Cat­alo­nia’s Les­son in In­tra­na­tional Power Dy­nam­ics

Policy - - In This Issue - Jeremy Kins­man

Among the more melo­dra­matic po­lit­i­cal nar­ra­tives in a year when the com­bustible Amer­i­can pres­i­dent set quite a high bar was the Cata­lan sep­a­ra­tion cri­sis. It had a seem­ingly in­tractable in­tra­na­tional show­down, a pas­sion­ate de­bate about the in­tri­ca­cies of com­pet­ing demo­cratic im­per­a­tives and a fugi­tive Cata­lan leader charged with—in a mod­ern Euro­pean democ­racy— re­bel­lion and sedi­tion. Veteran Cana­dian diplo­mat Jeremy Kins­man dis­sects the back­story. “All happy fam­i­lies are alike; each un­happy fam­ily is un­happy in its own way.”

Tol­stoy’s open­ing line of Anna Karen­ina ap­plies equally to “fam­i­lies” of peo­ples, es­pe­cially those af­firm­ing a sep­a­rate na­tional iden­tity, “sep­a­ratists.”

“Who are we?” is a ques­tion of our age. “Un­happy peo­ple,” is a par­tial an­swer for many. In some coun­tries, no­tably Canada, diver­sity is cel­e­brated. But in many oth­ers, frag­men­ta­tion, po­lar­iza­tion, and di­vi­sion in­deed cause un­hap­pi­ness, each in its own way.

The out­comes are not of only lo­cal in­ter­est. The 21st cen­tury’s iden­ti­ty­based na­tion­al­ist surge is of­ten fu­eled

by global mi­gra­tion and trans-na­tional Is­lam­o­pho­bia. Pop­ulist na­tion­al­ists op­pose im­mer­sion in the norms of lib­eral in­ter­na­tion­al­ism, the re­al­ity of glob­al­iza­tion, and the sway over them of mul­ti­lat­eral con­structs such as the EU. Pop­ulist na­tion­al­ist lead­ers of the U.S. and Rus­sia as­sist the process by them­selves turn­ing away from co­op­er­a­tive in­ter­na­tion­al­ism, and ac­tu­ally cheer­ing on frag­men­ta­tion.

Break-away na­tion­al­ists may draw from sim­i­lar emo­tional and in­tox­i­cat­ing nar­ra­tives of vic­tim­hood, claim­ing their iden­tity and cul­tural tra­di­tions are en­dan­gered. In mak­ing their case for self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, they com­monly seek val­i­da­tion of in­de­pen­dence sce­nar­ios through the pop­ulist de­vice of a ref­er­en­dum.

Ref­er­enda are the nu­clear weapons of democ­ra­cies, win­ner-take-all re­duc­tions of com­plex is­sues into sim­pli­fied bi­nary choices, of­ten pre­sented in emo­tion-fired cam­paigns of false nar­ra­tives, in­creas­ingly via so­cial net­works un­fil­tered for truth. They usu­ally present their un­happy cit­i­zens with painful ex­is­ten­tial choices, as we know from our Canada-Que­bec his­tory.

Out­comes can carry grave con­se­quences: the U.S. will surely be rid of Don­ald Trump some­time in the fairly near fu­ture, but those who chose Brexit by a 52—48 mar­gin, with no idea what it would en­tail, will af­fect Bri­tain for gen­er­a­tions.

The most prom­i­nent sep­a­ratist­na­tion­al­ist crise du jour is un­fold­ing in Cat­alo­nia, a re­gion of Spain whose pop­u­la­tion of 7.5 mil­lion has had an on-again, off-again his­tory of rel­a­tive au­ton­omy among Spain’s 46 mil­lion peo­ple.

Typ­i­cally, an age-old griev­ance is lan­guage sup­pres­sion. Cata­lan had a distin­guished and an­cient his­tory as a lan­guage of lit­er­a­ture and ad­min­is­tra­tion, but af­ter Cat­alo­nia sup­ported the los­ing side in the Span­ish War of Suc­ces­sion, Madrid in 1714 uni­fied Spain un­der the Span­ish lan­guage, and soon barred Cata­lan from schools. (Mem­o­ries are long. Rev­er­ent Barcelona foot­ball fans rise in venge­ful com­mem­o­ra­tion at the 14-minute marks of the first and sec­ond halves when pay­ing Real Madrid.)

But over time, Cat­alo­nia won a role of in­flu­ence and au­ton­omy within Spain. Barcelona be­came a pri­mary home of the sail­ing and trad­ing fleets of the Span­ish Em­pire and emerged as Spain’s man­u­fac­tur­ing hub. How­ever, the loss of Cuba af­ter 300 years (and Puerto Rico and the Philip­pines) in the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War in 1898 was a harsh blow that Cat­alo­nia blamed on in­com­pe­tent rulers in Madrid, fu­el­ing an up­surge in Cata­lan na­tion­al­ism.

