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Catalonia: Madrid calls Puidgemont’s bluff

Spain imposes direct rule on Catalonia; calls snap elections

In the weeks since Catalonia’s illegal independence referendum the President of Catalonia’s government Carles Puidgemont has been behaving increasingly like a man whose bluff has been called.

He has repeatedly called for talks with Madrid without however agreeing to Madrid’s fundamental pre-condition, which was for him to say that notwithstanding the referendum Catalonia is not declaring independence from Spain.

He has called for EU mediation, only to have the EU turn a deaf ear to his call.

As I predicted not a single government around the world, and importantly none of the Great Powers – the US, Russia, China and India – has lent him support.

Nor have the governments of the EU’s two big regional powers: Germany and France.

Meanwhile there is a rush of banks and businesses exiting Barcelona for Madrid, and the Spanish Senate has now voted overwhelmingly to support the Spanish government’s request that it be allowed to impose direct rule.

It is sometimes said that in this situation Puidgemont and the Catalan independence movement had no other option but to declare independence, as they have now done.

That is simply wrong.  The alternative and proper route for them to follow was actually very clear: it was to return to legality.

That would however have involved agreeing that the independence referendum does not provide a legal basis for independence, and agreeing to the fresh elections, which are the only realistic way out of the impasse.

In the event Puidgemont refused to admit that the independence referendum does not provide a legal basis for independence, and he refused Madrid’s call for fresh elections, a fact which incidentally reinforces my view that there is less support for independence in Catalonia than is sometimes said.

What happens next will largely depend on how skilfully the Spanish government handles the situation.

Puidgemont has called for ‘peaceful resistance’ to the imposition of direct rule, but no one should take that call seriously.

In a situation where Puidgemont and the Catalan independence movement have no other cards left to play the only remaining thing they can do is stage violent confrontations with the forces deployed to Catalonia by Madrid in the probably forlorn hope that this will gain them sympathy both internationally and in the rest of Spain.

Faced by this tactic the Spanish authorities need to act both consistently and firmly, refusing to make unwarranted concessions to Puidgemont and the Catalan independence movement and pressing ahead with the imposition of direct rule, but refusing also to be provoked into disproportionate reactions.  Provided this situation is handled intelligently the power of the Spanish state with the authority of the law behind it is all but certain to prevail in a situation like this.

So far the Spanish authorities have handled the situation properly, and there is no reason to think that they will not continue to do so.

At this point a number of further myths which have grown up around this crisis need to be jettisoned.

Firstly, unconditional negotiations in a situation where someone is behaving illegally is not the path to peace.  On the contrary by rewarding illegality such a step undermines constitutional order, leading away from peace and directly towards violence.

In this case unwarranted concessions to Puidgemont and the Catalan independence movement would not secure peace in Catalonia.  On the contrary they would risk spreading the crisis to the whole of the rest of Spain, putting peace there in jeopardy.

Secondly, the case has been made by some people that the issue of legality is being over-emphasised.  Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this argument has been made by Craig Murray, who as a supporter of Scottish independence is also a supporter of the Catalan independence movement.

I dealt with imprisonment of political prisoners all round the world when I was in the FCO. Very few of them were extra-judicially detained. Uzbekistan’s 8,000 political prisoners have almost all been tried and condemned under Uzbek law. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Ken Saro Wiwa, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, all were imprisoned by judges. The “rule of law”, where it ignores human rights, is not enough. That is the line the EU, to its great shame, has crossed.

Every one of the cases Craig Murray refers to took place in countries which were not democracies, democracy being here defined as a political system in which all citizens of the country in question have the free exercise of the right to vote.  Moreover every one of the individuals Craig Murray refers to – Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Ken Saro Wiwa, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi – specifically made precisely this point in explaining their acts of illegality and disobedience.

I would add that Mandela and Gandhi were both lawyers with a huge respect for the law – as they made repeatedly clear in their many statements – who defended their occasional resorts to illegality precisely because the laws they were challenging had been imposed undemocratically in a way that made them both oppressive and unaccountable whilst allowing for no avenue for peaceful or legal protest in order to change them.

For a powerful statement of this position see Nelson Mandela’s speech at the Rivonia trial, where South Africa’s apartheid authorities sentenced him to life imprisonment, though Mandela’s arguments apparently made a very strong impression on the Judge, who refused the prosecution’s implicit request for the death penalty.

By no conceivable stretch of the imagination is Puidgemont’s or Catalonia’s position remotely analogous to those of Mandela or Gandhi or of course of Solzhenitsyn and Ken Saro Wiwa or of the people imprisoned, killed or tortured by the Uzbek dictatorship, or indeed by any other dictatorship, dictatorship in this context being defined as a political system whose basis ultimately is not law but force.

Not only does Catalonia function within a political system where all Catalans have the right to vote and stand in law in an equal position to all other Spanish citizens, but Catalonia is actually Spain’s richest province and Puidgemont is an elected official possessing state authority.

As such Puidgemont has no grounds or excuse to resort to illegality and given that – by his own admission – he is acting illegally, instead of continuing in his defiance like any other person who has broken the law he ought to be submitting to the law’s judgment upon his actions.

Here I will express my own view, which is that I continue to be baffled by the demands that Puidgemont and the other leaders of the Catalan independence movement should be given a free pass for their wilful resort to illegality.

Just as everyone else is subject to the law so the elected officials of Catalonia should also be.  Treating them any other way gives rise to the inevitable question of why if these highly privileged people are to be allowed wilfully and publicly to break the law anyone else should obey it?

Past experience repeatedly shows that whenever such a question starts being asked, the result is not peace but a breakdown of law and constitutional order, and ultimately a turn to violence.

This in turn brings me back to the question of whether or not Catalonia will now slide into violence, and whether there is any risk of civil war.

Nothing has so far happened which changes my view that both are extremely unlikely.  Whilst I expect some violence over the course of the next few days and weeks, I believe the Spanish authorities are sufficiently sophisticated and experienced to know how to deal with it without falling into Puidgemont’s trap by acting disproportionately.

Here I repeat my previous view – made previously by Haneul Na’avi – that since the Catalan independence movement is by no means a revolutionary movement but a conservative middle class movement, the prospect of it being successfully mobilised for violence or civil war is slim.  On the contrary once the immediate crisis has been overcome I expect a strong swing back towards support for the Spanish government in Catalonia, which may be visible as soon as the elections which have been called in December.

However if violence does escalate beyond the point of the usual street clashes between police and demonstrators, then it is clear where responsibility lies.

It lies squarely with Puidgemont and the Catalan independence leaders, who wilfully and recklessly and without assessing the situation properly have led their followers onto the path of violence and illegality when they had other peaceful, legal and constitutional options available to them

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