It is hard to watch the slow-motion car crash taking place in Catalonia without horrified fascination—and without thinking, at the same time, how serious and how avoidable it is.
The reason neither the European Union nor Spain’s neighbors are doing anything to allay the crisis is that we Europeans complacently believe that violent conflict will not return to the continent. Other European leaders do not believe the cost of annoying Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, by intervening and losing his support on EU or bilateral issues is justified since they do not believe the Catalan situation is so serious that it will turn violent or directly affect them.
Yet Europe is not magically immune to the horrifying violence that surrounds it in an arc from Syria to Libya. The continent has been plagued by violent conflicts over the issue of self-determination until very recently. It was only twenty years ago that a long-running war in Northern Ireland ended, eighteen years ago that serious armed conflict in Kosovo ended, and just six years ago that the ETA terrorist campaign in the Basque Country was brought to an end by the Aiete Declaration. None of these bloody European conflicts ended by themselves. They were only brought to an end by political leaders on both sides who were prepared to engage in negotiations, at considerable personal and political risk.
The conflict in Catalonia over self-determination will not end by itself, either. Although it has so far been a largely peaceful dispute, if both sides persist in escalating the dispute, they could turn it into another bloody conflict inside Europe’s borders—with consequences for all of us. In other similar disputes, it has been a short step from heads being broken in the streets in clashes between protesters and police to young, over-enthusiastic partisans responding with violence of their own. Far better to solve the conflict now, before real violence begins, than allow the blood to flow and then try to stop it.
We have experience in stopping such conflicts. The demand for national self-determination is not a new phenomenon. European countries in particular faced it often enough through the half-century of decolonization and they reached negotiated settlements in the end to nearly all the demands for independence. Self-determination is, however, a devilish problem to solve because it involves the clash of two rights: in this case, the right of the Catalan people to govern themselves, assert sovereignty, and run their affairs, and the right of Spain to maintain its national territorial integrity unless a majority of the Spanish people vote—across the country as a whole—to allow Catalonia to leave.
Britain and Ireland faced a similar problem over Northern Ireland. A majority of people in the island of Ireland wished for a united Ireland under one government, but a majority of the population in Northern Ireland wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. The people of the United Kingdom as a whole didn’t have a strong opinion on the matter, but a majority would probably, if asked, have voted to maintain the integrity of the UK. The solution we found to this clash of rights in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was based on the principle of consent. There would be no change in the status of Northern Ireland unless a majority of its people voted for it to happen. The republicans who had supported the Irish Republican Army accepted this solution, and the violence ended.
This principle of consent underlies the British attitude to Scotland, too. The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution, so we do not have a rule on whether nations within the state have a right to self-determination or not. But governments of all political parties accept that any decision on continued rule from London must depend on the consent of the people within that part of the country. That is why the British government has allowed one referendum on independence in Scotland and made it clear that it would respect the outcome. Doubtless, it will do so again if the people of Scotland demand another vote on the issue.
Canada found perhaps the best answer to the conundrum of self-determination after decades of separatist agitation in Quebec. The question went to the Canadian Supreme Court, which decided in a landmark judgement in 1998 that unilateral secession was not legal; the various international documents that support the existence of a people’s right to self-determination also contain parallel statements that support the conclusion that the exercise of such a right must be sufficiently restricted to prevent threats to an existing state’s territorial integrity. However, the justices ruled that if a referendum found in favor of independence, the rest of Canada “would have no basis to deny the right of the government of Quebec to pursue secession.” Negotiations would have to follow to define the terms under which Quebec would gain independence, should it maintain that goal.
This seems to me the obvious conclusion in the case of Catalonia, too. Just saying, as Madrid does, that secession is against the law and is not allowed by the Spanish constitution is not a sufficient answer because, of course, the law and the constitution can be changed. The region does not have a right under international law to unilaterally declare independence from Spain. But if it becomes clear that a large part of the people, possibly a majority, favor independence, then the only sensible thing to do is to hold a dialogue with the leaders of that region. Negotiations do not imply that the government is going to accept independence, any more than the British government accepted a united Ireland in the Good Friday negotiations. The conservative government in Madrid, however, has always refused any such dialogue.
The Rajoy administration’s ostrich-like attitude is in many ways what created the problem in the first place. After lengthy and torturous negotiations, a previous, Socialist government had agreed a Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia that devolved further powers to the region in 2006. This statute was put to a vote in the Spanish and Catalan parliaments and endorsed in a referendum in Catalonia. At that stage, support for Catalan independence stood at just 14 percent. The conservative People’s Party (PP), then in opposition, promised to reverse the statute unilaterally and took the issue to the Constitutional Court. In 2010, the court struck down a large part of the statute. The response in Barcelona was a huge demonstration of more than a million people under the slogan “We are a nation. We decide.” The following year, Rajoy’s PP won an outright majority in the general election.
Not surprisingly, the Catalan government and its supporters were outraged and attempted to negotiate with Rajoy about what should happen next. He, in trademark style, refused to engage. The results were to drive up support for independence, increased success for separatist parties in regional elections, the first of a series of attempts to hold a referendum on independence, and the replacement of the Catalan government’s centrist leader Artur Mas by the more radical Carles Puigdemont. Thus it was Rajoy and his refusal to negotiate that almost single-handedly brought about the election of a majority-separatist government in Catalonia in 2016.
The world suddenly paid attention when Spanish police used excessive force to try to stop a further referendum on October 1. There was incredulity abroad that a government would try to win hearts and minds of its people by pulling women out voting booths by their hair. Following the referendum, Puigdemont suspended the parliament’s Declaration of Independence based on the controversial result and appealed for negotiations with Madrid. Instead of responding by agreeing to talk without preconditions, Rajoy insisted that Puigdemont renounce independence and return to the legal path. No talks took place and, under political pressure in Catalonia and the threat of the central government imposing direct rule by article 155 of the Spanish constitution, Puigdemont made a unilateral declaration of independence on October 27.
The field is now set for a more serious confrontation than either side presumably wanted. The Spanish government will find it hard to impose its will in Catalonia in the long term because it has very little presence there; most of the powers of government are already devolved. The separatists have called for passive resistance. Society is unprecedentedly polarized. The risk of things escalating on the basis of local errors of judgment by police officers or demonstrators must be high. All it will take is for one person to die for the fire to be lit.
Rajoy has proposed that the way out lies in holding regional elections on December 21, and in Spain this is seen as a clever ruse. Since his policies so far have succeeded only in increasing support for Catalan independence from 14 percent to about 49 percent, it is not clear why the Spanish prime minister thinks it will solve the problem. More likely, his recent actions will have boosted the separatist vote still further, and the pro-independence movement may now have a majority. Even if Rajoy’s measures have not yet resulted in that outcome, the electoral system, which favors rural areas, may well produce another separatist government. If that happens and Rajoy still refuses to negotiate, we will be back to square one.
The whole sorry mess is an object lesson in how not to handle the demand for self-determination by a nation within a country. The tolerant approach based on the principle of consent adopted in Scotland led to a defeat for separatists in the referendum in 2014. The solution in Catalonia seems obvious to me: both sides should engage in negotiations without preconditions and consider amendments to the Spanish constitution as proposed by the Socialist Party, which is supporting Rajoy against Catalan secession. Sooner or later, that is what Spain and Catalonia will have to do. I hope they do so sooner and avoid the return to Europe of violent conflict over self-determination.
Jonathan Powell was Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1994 to 2007 and the chief government negotiator in Northern Ireland from 1997 to 2007.