Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Catalonia: there must be talks

The chief minister of Catalonia has pulled back from the brink of  a full-scale declaration of independence for his region. That should have been the cue for serious talks which are clearly what the silent majority in Catalonia and throughout Spain want. However, first reports are that the Spanish government is intransigent.

There was a wide-ranging debate on the subject of the Catalonia situation in the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week. It was poorly-attended compared with the discussion on Brexit which preceded it. However, some idea of the various parties' standpoints could be discerned.

Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the Commission stated the official line that the rule of law must prevail. However, he went too far in my opinion in condoning the use of force:

As Jean-Claude Juncker said in his State of the Union address to this House last month, our Union is not a state but it is a community of law. We must never lose sight of this. There is general consensus that the regional government of Catalonia chose to ignore the law when organising the referendum held last Sunday, the Spanish Constitutional Court having suspended the Catalan laws on the organisation of the referendum and issued daily penalties against those who went against its orders.

That does not change the fact that we have all seen saddening images from Sunday. Let me be clear: violence does not solve anything in politics. It is never an answer, never a solution, and it can never be used as a weapon or instrument. Europe knows this better than anywhere else. None of us want to see violence in our societies. However, it is a duty of any government to uphold the rule of law, and this sometimes requires the proportionate use of force.

There followed speeches from the European People's Party and the Social & Democrats group which broadly supported the official position. It was left to Ryszard Legutko for the ECR to introduce some democratic common sense to the debate, and at the same time to criticise double-standards. He did not mention Austria, Hungary and Poland by name, but one suspects he had those countries in mind:

Mr President, the European Commission repeatedly resorts to a moralistic language. We have just heard it talking about a union of values, but when we view the actions of the Commission in the handling of this particular situation in Catalonia, it looks more like a union of selective values. The double standards of the Commission is something that leaps to the eye. All are equal, but some are more equal than others. Everything depends on who is involved. Let us be honest, ladies and gentlemen, if it were another Member State rather than Spain, the consequences and the rhetoric from the Commission would have been far harsher.

I want to be clear: I do not believe the EU, or the European Commission for that matter, strengthens the EU’s unity through infringement proceedings, or triggering the articles of the Treaties or all the political point-scoring and suchlike. This polarises the debate and pushes Member States and its voters further away from the EU. I urge the Commission to practice the virtue of self-restraint, but consistently, not selectively.

Coming to Catalonia, I do believe – a rather simple-minded observation but always worth repeating – that significant progress can be made through patient negotiations. Whether and how soon an effective resolution is possible in Catalonia, I do not know, and very few people, if anyone, in this Chamber knows that. I wish to be honest with our Spanish colleagues: riot police and violent scenes have not helped but shocked and, whatever your intentions, those scenes will continue to be a part of the image of your government for some time. Let us admit it, the handling of the crisis was appalling. It was really appalling.

What are the next steps to be taken? Whether it involves constitutional reform, or the granting of a referendum or international mediation, the role of the Commission is probably as an intermediary or a go-between. It is for the Spanish Government, Spanish society and the Catalonian people to decide for themselves. However, I do caution that the passions of those citizens in Catalonia seeking a new settlement is unlikely to fade away by simply drowning out or ignoring the voices of dissent.

The ECR includes UK's Conservative MEPs. One would have expected our Conservative Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, to respond in a similar fashion upon hearing of the clashes in Barcelona, but instead he refused to condemn the police violence.

Guy Verhofstadt on behalf of ALDE reinforced support for the rule of law but deplored the violence and called for talks.

Mr President, I have to tell you first of all that I am a big admirer of Spanish democracy, especially since that dramatic date of 23 February 1981. That was the day that Colonel Tejero attempted his coup d'état. Javier Cercas, in his famous book ‘Anatomía de un instante’, describes how, under the threat of Tejero’s pistol, three Spanish political leaders stayed upright in their seats, refusing to hide under their benches. They were Santiago Carrillo, the historical leader of the Communist Party, Adolfo Suárez, the first Prime Minister of democratic Spain, and his deputy, General Guttiérrez Mellado.

Despite the shots, not one of them blinked, an act of courage and determination that anchored forever democracy in Spanish souls. Spanish democracy was born under the pistol of the putschist Tejero, so no one among us has to give a lesson in democracy to Spain.

Now, 36 years later, Spanish democracy has to surmount itself again – to surmount this deep division and to overcome this existential crisis. It has to do so not by believing that the judiciary can solve the problems on its own, and certainly not by using deplorable violence, even though it is based on a court ruling. In other words, this cannot be done just by relying on the power of the state.

I urge all sides to stop the escalation and to go and sit around the table. The spirit there, around that table, has to be the understanding that the future of more than 70 European nations, the future of Catalonia, the future of my own Flemish community, lies not in brutal separation but lies in deep cooperation – cooperation inside federal structures in a federal Europe. Look a little bit – if I can ask that – to your own Basque countrymen. Look at what they have achieved, how they have developed their country, defeating terrorism and reinventing themselves, proud and autonomous.

Other speakers praised modern Spanish democracy and contrasted it with the Franco dictatorship. They might have pointed out that Franco was particularly harsh on the Catalans and that the actions of the Guardia Civil must have roused disquieting memories for older citizens of Catalonia.

If I had been the Spanish prime minister this summer, I would have said to the Catalan chief minister: "have your referendum if you must - we will not try to stop you - but bear in mind that it will be no more than an opinion poll because it will not have the force of law. Of course, we will seriously listen to the outcome if a large majority of those eligible to vote indicate dissatisfaction with the current constitutional arrangements." That would have avoided the violence and probably encouraged those Catalans - estimated to be as much as half the population - who do not want separation to come out and influence the final vote.

Realistically, there would be little future for Catalonia, as for Scotland, as an independent state. There would have to be unanimity by the EU member states in order to accept her as another member, and Spain is not the only country who would vote against. Catalonia may be the most productive region of Spain, but over a third of its output goes to the rest of Spain. Outside the EU tariff wall, that production could virtually disappear.

However, the Catalans have a good case for more autonomy. It seems they do not yet have all the powers available to the Basques. There must be talks.

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