DOWN­ING

ON POL­I­TICS

Irish Independent - Farming - - NEWS -

WHEN Cata­lan farm­ers drove a trac­tor­cade into Barcelona last month they were not protest­ing against fall­ing farm in­comes, or in­creas­ing pres­sure on gov­ern­ment over some burn­ing is­sue like the glyphosate ban.

They were back­ing the hold­ing of that ill-starred in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum which kicked off a huge chain re­ac­tion of con­flict. By now this one is as big an EU headache as Brexit, and like Brexit, it will ab­sorb a lot of en­ergy merely to min­imise harm.

Like much of the de­vel­oped world, Cata­lan farm­ers are not a nu­mer­ous group­ing. Of the 7.5m peo­ple there are just 59,000 farms and num­bers di­rectly work­ing in Cata­lan agri­cul­ture are put at just 45,000 peo­ple.

But against that, like many other parts of Europe in par­tic­u­lar, farm­ers punch way above their weight po­lit­i­cally. Farm­land oc­cu­pies one third of Cat­alo­nia’s land­mass and agri­cul­ture pro­duce makes up one sev­enth of its over­all ex­ports.

And just like most every place else, there is a hark­ing back among many ur­ban­ites to their fam­ily’s ru­ral ori­gins, which helps keep farm­ing and ru­ral life no­tion­ally spe­cial. That’s a sen­ti­ment pithily summed up by the writer Bren­dan Be­han’s adage: “A ‘culchie’ is a Dubliner’s fa­ther.”

But Cata­lan farm­ers are as deeply caught up in the lat­est far­rago as any other group. It is likely that they are pro­por­tion­ately af­fected by the dra­matic swing in na­tional sen­ti­ment about Cata­lan in­de­pen­dence which has oc­curred in the past decade.

In 2006 lit­tle more than one in eight peo­ple backed in­de­pen­dence — now it is al­most one in three. A third of peo­ple could have lived with Cat­alo­nia as a Span­ish province — now that is just one in five. Four out of 10 peo­ple thought more au­ton­omy was the so­lu­tion but now that is down to one in three.

That, how­ever, is another way of say­ing that Cat­alo­nia is now deeply di­vided on the is­sue. Last Sun­day some 300,000 peo­ple marched in Barcelona — this time for Cat­alo­nia to re­main with Spain. In fact, the split is now deemed to be close to 50:50, a very dan­ger­ous di­vi­sive line-up.

Ire­land and the other EU states are in a pretty tight strait­jacket on this one. Many EU mem­ber states have in­cip­i­ent “re­gional prob­lems” which have threat­ened to be­come prob­lem­atic in the past and could do so again.

In re­cent decades France had prob­lems in Cor­sica and Brit­tany. In re­cent weeks, Italy had two ref­er­en­dums on in­de­pen­dence in re­gions in the north of that coun­try. There are many lin­guis­tic mi­nori­ties with griev­ances. Bel­gium, riven pe­ri­od­i­cally by Flem­ish and French speak­ers’ di­vi­sions, lives with a fre­quent threat of split­ting in two.

All the EU gov­ern­ments, in­clud­ing Ire­land, are obliged to stand with Madrid. The mantra is sim­ple: the Oc­to­ber 1 Cata­lan in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum was il­le­gal. Spain is not to be di­vided.

A lit­tle po­lit­i­cal vi­gnette which oc­curred over the week­end shows just how tightly wound this one re­ally is from a main­land Euro­pean point of view.

A po­lit­i­cal in­ci­dent in Bel­gium told a lot. The Bel­gian mi­gra­tion min­is­ter, Theo Francken, also an out­spo­ken Flem­ish na­tion­al­ist, said the ousted Cata­lan Pres­i­dent, Charles Puige­mont, could be of­fered asy­lum in Bel­gium.

The com­ments were in­stantly deemed “un­nec­es­sary” by his Bel­gian gov­ern­ment col­leagues. That’s a straight “shut up” in­junc­tion.

But this one is be­ing al­lowed drift dan­ger­ously on­wards. Even recog­nis­ing the EU’s rather in­vid­i­ous po­si­tion, the Barcelona-Madrid stand-off is cry­ing out for me­di­a­tion and Brus­sels must find a way.

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