The Spanish government should learn from recent history.
The scenario looks all too familiar. The regional government demands more rights and self- governance, the national government dismisses it all as pure nonsense and threatens to take all the rights away. Law and national security become word most used and anyone who disagrees is “the enemy”.
Pro-government demonstrations, calls for arrests, direct central rule, I’ve seen it all before.
I come from the former Yugoslavia, a country that has become a case study of how not to do things.
Whatever one might think about the issue of Catalan independence, the reaction of the Spanish government to the referendum was, at best, unfortunate. Hiding behind the illegality of an act such as a referendum and using the law to crush the expression of different aspirations, will not only fail to solve the issues behind those aspirations but can be highly counter-productive. One of the first things to remember about the law is that its aim is to protect the people within the borders. When the law loses this aim, it’s time to ask who is the law protecting.
When the crisis in Yugoslavia started, many ordinary citizens did not want a break-up of the country, if not for ideological, then for purely pragmatic reasons. No-one wanted to have to show a passport when visiting their parents, let alone friends. Having lived within the same borders for over 40 years, life had become so interlinked that dividing the country meant dividing careers, friends and even families. It was the action by the Serbian government of the day that gradually turned people in massive numbers against such a state. When the tanks were sent to guard the parliament debating the issues of more rights and freedoms, it did not crush the will for independence among Kosovars. Instead it became a turning point for the future of the country, leading to other parts declaring their own independence. No-one felt safe anymore in a country that was sending tanks to defend citizens from their own aspirations.
In an interview following the Kosovo independence declaration, a Spanish academic in effect told me that the Kosovo case was setting a dangerous precedent for countries like Spain.
But surely, I wondered, no one was suggesting that the Spanish government would follow the same route as the Serbian regime. And I never really understood why Spain, is one of the few European democracies that do not recognize Kosovan independence.
Despite having its own “Scottish question”, the United Kingdom was among the first countries to recognise this new European state. If the UK could do it, why couldn’t Spain?
When I put this question to Javier Solana, a former Spanish foreign minister and NATO Secretary-General, he sounded as puzzled as me and offered no clear answer. Having been one of the leading negotiators in the Balkan war, he knows only too well the complexity of independence issues. Trying to describe them in simple terms, legal or otherwise, will not answer all the complex questions surrounding them. A simple Google search would tell you that independence is more of a political term deeply rooted in history, implying some form of struggle for a state of affairs that is rightly or wrongly believed to lead to a better future.
The more oppressive the regime, the less likely is to make legal provisions for independence. Nor would making this process legal solve the problem once and for all. The last Yugoslav constitution provided for self-determination and self-governance for all the constituent parts of the country, the six republics and the two autonomous regions. This did not prevent an ugly and destructive war to “protect” the various interpretations of law and legality. Czechoslovakia on the other hand managed to separate without a single shot.
In a modern world of global interdependence, independence is a term that has, if not fully certainly changed greatly its original meaning.
When the SNP called for a referendum in Scotland, the British government did not threaten to use force to deny the Scottish people the possibility to decide whether they want a separate state from the one they already lived in.
This allowed them to freely ask themselves what it is they would do that they can’t do in the existing state. A majority of them concluded there wasn’t much more, if anything, and just the “pride” of calling themselves “independent” wasn’t really worth the inconvenience this might cause in their daily routine.
Had the British government banned the Scottish referendum illegal and then used the police and army to protect that ban, many “no” voters might have soon enough become not only “maybe” but “yes” voters.
Rather than looking at a government like the Serbian government of the ’90s, the Spanish government could learn a lot by looking at the UK and the Scottish example. True, the Scottish issue is not dead and buried. But no issue of independence is ever dead and buried. As long as people are alive they will and should have aspirations. Collective aspirations become stronger when collective identities are, in this or that way, suppressed.
The government seem to have learned from the mistakes on the 1 October. Calling for early general elections, makes the imposed direct rule less dramatic while keeping open the channels for ballot box solution.
Open debate and political dialogue are the only way forward.