Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The EU must stop accepting a 'this far and no farther' commitment to democracy as good enough

Although it's caused little more than a ripple, the announcement from the Spanish foreign minister that his country would have "nothing to say" about Scottish independence could scarcely be more significant. Since the late 1980s, the SNP has countered scaremongering about "isolation" with the promise that Scotland would remain firmly inside the European family after independence, and indeed would be a much less half-hearted participant in EU affairs than the UK has been. The latter point has become an even easier sell since David Cameron's petulant and pointless veto of a European treaty at the end of last year. But of course the success of the strategy has always hinged on the public's faith that an independent Scotland could freely choose to remain within the EU, and unionist parties have naturally been keen from the start to find ways of undermining that faith. The SNP's impeccable pro-European credentials would be of little use if enough doubt could be sowed about just how welcome an independent Scotland would actually be in the club. And the favourite piece of unionist scaremongering down the years? That Spain would veto our EU membership, on the grounds that it would encourage "separatism" in two of its own autonomous regions, Catalonia and the Basque Country. A Foreign Office source gently whispered that idea into the ears of a few journalists just last month, and with a typical display of the "Westminster is God" mindset, the London media lapped it up and earnestly reported it as if it was a direct quote from the Spanish government!

But it really doesn't matter what is said from now on - we have an authoritative statement from Spain, which can be used as an all-purpose response whenever this hoary old myth is raised. At a stroke, there can be no more room for doubt in the minds of the Scottish public that we can choose a European future. The mechanics of securing EU membership may still be open to debate, as indeed is the very desirability of full membership as opposed to the EU-lite option of staying within the single market via EFTA and the EEA. But the old unionist fantasy of Scotland being 'punished' by the civilised world for its confounded impudence, and set adrift in the North Atlantic without food, shelter or warmth, is now dead for ever.

So great news for us - but spare a thought for the Catalans and the Basques. Spain's pragmatic promotion of the idea that there are no parallels between its own regions and Scotland is essentially based on a piece of sophistry, ie. that 'separatism' is somehow consistent with the UK's constitutional doctrine, but not with Spain's. OK, the UK may not have a written constitution that explicitly states that the unity of the nation is "indissoluble", but the now universally-accepted principle that Scotland can choose its own destiny is a relatively new one. It came about as UK Prime Ministers from Harold Wilson onwards simply accepted the realities of a modern, democratised world that had moved on from colonialism. Whether Spain realises it or not, it's simply playing catch-up on this, rather than defending a timeless and quintessentially Spanish constitutional principle.

After all, what message does a constitutional provision that the nation is 'indissoluble' send to Catalan or Basque nationalists? Basically, that constitutional nationalism is a literal impossibility, and ultimately that non-constitutional methods are the only way of achieving what ought to be perfectly legitimate democratic objectives. It's the rough equivalent of Article 6 of the old Soviet constitution, which made clear that voters could choose absolutely any party they wanted, as long as that party was the Communist Party. The EU has long since moved on from the days where it would even flirt with the idea of admitting a one-party state (although Franco's Spain did apply to join the Common Market), so why on earth does it tolerate a member state which arrogantly tells people that the future of their own nation isn't a matter for them, and has been settled for all time by the text of the constitution? It presumably boils down to the fact that nobody in Brussels has been forced to confront this issue yet. But a short, sharp shock may be coming for the EU from the direction of Barcelona, and once it happens the rules of the game will surely have to change. In future, it must be a condition of EU membership that states adhere to all democratic principles, not just the easy ones. Nobody would deny that accepting the right of 'sub-national peoples' to decide their own future is a hard thing for large states such as Spain to do - but without that acceptance, democracy is a sham.

I'll leave you with a picture I took in Catalonia about eighteen months ago - if you look closely you'll see the word "Independencia" lovingly scrawled along the side of the pier. You don't see things like that at Ardrossan Harbour!


