I felt and still do feel heartsick watching the events unfold in Catalonia. I also feel let down and dispirited by the response of the international community. Never has it been more clear that states do not have permanent friends or values, they only have permanent interests. Realpolitik is a cold, ugly thing to see in action.
The Catalans feel pretty friendless right now, and we in Scotland will need warm hearts but also cool heads if we want to actually help. It is beyond doubt that we saw clearly disproportionate force by a state against its own citizens, and any state that uses disproportionate force of this sort must face consequences in domestic, European and international law. Any state that shuts down websites, seizes property, limits free speech or freedom of association will face repercussions. Already I hear there are inquiries underway, court cases being prepared to the European Courts of Justice and Human Rights in Luxembourg and Strasbourg, and petitions to the Barcelona, Madrid and European Parliaments.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein was quick to voice his concern and his office remains involved in still early investigations.
The Madrid government will face consequences for its actions. In due course. And that will come as pretty cold comfort to the citizens abused by their own government and with events still raw seems an achingly insufficient response.
The events of Sunday did not come from nowhere. The roots of this go deep, and we have witnessed several years of political posturing and intransigence to get here. Several years where the international community could have been more helpful, but left them to it. We see where that has led. I’ve spent a lot of time in Catalonia, and wider Spain, over the years, and feel very at home with many friends in both. There is a lot of anxiety and angst across the peninsula now and I believe the various sides will need external mediation to find solutions.
Scotland and/or the EU could be that impartial third party, if the Madrid government was willing to engage in a dialogue. Unlike the Catalan administration, it has shown no sign of any willingness to so far but I hope that might change, because something will have to. The omens, however, are not good. The King of Spain’s speech on Tuesday night was uncompromising and unapologetic, making no mention of the violence and roundly castigating Catalans. Whether it will have the desired effect (given the vote was to become an independent republic) remains to be seen, but I’m not sure it was much of an olive branch. Behind him was the picture of his predecessor King Carlos III who, in 1768, banned the use of the Catalan, Basque, Galician, Asturian and Aragonese languages in official life in favour of Castilian. The roots of this really do go deep.
Because this is a true and genuine dispute, an immovable object against an irresistible force, with no easy answers. Both the Madrid and the Barcelona governments think they are right, with some justification, and some failings, on both parts.
It is tempting to look at events through our own domestic prism but we should be careful of false comparisons. Scotland’s history and current constitutional position is entirely different in every possible sense. It is also very wrong to see things in terms of Catalans v. Spaniards: there are plenty of anti-independence Catalans and plenty Spaniards who are quite relaxed about it.
Spain’s recent history means that Spaniards have a reverence for their written constitution we would find difficult to understand. It was written as the state emerged from bloody dictatorship, and was endorsed in a referendum in 1978 by 91% of voters, (even higher at 95% in Catalonia). In their eyes, that text and the rule of law holds them from a descent back into dictatorship; the only thing guarding their personal liberties, the only thing holding them together. On the other hand, the pro-independence Catalans, correctly, counter that the right of self-determination is a recognised norm in international law, and that they have a right to establish a state. They are democratic, civic, pro-EU nationalists, keen to remain in the European mainstream. The governing Junts pel Sí coalition was elected on a clear mandate to bring forward a referendum on independence, even though (and it is well known in Catalonia) that within the terms of the Spanish constitution it is not legal. They organised the referendum despite rulings from every court in Spain, and the Madrid government took steps to stop or disrupt it.
Obviously, the rule of law is important. Obviously, democracy is important. But as was said in the European Parliament’s debate on Wednesday, you cannot use one to ignore the other, and that is what each side has done. Now is the time for neutral outsiders to offer their help.
Which brings me to the EU, and the question I have been bombarded with on email, Twitter, mobile and Facebook — where the hell was the EU? How can it have turned a blind eye as fundamental rights were trampled upon, in some cases, literally? There’s a lot of pro-EU Catalans feeling pretty let down right now, and there’s a lot of pro-EU Scots feeling pretty let down too.
I share the frustration. Frustration that exists because in parts the EU has allowed expectations to be raised which it does not have the powers to meet. The EU is a gathering of states, and the EU collective only has arms to intervene within a member state where the member states have given it the power. On a dispute over the constitutional order within a member state it has all but no power, but could, and should, have been more vocal in the defence of individual rights. But they didn’t, and indeed nor did any EU member state leader, not France’s President Macron, not Ireland’s Leo Varadkar, not Germany’s Angela Merkel – they all stayed out of it and I think it was a poor show. The international community was quiet, though that did not mean it was not paying attention and there will be consequences. Again, cold comfort, served late.
The EU, time and again, has proven it is not good in a crisis precisely because it has procedures that move slowly. By design, as that is the only way to achieve consensus. We do not, I believe quite rightly, have a European super-leader who can single-handedly step into a dispute as it is happening.
We have no tanks to send in. Things happen slowly, the lawyers set the pace, and the consequences are slow in coming. But they will come. What the Catalan government needs to do now, and my advice to them has been, is calm things down, don’t precipitate things. Despite the silence they have an unprecedented sympathy across the EU but that will not translate into international recognition of a unilateral declaration of independence.
This has already been a marathon, and it has a way to go yet. We in Scotland with our recent experience stand ready to help find solutions.
Originally published in the National. Republished with permission of the newspaper
Alyn Smith MEP is a Member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and has been an MEP for Scotland since 2004. He is Advisory Board Member of the Scottish Centre on European Relations.