The disputed referendum in the province of Catalonia on October 1 for secession has caused Spain to invoke special constitutional powers to evict the regional government of Catalonia based in Barcelona. According to the Government of Madrid only 43% of Catalonians have voted at the referendum while most opponents of secession, 2/3rds, did not participate [...]

Sunday Times 2

Catalonia’s star casts its shadow over Europe


The disputed referendum in the province of Catalonia on October 1 for secession has caused Spain to invoke special constitutional powers to evict the regional government of Catalonia based in Barcelona. According to the Government of Madrid only 43% of Catalonians have voted at the referendum while most opponents of secession, 2/3rds, did not participate in the voting. The Madrid Government has imposed direct rule on the province, while the Catalonian Foreign Affairs chief Raul Romeva said the seven million Catalonians have given a mandate for separation. He expected institutions including the police to follow orders from Barcelona rather than Madrid if direct rule is imposed. In fact, while preparing this article Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has removed Puigdemont the President of Catalonia, and the latter has appealed to his supporters to democratically oppose the promulgation of article 155 of the Spanish Constitution against Catalonia.

People form a ribbon during a demonstration called by pro-independence associations asking for the release of jailed Catalan activists and leaders at Sant Jaume square in Barcelona, Spain. Reuters/Albert Gea

While these events are unfolding political observers believe that this process will have adverse consequences on the rest of the continent. Already the two Italian regions of Lombardy and Veneto have overwhelmingly opted for more autonomy from Rome in a referendum. On October 23 the regional authority in Milan in Lombardy announced that 95% of the voters have voted for more autonomy. However, the turnout there too had been 39%. Similarly, in Veneto where Venice and Verona are situated, 98% have voted for more independence from Rome. The turn out there had been 57%. These developments follow the ‘Brexit’ of Britain from the European Union and the processes which seem to weaken European unity. The two regions of Lombardy and Veneto account for 10 million people and is administered by the right wing Northern League, headed by Matteo Salvini. The regions being more affluent than the rest of Italy, the Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has already announced talks with regional leaders.

This article will confine itself only to Catalonia, but it should be remembered that in Austria, Sebastian Kurz who is the youngest ever leader at 31, to become the Federal Chancellor, is leading a right wing government whose policies are thought to be anti-immigrant. In Germany the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party (AfD) have taken their seats in the German Parliament, Bundestag; they too follow an extreme stance on immigration and Chancellor Angela Merkel according to analysts will find it difficult to form a stable government. It is of course surmised that these countries will overcome these temporary political crises to get Europe back to democratic stability.

The fear in Catalonia is that the separatist leaders are mobilising a human shield to block the Madrid government from taking control of their region. The president of the region Carles Puigdemont and leader Lluis Corominas have declared peaceful and democratic defence of their institutions. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy convened Senate to win their approval for his crackdown on separatists. The President of Catalonia too was expected to address the Senate in Madrid to explain their stand but he was deposed. Premier Rajoy plans to take over all the Catalonian institutions including the police force, called the Mossos d’Esquadra. The chief prosecutor of Spain has warned that separatist leaders would face as many as 30 years in jail if they go ahead with their separatist agitation.

Meanwhile the Euro slipped 0.4% to 1.1735 to the US dollar and the stock market fell low, wounding the economy. The Spanish Constitutional Court has declared the referendum and the movement illegal. According to political observers these measures would lead to a conflict. Prime Minister Rajoy has enforced Article 155 in the 1978 Spanish Constitution imposing central government control on Catalonia, and wants to have regional elections within the next six months. This was confirmed by Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, and is now fixed for December 21. Article 155 is as follows: “If an autonomous community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws or acts in a way seriously prejudicing the general institutions of Spain, the Government after lodging a complaint with the President of the autonomous community and failing to receive satisfaction thereafter, may following approval granted by an absolute majority of the Senate, take measures in order to compel the latter to forcibly meet these obligations in order to protect the above mentioned general interests”.

“With a view to implementing the measures provided in the foregoing clause, the Government may issue instructions to all the authorities of the autonomous community.” What Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has done is invoke these powers vested by this article of the Constitution promulgated on December 6, 1978 by King Juan Carlos after the death of Francisco Franco on November 20, 1975 under a dictatorial regime. Spain was transformed to a democracy having a two Chamber Parliament, the Senate, and the Congress of Deputies in 1975.

At present in greater Spain the support is for the enforcement of the central control of Catalonia. However, in Catalonia there are demonstrations supporting both Catalonian independence and the enforced legislative enactments by the central Government. It is the thinking of analysts that the Spanish Government will be able to suppress the separatist movement with international support. By November 1 Catalonia was in a state of confusion, the people not fully aware of who was governing the region.

Already United States, the European Union, United Kingdom, Germany, France and smaller nations both in Europe and in other parts of the world have declared support to the central Government of Spain against separation. Sri Lanka too has made a Statement of Support. The seeds of the present separatist movement lie in the formation of the Kingdom of Spain and also other similar movements like the Basques Separatist Movement.

