Catalan self-determination process arrives in Washington DC

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It has been a busy start to the fall for Catalonia’s political process here in Washington DC. To the extent that one can write that sentence without it being an utter exaggeration is remarkable in and of itself and shows the extent to which Catalonia is now fully and squarely on the radar here.

The news cycle began last week with a Catalan Delegation visit and briefing in Congress, led by Secretary of Foreign and European Affairs Roger Albinyana. At the end of the briefing, Chairman of the Subcommittee on European Affairs of the House of Representatives, Congressman Dana Rohrbacher, stated “I see no reason why the Catalan people should not be allowed to decide whether to be a part of Spain; like any other people, they have the right to decide”.   The political week ended with the bilateral meeting between Spain's head of state king Felipe VI and President Barack Obama. At that meeting President Obama stated “As a matter of foreign policy, we are deeply committed to maintaining a relationship with a strong and unified Spain”. Over this past week many have tried to read the tea leaves regarding the different interpretations of what officials had said, in the administration, in Congress and elsewhere, and what this means for the Catalan political process.  But were the President’s comments a surprise? More importantly, does it represent a setback for the Catalan self-determination process?

In order to understand the underpinnings of the statement and its repercussions, it is important to understand how we got there. What was said behind closed doors?   On the one side, the Catalan government has spent time briefing the administration, Congress and the DC foreign policy community, sending a consistent and concise message.  Catalonia is a proud nation of 7.5 million people, with millennial institutions, culture and language.  It is a successful economic engine of Southern Europe. It is a peaceful and plural society.  The political process has been a bottom-up process begun by Catalan civil society asking for the opportunity to vote on changing the status quo, and become a new state in Europe. They have organized millions of people peacefully to lobby for this goal.  The Catalan government has followed suit by looking at different legal ways to organize a referendum to formally poll its citizens on the issue, and has repeatedly offered to sit down with the Spanish government to discuss the matter.  With all options blocked and rebuffed, Catalan parliamentary elections have been called and will serve as a de facto plebiscite on independence. 

The Spanish government, on the other hand, has offered cataclysmic scenarios on Catalan independence, including economic collapse, social division and isolation.  The roots of the argument are similar to those published last November in an op-ed in the New York Times by  'Libres e Iguales', a civil society group which advocates for rescinding Catalan autonomy altogether. In the article they claimed that an independent Catalonia would be "Exiled from the European Union, economically impoverished and socially divided, the 7.6 million Catalans would be subjected to an extreme form of nationalism we Europeans remember all too well. Millions of lives were lost in the nationalist frenzy that tore Europe apart during the 20th century." The Nazi argument may seem exotic or an outlier, but that is far from the case. On the contrary, it has been repeated ad nauseum in Spain by top level policy-makers without fear of condemnation (see former prime minister Felipe Gonzalez' recent article in El Pais, claiming that what the Catalan political situation ‘most resembles is the German and Italian ventures of the 1930s’; the Spanish Justice Minister's references linking Catalonia’s self-determination process with Nazi ideologist Carl Schmitt; or the Secretary General of Spain’s Conservative Party comparing the Catalan government with ‘totalitarian regimes’). While perhaps tolerated (accepted?) in Madrid, the Nazi argument has generally been seen from Washington as bizarre at best, and offensive at worst. 

Similar reactions have been given to the cataclysmic security arguments on offer, which were front and center at a conference hosted by the Wilson Center and the Royal Elcano Institute.  Attended by King Felipe VI and Foreign Minister Margallo, leaflets on jihadism in Catalonia were distributed to attendees. With missives such as "Barcelona and not Madrid was the target for an 11-M-style repeat attack in January 2008", the Elcano Royal Institute will get few points from scholars at serious global think tanks in Washington who see the obvious political agenda behind the publication. 

Of course to savvy Washington insiders, it's a tough sell, to put it mildly. The terrorific description of Catalonia contrasts sharply with the images of the 1.5 million people who peacefully and festively marching in Barcelona last week for their right to self-determination, the fifth million person march in as many years.  In private conversations many have also expressed incredulity at a lack of a strategy to woo Catalans back into the fold, in favor of a political and judicial offensive to deligitimate and criminalize those who disagree with the Spanish government’s position. The reality is that at top levels of government here, as with the Europe, all are well aware that the Spanish government has badly mishandled the political situation in Catalonia.  Of course, that doesn't mean that the American administration or Congress is thrilled with another issue to deal with in Europe.  I can tell you firsthand, they're not.  And beyond bad security arguments there are real security interests, including an important military presence in Spain which the Obama administration understandably sees as a strategic.  So in the short term it is fair to say that realpolitik will require a level of nose-holding by the administration as their position remains firmly behind maintaining the status quo, even while Congress has a freer hand to recognize obvious truths. 

From this perspective, no one should be surprised by the President’s comments.  But more interesting perhaps is the agreed language, ‘strong and unified’, which was calculated to give Spanish officials their much needed public ‘win’, even while it fell far short of what the Spanish government had been seeking behind closed doors, a direct condemnation and delegitimation of the Catalan process.  That did not happen. In the end, the calculated response came from the unstated recognition that when push comes to shove, if the Catalan people are clear about they want, and achieve it peacefully and democratically, the American administration has more pressing issues to deal with than to stand in the way of a democratic process in the heart of Europe.  But they won't encourage the process, nor should anyone expect them to. When and if conditions on the ground in Catalonia change, realpolitik assessments will change too.   In the end, as has always been the case, it is up to the Catalan people to decide what they want, and send that message loudly and clearly to Mrs. Merkel, Mr. Cameron, and yes, to Mr. Obama.




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