Sunday, October 01, 2017

Catalan Referendum: a view from no-man's land

The images emerging from Catalonia today should trouble all of us, especially given the link between  liberalism and self-determination.

You could, and I probably would, argue that both sides have been particularly uncompromising in their approach, but independence battles tend to encourage such an attitude - after all, there have been precious few examples of states gaining sovereignty through negotiation alone. But the responses of both sides have led to today's scenes of riot police attacking and wounding those Catalans who fervantly believe that their lands are better off in a free Catalonia.

I am a believer in the principle of peaceful self-determination. In a civilised and rational world, power is assigned to the most appropriate level, devolved downwards where possible, pooled if necessary. The idea of the wholly sovereign nation state is almost absurd given the interrelationships of trade and migration.

You could therefore wonder why Catalan independence matters. What would a free Catalonia be or do that it can't already do within the context of the Spanish variable devolution model? And, likewise, what benefit is it to Spain to impose its central diktat over a people who possibly don't want to be a part of it?

Ultimately, it comes down to two things, emotion and economic advantage. Sometimes, as in the case of Scotland, you use the former to gloss over the fact that the latter isn't in your favour. In the case of Catalonia, that's not quite so clear cut, although I can't claim to have quite as much knowledge of the Catalan economy as I do of the Scottish one.

From a Liberal Democrat perspective, there is an uncomfortable contradiction in play. Some of my colleagues are enthusiastic supporters of the Catalan cause - and I respect that. However, given the Party's stance on the Scottish independence question, one might wonder as to the consistency of the two views. Perhaps romance trumps pragmatism when you have no economic skin in the game...

But the heavy-handed stance of the Spanish authorities will not do anything to change minds. It is all well and good to rely on the "rule of law" but those who seek freedom are seldom deterred by mere administrative process. I can't help but feel that, if Madrid is so confident in its position, offering the Catalans a binding referendum requiring a supermajority of eligible voters would have provided a definitive outcome.

Today's referendum will, ultimately, determine nothing. Given the call from Spanish political parties for their supporters to stay away from the polls, a yes vote is likely. As it has no legal status, the Spanish Government can, and will, disregard it. Yes, it puts pressure on the ruling parties in government, but they will be reminded that, for the majority of Spanish voters, Catalonia is Spain. It is an existential matter for the Spanish State.

From a wider European perspective, there are interesting challenges ahead. In the ALDE Party, for example, there are Catalan and Spanish member parties, on opposite sides of the argument. Managing those relationships will be challenging, if the debate spills over, seeking to have the ALDE Party take a side. The ALDE Party Congress, which takes place in Amsterdam in early December, may be fractious...

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