Spain is an independent kingdom which was at the forefront of global affairs for centuries having an area of 504,750 square kilometres. The country is interspersed by young fold mountains and a number of river valleys. Situated bordering the Mediterranean Sea in the south and the European landmass to the north the land had been inhabited by many groups of tribe races. Among them are the Iberians, who came from North Africa, Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Norsemen, Arabs, and Moors. Castiles in Central Spain was the major ethnic group, who were proud of their ancestry. Their language was Castilian. The other groups were Aragons of north east Spain, Andalusians of the south and Catalonians of north east and Valencia, and Basques of north-west Spain.

The Catalans were settled in these regions from the middle ages and before and were reputed for their business skills, science and arts. In fact in 1469 Catalonia was integrated with the kingdom of Spain with the marriage of King Ferdinand the 2nd, an Aragon to Queen Isabella of Castile. Catalans had their identity, and their language is Catalan and they also speak Spanish. On the north- west of the Pyrenees are the Basques, who speak Basque. They are also a separate culture who are waiting to secede. On the west are the Asturians, and on the north west are Galicians akin to Portuguese. In all these regions there are rich cultural and historical traditions. Spain was thus a nation formed with a number of racial groups speaking different languages belonging to different cultures. It is the fourth largest economy in the European Union and Catalonia contributes a fifth of the income with its mineral wealth, tourism, and trade and commerce. Spain had her vicissitudes of fortune in history and politics having been a conglomeration of kingdoms, military rulers and dictators the last of whom was General Francisco Franco from 1933-1954. All these rulers were faced with the challenge of keeping Spain together with different cultural groups composing it, the last was keeping the Basque region with the nation. Perhaps Catalonia will also face the same settlement.

The Basques, Euskaldunak Vascos in Spanish, Basques in Frenchare an indigenous cultural group, speaking a different language having a shared ancestry to Vascos and Aquitanians, living in the western region of Pyrenees on the coast of Bay of Biscay, straddling north-central Spain, and south-west France. They were supposed to have settled in these regions 7,000 years ago in the Iberian Peninsula. They became part of the successive kingdoms of Spain like Aragon. As political events unfolded, the people in these river valleys of Ebro and Garonne and the Pyrenees ranges had to live with greater political units like France and Spain, but they were proud of their culture including their language which led them to agitate for independence. After the French revolution in the 1790s some parts of the Basque region like Labourd, Lower Navarre and Soule integrated with the French Department System in the south while the rest remained with Spain. Frequent agitation for independence from both countries led to a movement for liberation called Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), since 1959. ETA means Basque Fatherland and Freedom. It was similar to the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The ETA was dissatisfied with the moderate nationalist struggle of the traditional Basque party.

Formed by a group of students they confronted the Spanish Government machinery and were so terrorist in character, that it became a proscribed organisation in Europe. The Spanish Government under General Franco tried to suppress them but they survived till October 2011 until the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero negotiated for a settlement of the terrorist activity until the problem was settled. He called it a ‘victory for democracy’, but the agitation for cessation still lingers on. A summary of their activities from 1937, when General Franco occupied their territory shows militancy. In 1961 ETA derailed a train and in 1968 they assassinated the secret police chief Meliton Manzanas, and in 1973 assassinated Prime Minister Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. With leadership in the hands of Herri Batasuna from 1980, hundreds were killed by them. They attempted assassinating opposition leader Jose Maria Azner in 1995, who later became Prime Minister, and in 1997 August Batasuna and 23 others were jailed for seven years.

Terrorism spills over from region to region and Batasuna was supposed to have learnt the tricks of the trade from the Sinn Fein of Ireland. When the IRA signed the 1998 August Peace Agreement ETA too started following them. The Spanish Government and ETA had negotiations in Zurich in May 1999. It was a turning point in the partial giving up of arms, and in 2011 they came to a settlement to give up the armed struggle.

This brief history shows the links any separatist movement in Europe could forge with similar movements in the continent or elsewhere. While the Basques gave inspiration to Catalans in Spain the IRA gave schooling to the Basques. European countries all having independent linguistic, religious and cultural groups forming their nations are very susceptible to any militant movements by such ethnic groups.

Even in the Catalonian issue, Scottish Nationalist party chief Pedro Sanchez criticised Spain for refusing a dialogue and imposing direct rule by Madrid. They too had such a referendum but have not been able to secede from the United Kingdom yet. In the same vein, British Prime Minister Theresa May has been vehement that ‘Britain and the UK does not and will not recognise the Catalan referendum’. Belgium which also has a separatist problem has said through their Minister of Asylum and Migration Theo Francken, Puigdemont could ask for asylum in Belgium, as the Basques did when their problem was at its height. It is said that Puigdemont is in Belgium already. Belgium has asked for dialogue in settling the problem. It is one country where Europeans could seek asylum. In France, the neighbouring region of Occitanie has called for dialogue between Spain and Catalonia. These signify that the continent is concerned that the Catalonian problem should be isolated to Spain and should be resolved internally. Spain too is concerned that it should not be another Basque and should not have a snowballing effect.

Aren’t there lessons or concerns that Sri Lanka should learn and raise when these separatist phenomena operate in other lands. Shouldn’t the constitution makers think further before taking a plunge to a well of constitution or confusion.
(The writer was a Foreign Service Officer.)

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