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Catalonia and the theatres of recognition

Isn’t it the case that fellow Europeans not only have the right to comment on the affairs of their neighbours but that doing so is a political virtue which ought to be cultivated?

lead Catalan Popular Party candidate for the upcoming Catalan regional election Xavier Garcia Albiol and Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy in a campaign meeting in Salou, Spain on December 17, 2017. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.It seems as though in the ongoing Spanish debate over the Catalonian question, one must start by stating where one speaks from. So here it is. As a Greek and French citizen married to a Brit living in Brexitland, whose Franco-German mother survived the last European civil war by denying both her nationalities, whose father’s parents lost everything as 1922 refugees from Asia Minor, I do not belong nowhere but in many somewheres.

While I hate all nationalisms, I do like the sense of anchoring that comes with national belonging – and feel extremely lucky to have so many such anchors. To be absolutely clear: my instinct is strongly against Catalonian independence. But I am also wary of passing judgment on the merit of the case from far away. Indeed, I try to be especially attuned these days to the dangers of denying the complexity and mysteries of politics of which we are not familiar, having just co-authored a book delving into the many ways in which Germans and Greeks reveled for many years in a long-distance ping-pong of simplistic caricatures of each other.[1]

And yet I have been saddened over the last few weeks by the implicit and explicit outrage coming from various quarters in Spain that make it offensive to express an opinion on the Catalonian question from abroad. Many Spaniards, including friends of mine, project a palpable sense that outsiders are suspicious a priori, at best ignorant of the facts or at worse downright condescending, teaching Spaniards about their own history or politics.

Sure, it happens. But do I have to exhume my Spanish great-grand mother, to obtain a droit de parole?  Isn’t it the case instead that fellow Europeans not only have the right to comment on the affairs of their neighbours but that doing so is a political virtue which ought to be cultivated? Indeed, and as long as we are not condescending, we must be more not less interested in each other’s affairs. The European project will not be built through wishing into existence a single European demos involved in a single European public sphere. Instead it will be deepened through the mutual recognition of its many different demoi, whether these hail from nations, regions or cities. Multiple demoi who, in an ideal world, know each other’s politics almost as well as their own.

Spaniards do understand that foreigners’ opinions matter at least for instrumental reasons: in order to succeed in secession, a local population needs to convince not only a majority in their midst as well as the public of the mother state, but also the ‘outside world’ which would ultimately need to recognise the new entity. But beyond this instrumental reason, should they not ask: hum, what can I learn from a conversation with this international audience? Can their viewpoint challenge my own in any useful ways? Am I not risking groupthink if I only want to hear what my compatriots have to say? And how would I feel if I was asked to keep out of neighbouring countries’ affairs?

It is not such a spirit which I experienced in the saga surrounding the Open Letter on the Rule of Law in the European Union that was submitted to Mr Tusk and Mr Juncker on 3 November. As a signatory, I had joined hundreds of public intellectuals and politicians from around Europe who endorsed the letter, driven by a shared concern about the actions that the current Spanish government undertook in handling the 1 October referendum in Catalonia. As someone truly uncomfortable with the antics of the Catalonian independentists, I had been reassured that this was the sole focus of our letter. The point was not to write a balanced summary of what is happening in Catalonia – countless Spanish commentators and Spanish friends have done this brilliantly.

Indeed, as we saw it, the Spanish government’s failure to respect rules of decent democratic governance in some way helps create the conditions of possibility of Catalonian independence. Clearly we were not condoning the actions of the Catalan leadership. I believed and I still believe that the independentists were wrong to call an illegal referendum and refuse to establish a minimum threshold for a secession vote to be valid, and wrong to proclaim independence on the basis of a defective referendum. Undoubtedly, these are instances of abuse of power at the regional level. Clearly, I could not be happy with actions that ignore the deep divisions within Catalan society, that ignore that to this day a majority of Catalans poll against independence, a majority that fails to be reflected in the parliament because of the over-representation of rural areas. Clearly, I hate the instances of loathsome ostracizing of children of unionist families in schools, or the way pro-union Catalans are often treated by self ascribed “true Catalans” as “enemies of the Catalan people” (we are familiar with the phrase here in the UK). In fact, I passionately believe that oppressive expressions of nationalism must be condemned wherever they occur. But this was not the object of our letter.

Message sent is not message received. I have never been so attacked for being stupid or naïve or both. Don’t you understand that the Spanish government has simply applied “the rule of law”? Don’t you know that our Constitution does not allow what they are doing? That Rajoy has the law on his side? How can you be so gullible as to believe all their fake news! When, in a collective response (incidentally not to our final text) hundreds of Spanish public lawyers rebutted our letter, not on its substance but on our incapacity to grasp “facts”, I was not surprised that their letter had only allowed for Spanish signatories, clearly the only ones accredited to speak on the matter.

All people or nations crave for recognition of self-worth and recognition starts with focusing on you rather than me. As I tried to give my questioners the benefit of the doubt that they had not given me, and as I witnessed the fate of others in and out of Spain who dare to be critical and who were punished for it, it occurred to me that three theatres of mutual recognition and its denial mirror each other in this story: between Spaniards and their foreign observers, between Catalonians (from both sides) and their Spanish compatriots, and of course between two or more sides in Catalonia itself.

Denials of recognition in each of these theatres feed on and reinforce each other, creating a downward spiral towards an abyss of mutual acrimony. And conversely, each effort at recognizing the other as warranting respect by putting oneself in their shoes even as we disagree, reinforces the same empathetic attitude in the other theatres. If we agree that political games can bring out the worse side of human nature, empathy is the ultimate antidote, the secret to creating an upward spiral where the impulse for separation is most likely to lose its ground.

