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The tragic mishandling of Catalonia's independence

The tragic mishandling of Catalonia's independence
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There is a story about Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who considered himself an expert strategist, taking part in war games before World War I. After the mock battle, the German Army’s chief of staff supposedly told him, “There were a number of traps in the war game, your majesty, and you fell into every one of them.” The Kaiser’s modern counterpart is Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. He has mishandled the drive for Catalonia’s independence at every stage, and Spain is reaping the whirlwind.

From the start, it was Rajoy’s refusal to negotiate a more equitable tax collection regime, or even to acknowledge that the current arrangement might be a problem, that led to the election of Catalonia’s pro-independence majority. His evident astonishment that the parties in the independence coalition would keep their campaign promise, and hold a referendum on separation from Spain, compounded the error.

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At that point, Rajoy made the error that turned a contretemps into a crisis. He attacked the referendum with every rhetorical and political weapon at his disposal, and then ordered the Spanish National Police to use real weapons against people trying to vote. Imagine the result if Rajoy had dismissed the referendum as nonbinding, warned that it would change nothing, and let it go forward unimpeded. Polls before the vote showed a close race. Independence would have received 55 percent of the vote, at best, absent the use of self-defeating violence by Madrid.

As it happened, Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who is now being sought for arrest by Spain, got a 90 percent mandate, leaving Madrid authorities to talk pointlessly about low turnout, having previously beaten people trying to vote. (One of the foundational principles of democracy is that people who don’t vote don’t get to have their votes counted.) More to the point, Puigdemont got priceless television footage of Rajoy’s forces giving Catalans more concrete reasons to despise Spain’s authority.

Rajoy’s latest mistake of dissolving the Catalan Parliament and imposing direct rule will solve nothing. Nor will the snap election he has called for in December. There are only two possible outcomes. First, the oppressive presence of police and government officials from outside the region, most of whom will probably not even speak Catalan, will prompt the Catalans to return another pro-independence majority to the regional parliament. Thus, the current crisis will worsen, since Rajoy can hardly attack the legitimacy of his own election.

The second possibility is a pro-union majority. Since pro-independence Catalans will see such an outcome only as proof of fraud or rigging, their pent up anger will burn all the hotter. If a new, pro-union parliament is seated, there will be demands for yet another regional election, and again, the situation will worsen. A wiser prime minister would have said little, while taking steps to ensure that government offices and installations in Catalonia stayed open. After weeks of no diplomatic recognition and businesses leaving the region, Rajoy could have followed up with an offer to negotiate the region’s tax status, which is what he should have done in the first place.

Americans should care about this issue because it represents a lost opportunity for U.S. foreign policy. The European Union has shown itself to be, at best, useless in the current crisis, with many of its members showing themselves to be, at best, shamelessly inconsistent. Many of the same countries that welcomed Slovenia and Croatia, and went to war to help Kosovo secede, and that compete for the title of best friend to a new Palestinian state, act as though Catalonia is trying something unheard of.

Combined with recent anti-European election results in Austria and the Czech Republic, the crisis in Catalonia portends great trouble for Brussels. This is the time when U.S. officials should be assuring restive European nations that they have an alternative to an organization that seems to be in permanent crisis mode. Diplomatic recognition for Catalonia, followed by the offer of serious trade negotiations with the central European leaders, would demonstrate that the United States is aware of its opportunities across the Atlantic and unfazed by worries about the goodwill of the bureaucrats in Brussels.

Such bold and energetic initiatives are unlikely. Since the Catalan crisis competes with far more urgent and dangerous crises in North Korea, Iran and Iraq, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump mocks Murkowski, Cheney election chances Race debate grips Congress US reentry to Paris agreement adds momentum to cities' sustainability efforts MORE is ceding the initiative to his own bureaucrats in the U.S. State Department, whose preference for the status quo is well nigh insurmountable. It is folly to expect dramatic changes in direction, no matter how great the opportunity, from an institution whose lack of imagination rivals that of Kaiser Wilhelm.

Edward Lynch, Ph.D., is chair of political science at Hollins University, where he teaches courses on foreign policy and international affairs. He served in the White House during the Reagan administration.