Can Europe Make It?

“We love Spain. We want the best for Spain.”

An interview with the representative of the Government of Catalonia to the UK and Ireland, in the run-up to the upcoming Spanish elections on April 28.

Potkin Azarmehr
18 April 2019
Catalan separatists protest against Supreme Court trial, February 2019.
Catalan separatists protest against Supreme Court trial, February 2019.
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Matthias Oesterle/PA. All rights reserved.

I interviewed Sergi Marcén in March. Instinctively, I almost always abhor any idea of secession anywhere in the world. My assumption is that today’s global trend is not conducive for small nations breaking away from a larger union unless it is to become part of a larger entity. Secession can shatter the peace, bringing bloody conflict with tragic consequences. But I am an open-minded person, however, and like to hear all sides before I make up my mind and so I set off to visit the Delegation of the Government of Catalonia to the UK and Ireland, to speak to its representative.

The delegation’s offices are in Fleet Street, famous as a business thoroughfare in the Middle Ages and more recently as the home of British national newspapers. Sergi Marcén greeted me with a warm smile and a firm handshake. I got the impression that this was a friendly and down to earth man with whom I might disagree, but nevertheless get along.

Most of the national minorities who call for independence that I know, are those who feel they are being oppressed and are not benefiting from a fair share of the riches and resources. What puzzled me about Catalonia is that they don’t seem to be oppressed. They are a prosperous nation, have a sound economy and have done pretty well from being part of Spain. So why take the risk to rock the boat?

The first question I put to Sergi Marcén was what was behind Catalonia’s economic prosperity? Marcén explained this in terms of Catalan work ethics and business acumen:

“The Catalans have always focused on business, specially small businesses. The power has always rested with the central government in Spain, so when we try to do something successfully, we have to double our efforts. We are very family oriented, when we go to work, we start early and when we finish work, we come back home. Working and being with the family and the community are the core values of the Catalans”.

So, if it has been an economic success and so prosperous, why change things? What guarantee is there that the grass will be greener on the other side of the fence? Marcén had every confidence this would be the case:

“We have a global and not an inward outlook to the economy. Catalans have traditionally looked to the rest of the world to generate wealth and business, like when we exported cotton in the tenth century. Thirty years ago we sold 70% of our products to Spain, now it is just 33%. The rest we sell to the rest of the world, which is our main market ”.

But which central government would take kindly to the idea that a region that produces 25% of the country’s wealth should break away? Marcén chose to put the onus on the central government in Spain to be more proactive in creating its own wealth:

“Spain has a lot of opportunities that it has not exploited. For example southern Spain is one of the sunniest places in Europe. Why has there not been a strong economy built on green solar energy there? Why on the other hand is Barcelona one of the best places in the world to set up a technology company? Because 15 years ago we decided on a policy to attract IT businesses. The Mobile World Congress is based in Barcelona. I was personally involved in securing this as a member of the Catalan government. Facebook is based in Barcelona, and so is Amazon. The Catalan regional government also financed the Synchrotron facility in Barcelona. It is the task of governments to create an favourable environment for industry and commerce.”

The challenge regarding solar energy surprised me. I put it to Marcén that Spain was a leading country in utilising solar energy. He pointed out that although there were solar power plants, there were far more business opportunities that the central government had left untapped:

“It’s one thing to capture solar power but where are the solar panels built? Who manufactures the systems that share this energy? There are solar panel fields but there can be a lot more tangential opportunities. Not being reliant on the Catalan economy could be a wake up call for mainland Spain to become more proactive”.

Spain should take note of why Barcelona is such an attractive place to work:

“Everyone wants to come to Barcelona to live, the salaries are good, the quality of life is good and there is a high standard of employee rights. This is how you grow your economy”.