What are the critics of the Spanish government on “Rule of Law “ grounds trying to say? That this story is not just about Spain but about a century long conversation across Europe about the true spirit of the Rule of Law. The Rule of Law is not about simply applying “the law on the books”. This is our conversation too! And in that conversation I am more than happy to agree to disagree, as long as we have listened to each other first. Some of us believe that the elusive idea of the Rule of Law was refined over centuries above all to mitigate power asymmetry and guard against the arbitrary exercise of power by rulers. According to the most basic liberal philosophy, the Rule of Law is about the behaviour of the most powerful (e.g. States). So it is in regard to their action that we need to be the most vigilant if we want our criticism to bite regarding the legality of actors like Catalonia’s independentists. If States enjoy a monopoly of the legitimate use of force, such a privilege needs to be handled with great care anywhere in the world.

Sure, everyone must respect the law, and the independentists have not. I am happy to condemn their actions over and over again. But our vigilance must start with the State itself, which must be held to higher standards, not only in the use of force (my Spanish friends love to point out that all governments beat up demonstrators) but when it comes to other repressive behaviors too. Simple unreflexive “legalism” is not enough for anyone alive to European history, especially in the XXth century, or for anyone who listens to autocrats expounding on the rule of law – the likes of Xi or Orban have nothing to do with Spain, don’t get me wrong; but the point here is that appealing to the “law” is a widespread trick which does not automatically imply its benign interpretation.

Instead, a government must use the law to create spaces for the full expression of all opinions to guarantee what philosophers like Hannah Arendt, Etienne Balibar, Albena Azmanova and others conceived as a “right to politics” for all, a right to be recognised as someone that matters by that political community, the right to a voice, not just a vote. In such spaces, consent emerges as an active practice, not a simple product of the force of law.

No doubt that such a right to politics has been at the heart of Spanish democracy for many decades. But are we, outsiders, not allowed to translate our concerns about these bigger questions into a conversation with Spanish friends without giving rise to opprobrium?

The conversation

So for the sake of a constructive dialogue and in order to strengthen a European public space which thrives on diversity and exchanges, let us discuss some of the many questions raised by Catalonia from the viewpoint of outsiders.  

–   Is it the function of the intelligentsia to mobilise in order to defend the ‘honour of the nation'? What if we favor instead a more conversational and tolerant patriotism?

–  Should the Rule of Law be reduced to Rule-by-Law to become a magic rhetorical wand against outside critics?

–  Can the crisis in Catalonia be solved by arguing that the illegal acts of one side (Catalan nationalists) justify the legal but illegitimate acts of the other side (the Spanish state)? Should we not always ask how the way our State enforces the law generates consent or erodes it?

–  Is it good enough to claim, as the Spanish government does, that its actions are justified because they are backed by the verdict of judges?

–   Is it enough simply to appeal to Spain’s Constitution when observers point out that the Catalans were not given the option of a legal (consultative non binding) consultation, in contrast with the Scots or Quebecois? There are revolutions and liberation movements in history (eg Gandhi…) that we like and others we dislike – but do we discuss them only on the grounds of legality? If political dissent (specifically as an aspiration to a vote on independence) cannot express itself legally, should we be surprised, even if we disapprove, that it will look for other ways?

–  How can this ubiquitous appeal to the Constitution avoid sounding like a mantra to outsiders – at least when it is said without of a counterbalancing ethos of dialogue and respect?

–   In the end, should we not be worried that while the mainstream Spanish parties may be right legally, the language they sometimes use can unleash ever more intolerant views towards the “Catalans”, views that they may not be able to control in the end?

If we condemn all nationalisms we must be consistent and advocate an open conception of democracy and the kind of understanding of the Rule of Law that goes along with it. The point of the conversation is not to agree on whether Catalonia has a “just cause” for seceding, given its growing dissatisfaction with the central government. Nor is it to agree on what the right boundaries for a democratic vote ought to be, Catalonia or Spain. These are proper questions that Spain is passionately debating. The point of the conversation is the conversation itself.

The EU, so dear to the Spanish people, is a reconciliation project. And if it is functioning at all, it ought to help each of its member states invent and reinvent every day its own national reconciliation project (god knows that almost all our countries are all messed up on that count!). There is no doubt that the concern with accountable rule is shared broadly in Spain and that even if a great majority of Spanish citizens are against Catalan independence, they also agree on the importance of mobilising collectively in defence of democracy and basic rights for everyone in Spain.  

Let us hope that the elections of 21 December will not further polarize the debate but instead help heal the divisions that are now ailing Spanish society. A wide alliance of forces can take shape in Spain against the abuse of power wherever it comes from, the national state or the region. There is a plethora of work and proposals for a constructive way out of this crisis, a crisis which cannot be solved simply by new elections. It will be a great pity if such a rare historical opportunity for mutual recognition in action goes to waste. 


[1] Claudia Sternberg, Kira Gartzou-Katsouyanni, Kalypso Nicolaidis, The Greco-German Affair in the Euro Crisis: Mutual Recognition Lost? Palgrave, 2017

About the author

Kalypso Nicolaïdis is professor in international relations, and Director of the Center for International Studies at Oxford University as well as Chair of South European Studies at Oxford. Her last publications include: Echoes of Empire: Memory, Identity and Colonial Legacies, edited with Berny Sebe and Gabi Maas, IB Tauris, 2015; European Stories: Intellectual Debates on Europe in National Contexts, edited with Justine Lacroix, OUP, 2010 and Mediterranean Frontiers: Borders, Memory and Conflict in a Transnational Era, edited with Dimitar Bechev, I.B. Tauris, 2009.

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