  1. Judging by the costumes, you took that photo a lot longer ago than eighteen months.

  2. There was some sort of medieval festival going on along the sea-front. I don't know how they could stand it in that heat.

  3. Good article although I think Eck will be keeping schtuum about Catalnoia until after independence.

  4. James

    I live about 2 hours drive from Euskadi and 4 hours from Catalana.

    I pass through one of them 3 or 4 times a year on the way further south.

    I claim no great insight to the culture or mentality of the people in either "region" except a bit about Euskadi which touches a geographical area where I have contacts and sometimes work.

    However talking to Basques I am convinced that their economy, and that of Catalana (they also admit) is the motor of the Spanish economy. They are taxed and then receive back pocket money. Sounds familiar. If these two "regions" secede Spain is Greece Mark II and end of the Spanish dream. The Basques are different, linguistically uniquely different and very, very proud of that.

    The Basques are also completely mad at the steering wheel. I think they all learned to drive from the internet using Grand Theft Auto. You are driving at 120 kph in solid traffic and some ersehole will be up up your exhaust pipe flashing his headlamps want to go past at 160. Never seen anything like it before and I have been more places.

    Don't drive there, arrive by plane and take a taxi.

  5. addendum

    There was a study carried out on "regions" most likely to benefit from being independent and which countries were closer to others economically.

    Scotland on the predictive index was no. 1 and Euskadi no. 2 I think.

    The Basques will get their independence from Spain and, let us not kid ourselves here, Scotland will give them a good precedent when they present their case on the international stage. Their language and other significant cultural differences make from Spain makes them more like Ireland than Scotland in comparison with England

    There is also the black spectre of Guernica where in 1937 the Luftwaffe and the Franco's fascists combined to practice genocide by way of saturation bombing of a town and its inhabitants. Shades of Homs here?

    Salmond and the SNP must not be seen to get involved in the "internal" politics of Spain but, a few Basque observers and contacts through Spanish / Scottish businesses might be mutually useful and off radar.

  6. addendum's addendum

    Catalana is quite a different kettle of fish.

    They do have a different language (Catalan) to Spain (Castillian) and Catalan is close to the Oc language in SW France.

    The problem in their struggle for independence is that they are not unified in what they want after.

    The independence movement in Catalana is much more a mosaic of left and right with various fractions between and even beyond.

    They have been known in the Madrid parliament to vote against each other and sometimes back Madrid's position against Catalana for idealistic reasons.

    Unless they can resolve that disparity of political purpose I doubt whether they could muster a cohesive position to present on an international stage as to why their right for independence cannot be ignored or repressed.

    I suppose it is a bit like having separate Labour, Tory and LibDem parties in Scotland, all of which support the present situation and although nominally for some form of independence are still anchored to Madrid.

    I restate my position of just being a distant observer here and would be happy on any other resident, Scottish or native to these "regions" would care to elaborate and correct my misperceptions.

  7. Just to be pedantic, but my guess is that they are Roman re-enactors judging by the ballista, gladius and and the composite bows.

  8. Conan

    Not just that, the archer is an Eastern Auxiliary Archer as I wanted to be the first to point out but NOOOO, you had to be first with the "knowing things" around here.

    Mail is like a string vest, it's not as horrible as wearing plate

  9. Good of the Catalans who want their own independenced or autonomy to be sticking up for Scots.

  10. A better example than the Soviets might be the Americans. After all, they went to war to defend the illegality under the Federal Constitution of the South's secession in 1861.

    It's tough to argue with the thrust of this argument, but in practice, the EU isn't exactly a spirited defender of democratic principles these days. How else do we explain them permitting the foisting of fascist (in the political science sense) governments on Italy and Greece, and their respective budgets being dictated from Frankfurt?

    Considering Spain will in all likelihood be next for this treatment, the Catalans and the Basques would be better off not relying on the EU to intercede on their behalf, I reckon.