In­ter­na­tional me­di­a­tion is not the an­swer in Cat­alo­nia

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - ANA PALA­CIO

On the evening of Oct. 10, Cat­alo­nia’s sep­a­ratist Pres­i­dent, Car­les Puigde­mont, stood be­fore the re­gional Par­lia­ment to de­liver what was widely ex­pected to be a uni­lat­eral dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence. But he ended up of­fer­ing a fudge. De­spite as­sert­ing “the man­date that Cat­alo­nia be­come an in­de­pen­dent state in the form of a repub­lic,” he pro­posed “sus­pend­ing the ef­fects of the dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence to un­der­take talks in the com­ing weeks.”

The per­for­mance left more ques­tions than an­swers, but that was pre­cisely the point. Puigde­mont was not ad­dress­ing anti-in­de­pen­dence pro­test­ers on the streets of Barcelona, or Span­ish ci­ti­zens more broadly. He was speak­ing to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity. Like his fel­low Cata­lan sep­a­ratists, Puigde­mont knows that the move­ment’s only chance of mov­ing for­ward lies in in­ter­na­tion­al­iza­tion.

Since the Cata­lan re­gional gov­ern­ment held an il­le­gal ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence on Oct. 1, its sep­a­ratist lead­ers and their sym­pa­thiz­ers have called re­peat­edly for in­ter­na­tional me­di­a­tion in their stand­off with the Span­ish gov­ern­ment. The goal, ex­em­pli­fied by Puigde­mont in his speech, is to make Cat­alo­nia ap­pear mag­nan­i­mous, in or­der to get the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity on its side.

The call for di­a­logue – such a sleek and sim­ple re­quest, fit­ting neatly into a 140-char­ac­ter tweet – res­onates with much of the in­ter­na­tional me­dia and the broader neb­ula known as the “in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity.” In­ter­na­tional doyens, in­clud­ing for­mer United Na­tions Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Kofi An­nan and his fel­low No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate Des­mond Tutu, have also called for di­a­logue. In the face of chaos and con­fu­sion, what could be wrong with talk­ing?

The an­swer, of course, is noth­ing. Democ­racy re­lies fun­da­men­tally on di­a­logue. At its core, a demo­cratic sys­tem is sim­ply a le­gal frame­work – un­der­pinned by a con­sti­tu­tion – that fa­cil­i­tates dis­cus­sion and dis­pute res­o­lu­tion. It is not a static model. If there is a prob­lem with the frame­work, the con­sti­tu­tion can be changed, though this can­not be done frivolously. Democ­racy is hard work. It re­quires per­sua­sion, al­liances and com­pro­mise. But, so long as so­ci­ety be­lieves in it, it works.

It is when di­a­logue is pushed be­yond the sys­tem’s con­sti­tu­tional bounds that the prob­lem arises. There is no need to en­gage in the give-and-take of democ­racy if one can sim­ply cir­cum­vent its ground rules. And, with all due re­spect for An­nan and Tutu, this is what ex­ter­nal me­di­a­tion would amount to – and it would threaten to crip­ple Span­ish democ­racy.

That is why the world – and es­pe­cially Europe – must re­sist Cata­lan sep­a­ratists’ calls for in­ter­na­tional me­di­a­tion. Noth­ing less than the fu­ture of the rule of law and con­sti­tu­tional democ­racy in Spain – and else­where – de­pends on it.

What is hap­pen­ing in Cat­alo­nia is a prob­lem for the Span­ish na­tion and, in par­tic­u­lar, for a di­vided Cata­lan so­ci­ety. And, while Spain is a rel­a­tively young democ­racy, it is also a ma­ture one, hav­ing en­dured many chal­lenges in the 42 years since the death of the dic­ta­tor Fran­cisco Franco. We should let its ro­bust and vi­brant sys­tem work.

The good news is that, so far, the Euro­pean Union and its mem­ber states have taken pre­cisely this stance. French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron re­jected Euro­pean in­ter­ven­tion, declar­ing that it would “give rea­son to those who do not re­spect the rule of law.”

At the Euro­pean level, Euro­pean Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Don­ald Tusk, de­spite some am­bigu­ous state­ments on the topic, urged Puigde­mont to “re­spect the con­sti­tu­tional or­der.” Euro­pean Com­mis­sion Vice Pres­i­dent Frans Tim­mer­mans de­clared that the Cata­lan re­gional au­thor­i­ties had “cho­sen to ig­nore the law,” and that if one of the three pil­lars of Euro­pean so­ci­eties – “democ­racy, re­spect for the rule of law, and hu­man rights” – is re­moved, “the oth­ers will fall too.”

But the pres­sure to in­ter­na­tion­al­ize – or, specif­i­cally, to “Euro­peanize” – the cri­sis will con­tinue. The Cata­lan sep­a­ratist lead­ers are smart and me­dia-savvy. They know that scenes of vi­o­lence, or even a pro­longed stale­mate, would weaken Euro­pean lead­ers’ re­solve not to get in­volved. They also know that in an in­creas­ingly in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal EU, some mem­ber states would not nec­es­sar­ily con­sider the prospect of a weak­ened Spain to be a neg­a­tive out­come.

Euro­pean lead­ers must not suc­cumb to this temp­ta­tion. The EU is, at its core, a con­struc­tion of law. Fa­cil­i­tat­ing the ero­sion of the rule of law and democ­racy should be anath­ema to its lead­ers. It should also be ab­hor­rent to mem­ber states, which con­tinue to guard their sovereignty and pre­rog­a­tives.

More broadly, if democ­racy in Spain, in the heart of West­ern Europe, can be weak­ened so fun­da­men­tally, so can democ­racy every­where. If, how­ever, Spain is given the space to work through the chal­lenge it faces, the rule of law will be rein­vig­o­rated. For those who pro­claim them­selves to be cham­pi­ons of lib­eral democ­racy, short-cir­cuit­ing that pos­si­bil­ity is as ir­re­spon­si­ble as it is hyp­o­crit­i­cal.

If democ­racy in Spain can be weak­ened, so can democ­racy every­where

Ana Pala­cio, a for­mer Span­ish for­eign min­is­ter and for­mer se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the World Bank, is a mem­ber of the Span­ish Coun­cil of State and a vis­it­ing lec­turer at Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity. THE DAILY STAR pub­lishes this com­men­tary in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Project Syn­di­cate © (www.project-syn­di­cate.org).

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