Decades of in­sta­bil­ity fol­lowed. Cen­tral­iz­ing right-wing gov­ern­ments vied with de­cen­tral­iz­ing left-wing op­po­nents. In 1930, a pop­u­lar in­sur­rec­tion es­tab­lished the Sec­ond Re­pub­lic, whose Con­sti­tu­tion for­mal­ized the au­tonomous sta­tus and lan­guage rights of both Cat­alo­nia and the Basque coun­try.

Elec­tions in 1936 vaulted into power a Pop­u­lar Front gov­ern­ment of so­cial­ists and com­mu­nists that was im­me­di­ately con­tested by the mil­i­tary un­der Franco, who launched un­der a fas­cist flag the no­to­ri­ous civil war that be­came an omi­nous fore­telling of the rise of fas­cism in Ger­many and Italy. It caused half a mil­lion deaths and ended Spain’s fledg­ling democ­racy. The fall of Barcelona in early 1939 that sig­naled the end of the Span­ish Civil War ended Cat­alo­nia’s short-lived au­ton­omy. Ce­ment­ing harsh au­thor­i­tar­ian rule from Madrid, now-dic­ta­tor Fran­cisco Franco again banned the use of Cata­lan in schools and gov­ern­ment ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Af­ter Franco’s death in 1975, Spain be­gan its tran­sit back to democ­racy and en­shrined in the 1978 Con­sti­tu­tion Cata­lan fis­cal and lan­guage au­ton­omy. It was over­whelm­ingly sup­ported in Cat­alo­nia. The re­gion be­gan to at­tain the fastest growth rates in Europe.

In re­ac­tion to the sour his­tory of state dic­ta­tor­ship, the Span­ish gov­ern­ment de-em­pha­sized cen­tral rule and na­tion­al­ism in gen­eral but failed to build in a heal­ing process. Re­gional au­tonomists flour­ished. The Basque cam­paign for full in­de­pen­dence soon turned vi­o­lent, the ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion ETA caus­ing thou­sands of deaths over the next three decades.

In Cat­alo­nia, the grow­ing ap­peal of Cata­lan na­tion­al­ism was peace­ful. Au­tonomist coali­tions won re­peated re­gional elec­tions un­der Jordi Pu­jol, who served as re­gional pres­i­dent from 1980 to 2003. Pu­jol ad­vo­cated a fed­eral Spain rather than out­right in­de­pen­dence. He men­tored Que­bec sovereign­tists in seek­ing in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion of cul­tural au­tonomies, but dis­tressed Parti Québé­cois hosts on a visit to Québec when he ac­knowl­edged that if Cat­alo­nia had Québec’s sta­tus within the Cana­dian fed­er­a­tion, “There would be no talk of in­de­pen­dence.”

Cata­lan self-con­fi­dence was boosted by the suc­cess­ful 1992 Olympic Games that pro­jected Barcelona’s im­age as an open and vi­brant world cap­i­tal. The case for self-reliance was re­in­forced by the re­gion’s eco­nomic se­cu­rity that con­trasted with the se­vere hit the rest of Spain suf­fered from the 2008-09 re­ces­sion.

So, the Cata­lan fam­ily looks out at the world with wary sat­is­fac­tion—un­like re­gions in eco­nomic stress such as Wal­lo­nia or Cor­sica. Also, Cat­alo­nia seems im­mune to the Euro­pean winds of anti-im­mi­grant pop­ulist na­tion­al­ism. “Be­ing” Cata­lan is not a blood legacy but a qual­i­fi­ca­tion of res­i­dence and lan­guage; im­mi­grants are wel­come.

But Cata­lans have been dis­sat­is­fied with the heavy hand of Madrid be­gin­ning with the elec­tion in 1996 of the con­ser­va­tive and cen­tral­iz­ing Peo­ples’ Party led by hard­line busi­ness­man, José María Az­nar.

Re­lief came in 2004, when So­cial­ists un­der José Luis Ro­dríguez Za­p­a­tero up­set the right-wing’s ten­ure, adopt­ing in 2006 a Statute of Au­ton­omy that en­larged Cat­alo­nia’s au­tonomous

Wikipedia photo

Cata­lan Pres­i­dent Car­les Puigde­mont and 700 may­ors of Cat­alo­nia at the prepa­ra­tion meet­ing for a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence, Septem­ber 16, 2017.

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