Thursday, 5 October 2017

Identifying the culprits

The complicity of EU institutions in the violent suppression of the Catalan referendum by the Spanish state is leading many to question their own support for continued membership of the EU.  It's a natural enough response, but I wonder whether they are aiming their ire at the right target.
The Brexiteers told us, repeatedly and incessantly, that the EU was a superstate from which the UK, like other members, was obliged to take instructions and to which member states were in some way subservient.  This was, and is, a travesty of the truth.  The power of the EU rests primarily in the Commission – whose members are appointed by member states – and the Council of Ministers – direct representatives of member states.  The elected parliament wields far less control over the EU than either of those bodies.  This means that the EU is, to a significant extent, more a forum for negotiating, and then enforcing, agreements made between the member states than an entity with a policy agenda of its own (which is not to say that Commissioners in particular do not have their own agendas).  When it comes to taking a stance on any issue, such as the situation in Catalonia, that position is brokered by the EU institutions, but crucially stems from the positions of the member states.
So it is the position of the member states which is at the root of what is, to put it mildly, a disappointing response from the EU.  As far as the larger member states are concerned – the UK, France, Italy, and Germany – there should surely be no surprise that they take the side of Madrid.  They all have secessionist movements within their borders to which they wish to give no comfort, and they all enjoy being the big boys in the yard.  Why on earth would anyone expect any of them to support a movement which could ultimately assist in promoting their own downfall?
Of much more concern to me is the response of some of the other states.  Whilst there has been some internal debate, it seems, within the Irish Government, the response of the Republic is particularly disappointing.  The Irish, above all, should be aware that the legalistic, constitutional route to independence doesn’t work when faced with a repressive state which refuses to acknowledge your right to self-government.  Malta gained its independence from the UK peacefully, although not until after what was effectively a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1958 leading to the suspension of the constitution and imposition of direct rule.  Cyprus gained its independence from the UK after a long and bloody struggle.  Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia all declared their independence unilaterally after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Croatia and Slovenia emerged from the wreckage of Yugoslavia.
All of these EU member-states have at least some recent historical understanding of the difficulties in exercising their right to independence by following only the constitutional rules of the state of which they were previously a part.  Why are they so keen to support for Catalunya what they would never have supported for themselves?  Why are they not attempting to influence the collective EU position forcefully?  It is that which angers and disappoints me, not the predictable behaviour of the big boys or their servants (not masters!) in Brussels.


Jonathan said...

I would not get too upset with the smaller, newer arrivals. Two reasons.
1. They are small, and new. It would be asking a lot for them to come out all militant and annoy their new family. Especially at this stage. The game is only part-finished. The chips are not yet down.
2. A break-away state cannot expect an easy ride. When the white bits of the British Empire broke away (Ireland, North Carolina whence this post) there was a lot of confrontational politics, and pretty much all-out war. All very regrettable in retrospect and now conveniently forgotten. But a break-away state must expect at least tension. You have to factor in at least riot-police, civil disobedience. I don't FAVOUR this, but you have to allow for it. There is the hard yards stage of the game when the break-away has to make the stand, try to create a new reality (alone and with few assets) take the consequences, and then wait for others to accept the new reality. That's the price of any break-away in Europe.
The Slovenians and the Catalans did their calculations, can pay the price, stand the confrontation, because they believe in what they are doing. Its the Welsh I worry about. We are known as tough fighters in armies: Mametz Wood, Welsh Guards, 53rd Division at 's-Hertogenbosch, South Holland in WW2 etc. But who can see Welsh politicians, Labour ones say, or even Plaid ones these days, making a Declaration, confronting Westminster by exceeding a few powers, blocking the Severn Bridge for 10 minutes. Because that's all it would take before the situation got ratified, legalised. And the Welsh would have earned the respect now going to the Catalans

Anonymous said...

I think you confuse issues here. The UK, France, Italy and Germany do not 'take the side of Madrid', they support the rule of law in individual countries. For if not, imagine the difficulties.

As for the smaller countries, perhaps they are not 'so keen to support' Catalunya because at least 50% of Catalans appear not to want to go down this path to independence.

The great hope is that a peaceful civil war erupts in Catalunya between the competing factions, much as it did in Scotland during the run-up to the vote for independence. Whilst the Catalans are metaphorically fighting themselves the other Spanish region have a chance to benefit from the fall-out (be it in terms of new job creation, company relocations and so on). In time no-one will much care what happens to the Catalunya, not even the Catalans themselves.

The wounds will eventually heal, but it will take generations. Just look to Wales.


John Dixon said...


The problem that you will have with a simplistic reliance on 'the law', whilst it might avoid any requirement for thought, is that it can lead you into very murky waters. Apartheid was 'the law', but it was a law passed in a country where the majority were denied the vote. And we all know that 'I was only following orders' has been ruled to be inadequate as a defence, even if the orders themselves are 'legal' under the relevant system of government. Those examples raise the question of the legitimacy underpinning any law.

What we are seeing in Catalunya is a clash of two different views about legitimacy, and legitimacy isn't the same as law. On the one hand, the interpretation in Madrid is that all legitimacy stems from the constitution. The relevant clause was inserted in the constitution by a military dictator who seized power in a bloody coup, and retained at the point of transition as part of the price for the military returning to their barracks. The interpretation in Catalunya is that the democratically elected parliament containing a majority of independentistas passed a law to hold a referendum, and that the legitimacy of that law stems from that election. Ultimately, the best way of resolving those alternative viewsis some sort of political solution leading to a proper organised vote, but it's hard to see how that can happen when one party to the dispute simply rules out allowing the people to choose.

It is true that opinion polls showed, before last Sunday, that only a minority in Catalunya were likely to vote for independence, but the democratic way to test that is by holding a formal referendum.

Ivor Nadir said...

Yes, one reason we don't block the Severn Bridge in pursuit of independence is that we don't yet have anything approaching a majority in favour. I can understand the smaller EU coutnries being afraid to rock the boat, but that's no reason for them not to condemn the brutal crackdown. That's just cowardly.

Anonymous said...

Not sure that opinion polls have shown what you suggest, John. Polls have shown majorities both in favour and against independence perhaps suggesting that there was little between the two sides. (that may have changed now - we'll have to wait and see) But the polls have also shown consistently that of those likely to vote in a referendum, a clear majority back independence.

John Dixon said...


"But the polls have also shown consistently that of those likely to vote in a referendum, a clear majority back independence." Fair point - correction accepted!