the troubles in Northern Ireland – could fade into the past; and by and large, until now, they have been proved right.

And it’s against this powerful historical backdrop that all of us, outside Spain, have to understand the crisis that is shaking Catalonia now, and that could – if it goes unresolved at this stage – pose a threat to the European Union far greater than Brexit. Because of Spain’s much more dramatic and bloody recent history, the use of UK analogies is of limited use in understanding the relationship between Madrid and Catalonia. It is worth remembering, though, that in 2011, when the SNP won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, David Cameron’s government accepted the democratic mandate to hold a referendum, and, with the Scottish Government, drew up an agreement to provide for it.

The Spanish government, by contrast – when nationalist parties emerged with a majority in the Catalan elections of September 2015 – rejected the idea of a referendum point-blank, and triggered the stand-off we see today, when an unofficial referendum has been held showing a huge majority for independence– but the vote has no legal status, and has been boycotted by most “no” voters. The Catalan government says it will now make a unilateral declaration of independence, while Madrid talks of “intolerable disobedience” and “illegality”, sends in the Guardia Civil to seize ballot-boxes and manhandle citizens trying to vote, and says that it will not talk to the Catalan government until it abandons its campaign for independence altogether. Many on the right of Spain’s rightist governing party are now pressing for the complete suspension of Catalonia’s autonomous institutions.

And the dilemma this poses for the European Union is easily stated, although not so easily resolved. In essence, the Spanish government’s position is technically correct in Spanish law, but at odds, in some vital respects, with various codes of international law, and with the EU’s founding principles; in UN Charter terms, for example, the Catalans are clearly a people, with a fundamental right of self-determination. And beyond that, it is also clear that, in political terms, Madrid’s current position is nonsense on stilts. Catalan nationalists cannot be told to stop advocating independence, without a gross infringement of basic political freedoms; and to make the dropping of such demands a condition of talks is effectively to refuse to talk at all.

So Europe – the EU and all its other institutions, including the Council of Europe – now faces a choice; do as you have been doing until now, and defend the letter of the Spanish Constitution against the values enshrined in international law and conventions, or go into action to help resolve the tensions in this troubled member state, and to mediate a more workable solution than either government is currently proposing. It is true, of course, that not all such action can be taken in plain sight. Some EU governments may be backing Madrid in public, the better to be able to lobby for dialogue in private; and even at worst, the EU and its institutions, notably its Parliament, provide a forum for debating these tensions, rather than going to war over them, that remains irreplaceable.

Yet still, as many on the left and centre-left are now pointing out, the sight of the EU lining up to defend the top-down rights of a member government against the civil and individual rights of a large section of its own people is an ominous one, not least for the long-term credibility and popularity of the Union itself. For decades, the best of European politicians have striven to make the Union something more than a consortium of sovereign governments coming together for economic advantage; to make it into a community that, after centuries of war in Europe, stands as a guarantor of peace within its boundaries, and provides a framework that sustains and enlarges the freedom of all its people, as citizens, as travellers, as students and workers. It’s the imminent loss of this, for us in the UK, that many Remain voters now mourn; and it’s the desire to regain it that may one day propel us back into the EU.

None of that positive future will be possible, though, if the EU is now seen to turn its back completely on Catalonia and its two million independence voters.

As Jonathan Powell, a former Blair adviser and one of the key architects of the Northern Ireland peace process, pointed out in a BBC interview yesterday, conflicts like these – over identity and political allegiance – must always end in negotiation, sooner or later. And it’s now the duty of the European Union to play its part in making sure that this time, the negotiation comes sooner; and not, as in Northern Ireland, after 25 years of pointless bloodshed and economic stagnation, during which the “slow learners” on either side of the conflict (to use the devastating phrase of one Northern Ireland politician) finally realised that their adversaries were not going away, and that they had no alternative but to sit down, and talk.