Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Friday, 4 december 2009 | Financial Times


A Public Reply to the Financial Times (IV)

When discussing the question of independence movements from an international standpoint, the assumption always seems to be that those in favour of separation are dangerous fanatics, self-serving chauvinists or, at best, a well-meaning but barmy lot; states, on the other hand, tend to be given at least the benefit of the doubt. So commentators wanting to appear fair and reasonable usually end up making the case for the status quo, simply presuming that there is little or no merit to the independentist option. We fear that this time Mr. Mallet may have done just that in what could be read as an advice column for well-behaved unionists (“The fragility of nations: how to handle secessionists”, FT, December 1, 2009).

He is right in implying that aggresive reactions to even suggesting the possibility of separation from a state may work against unionists themselves. In fact, desisting from an extreme response would make sense for the unionists, especially after seeing the inconvenient results of a more forceful stance adopted a few weeks ago when a non-binding popular consultation on independence was held locally in the village of Arenys de Munt. The Madrid-based media made a show of ridiculing the whole exercise, but the extent and viciousness of the mocking only proved how seriously it had been taken. The Spanish government felt compelled to issue an official statement, several major papers in Britain, France and the US carried the story and by then what could have been just a colourful local festival had been turned into an international event by the paranoia that is the customary Spanish reaction when dealing with such matters.

So Mr. Zapatero may have been wise to choose a less confrontational strategy for the future. But one could also argue that benign neglect seems to be the only tactic in Mr. Zapatero’s toolbox. Was it also benign neglect that he applied when his government’s policies – or lack thereof – helped to turn a bad economic situation into the worst crisis in Western Europe?

And just as ignoring the economic crisis didn’t make it go away, Spain’s “Catalan problem” won’t be removed by simply ignoring the serious change of mood that can be sensed at every turn in Catalonia – in the joint editorial promoted by two of the least radical papers in Barcelona, in the upcoming round of local consultations on independence, in the civic platforms springing up everywhere or in the realignment of political actors in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary election. Successive opinion polls show that independence is not the minority option that unionists would love to dismiss, safely counting on the “quiet support of the majority”. It’s certainly not the choice of one-fifth of Catalans anymore: support has grown from 30% in 2007 to 35% last month to slightly over 50% in the most recent poll, published two days ago, and it’s gaining ground faster among the younger, better-educated and better-informed sectors of society.

There is much to be learned, we’re afraid, about the real state of affairs in Catalonia, and quite a lot to be said for a peaceful and democratic process of independence there. So, rather than offering hints to unionists on “how to handle secessionists”, international observers could make better use of their time if they tried to find out more about the reasons for Spain’s time-tested fragility, about the poor prospects for a future arrangement that is acceptable to all its peoples and about the very civilized alternatives presented by those who would opt to take a different course. Then perhaps we could all benefit from some sound advice on “how to handle unionists”.

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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Col·lectiu Emma is a network of Catalans and non-Catalans living in different countries who have made it their job to track and review news reports about Catalonia in the international media. Our goal is to ensure that the world's public opinion gets a fair picture of the country's reality today and in history.

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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia