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Trump has another shot to help Catalonia score independence

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Two almost simultaneous but seemingly unrelated events provide President Trump and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley a rare opportunity to match words with actions and accomplish multiple foreign policy goals. In one case, the United States is getting a second chance at an important opportunity, which must not be missed again.

The first event was the election for a new regional parliament in the rebellious Spanish region of Catalonia. The election was forced on Catalans by Spanish Prime Minister Manuel Rajoy, when he disbanded the elected Generalitat after its members declared Catalonia’s independence. Those following events in Catalonia remember that Rajoy sent Spanish troops and police to Barcelona and other cities to prevent people from voting in an Oct. 1 referendum on independence. The massive show of force resulted in over 800 injuries. Incongruously, after the referendum was approved by nearly 90 percent of voters, Rajoy insisted that it was invalid because of low voter turnout.

{mosads}The prime minister followed up on the violence by invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which authorizes the central government to suspend regional parliaments and schedule new elections. In the case of Catalonia, Rajoy clearly hoped that Catalans would vote for anti-independence parties, either out of intimidation or weariness. However, it doesn’t appear to be going according to plan. While the Ciudadanos Party, which opposes independence, got a plurality of the votes, the majority of seats in the 135-seat body went to three pro-independence parties.

Assuming that they can form a coalition, Catalonia once again will have a government committed to independence. For Rajoy, this is not going back to square one. He is appreciably worse off, since he cannot credibly condemn an election that was his idea. Predictably, the prime minister rejected negotiations with Catalan officials, unless those negotiations take place in Spain. With an arrest warrant outstanding for Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, currently in exile in Belgium, Rajoy’s position is a nonstarter.

Support from the U.S. government for Catalonia back in October might very well have led to serious negotiations between Madrid and Barcelona. There was strong motivation then for the United States to offer to mediate, and that motivation is even stronger now, thanks to the second dramatic event of the past few days, which was the vote in the U.N. General Assembly to condemn the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Just prior to the vote, Haley warned that there would be retaliation against governments that voted for the motion, a threat widely assumed to be referring to U.S. foreign aid decisions and other economic forms of punishment. In spite of Haley’s threat, 128 nations voted to condemn the American decision, and the Trump administration retaliated immediately with a $285 million cut to the U.N. budget. Poorer nations that voted against the United States may soon realize that crossing the Americans, when those same Americans are drawing up next year’s foreign aid budget, is not a good idea.

But such financial threats mean little to nations that do not need aid from the United States. One such nation is Spain, which did vote for the U.N. resolution. In this case, an effective response from the United States would be an offer of recognition and a trade deal for an independent Catalonia, should the new regional government confirm the declaration of independence made on Oct. 27. Such a dramatic gesture would serve several purposes.

First, it would signal to Spain and other relatively wealthy nations that the United States is capable and willing to find all sorts of ways to make life difficult for supposed allies that abandon America on issues important to U.S. national security. Second, offering help to Catalonia now would announce to the world that the Trump administration does not regard Europe as the exclusive property of the European Union, and has no intention of deferring to the leadership in Brussels when it comes to trade relations. Third, the United States could show that it has a high regard for the will of the people, expressed through free elections. This regard is an implicit but serious threat to the European Union, which was shaken by Brexit and is fearful of similar appeals to popular sentiment.

With the press of other foreign crises, there is no guarantee that the United States will pay much attention to events in Catalonia. Moreover, the new Catalan parliamentary majority may hesitate to confirm the October independence declaration. However, Puigdemont would surely gain the attention and favor of the Trump administration by announcing that an independent Catalonia would follow the lead of the United States by locating its U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

This action could prompt the United States to take the less risky option of offering to arbitrate a settlement between Catalonia and Madrid. America’s experience with federalism makes this country an appropriate intermediary in a dispute over devolution of power. This action alone would raise the stakes for Madrid to the point where Rajoy would find it almost impossible to continue his hardline stance. Ambassador Haley told an AIPAC conference that the United Nations needs to learn that “there’s a new sheriff in town.” Taking bold and imaginative action in Catalonia would make that lesson impossible to ignore.

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.

Tags Carles Puigdemont Catalonia Democracy Donald Trump Europe independence International Mariano Rajoy Nikki Haley spain United Nations United States

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