The desire to break away from Spain but to be part of the EU – wasn’t that confusing? As with the Scottish National Party, this position puzzles me. Either you want to be part of a bigger union or you want to be a small independent nation. How can you have it both ways? Meanwhile the spokesperson for the EPP, the largest party in the European Parliament, has been very blunt with Catalans who want independence, "Someone needs to tell the Catalan people the truth. If you contest the law to abandon Spain you also need to know that you abandon the EU". Commission First Vice President, Frans Timmermans has also sided unequivocally with the Madrid government. So I asked Marcén, if Catalonia breaks away from Spain, will it also mean breaking away from the EU, a sort of Catalexit!?

Marcén pointed out that EU will need Catalonia. “Europe is a rich area but they will also need rich countries to pay the taxes and right now Catalonia is paying a lot of money to Europe”. More surprisingly he saw the Spanish constitution as a source of protection for Catalonia’s ongoing EU membership:

“The citizens of Catalonia, all of us, we have Spanish nationality. The Spanish constitution says nobody can take away our Spanish nationality, the courts can take away your passports but not your nationality. Only I myself can renounce my nationality. I will be Spanish all my life if I want to be. So in a hypothetical case, some people may want to do that, but a large proportion will still be Spanish people and thus they will be part of the EU living in a country that some people may say is not part of the European Union”.

This left me more perplexed than at the beginning of the interview. This is not a typical breakaway movement. The English proverb “Have your cake and eat it” was the first thing that sprung to mind. Perhaps my facial expression showed this, because it was only then that Marcén was moved to clarify for me why this indeed was not the typical, bitter breakaway movement:

“We love Spain. Because Spain is a great country with great people. We don’t want a war with Spain. We just want to be able to vote and see what the people want. We want to decide our future by using the ballot box.

But we dont want to do anything or be an independent state without an agreed referendum. If we can do a referendum with the agreement of the Spanish government, we can arrive at an agreement. We don’t want anything bad for Spain, we want the best for Spain”.

By this account, the Catalan independence movement craves secession not because they are suffering economically. They don’t want conflict with Spain, right or wrong, but they just think a better arrangement for both sides may be possible. The further historic, cultural and heritage reasons that drive the independence movement then fell into place. As Marcén explained, the central problem was one of reconciling Spanish democracy to political pluralism:

“Franco’s long dictatorship and its desire to homogenise different cultures in Spain has left a deep scar which still criminalises protest and it is still reluctant to discuss differences”.

The undermining of the last ‘Estatut d’Autonomia’ (2010) by the Spanish Constitutional Court, according to Marcén, had exacerbated this problem by making the Catalans feel that their status as an autonomous state had been betrayed. He spelt out the full range of underlying political causes:

“This has led to an exponential growth by the Catalans for their autonomy to be respected, a demand which has been supported by a growing civil society movement that has repeatedly brought large crowds into the streets to defend the Catalans’ right to decide their own political future.

Thus, the Catalan cause is more about respecting democratic values such as the right of self-determination rather than promoting independence alone.

The Catalan cause is more about respecting democratic values such as the right of self-determination rather than promoting independence alone.

This peaceful movement, unprecedented in Europe, also urges a political solution to the current deadlock rather than using the courts to try to stop it in its tracks”.

I concluded my interview by asking about the current trial of the twelve Catalan leaders in Spain’s Supreme Court, who are now facing serious charges like sedition and rebellion.

Marcén placed little trust in the trial process, raising questions about the neutrality of the seven appointed judges:

“The court has not allowed any international observers. We think this is a fake trial. We think the just verdict will be given at the next level by the European Court of Human Rights. I expect those on trial to get around twelve year sentences but I hope I am proven wrong!”

Marcén also rejects the charges of sedition and rebellion by the Catalan leaders:

“These charges are specifically brought in so that they lose their political power, otherwise no images of violence exist to suggest that they led a rebellion or any act of sedition”.

After the interview, I was still not convinced that Catalonia will be better off if it breaks away from Spain. But it is not up to me to decide, it is up to the Catalans. And here lies the crux of it all. Democracies need to be tested and the rights of Catalans to have a referendum on their right for self determination without violence from either side is a test of democracy, as it was when exercised by Scotland.

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