Catalonia: the case for creative thinking

Each nationalism - Catalan and Spanish - has dug itself deeper into exclusively self-referential bunkers

The relatively muted response so far from the Catalan nationalist leadership to direct rule is puzzling, especially in the wake of declaring themselves ‘independent’. Pro-union Catalans, with their huge demonstration in Barcelona on Sunday (above), actually appear better organised. Photograph: Rafael Marchante/Reuters

The relatively muted response so far from the Catalan nationalist leadership to direct rule is puzzling, especially in the wake of declaring themselves ‘independent’. Pro-union Catalans, with their huge demonstration in Barcelona on Sunday (above), actually appear better organised. Photograph: Rafael Marchante/Reuters

 

An article Guy Hedgecoe in the Weekend edition of this newspaper described how three members of the same Catalan family hold very different views on the way forward. A leftist father had reluctantly espoused the independence cause, more from disgust with the conservative Spanish establishment than out of passion for the Catalan flag. His wife remained committed to staying in Spain, for pragmatic reasons. His daughter, in her 30s, had embraced the full independence agenda.

A crisis that divides families along such nuanced lines cannot be resolved by constitutions and laws alone. It requires empathy and respect for the convictions and sense of identity of others, especially when they differ most from one’s own.

This kind of emotional intelligence informed the most imaginative parts of the Belfast Agreement. Recognising the idea that citizens can have differing, and indeed plural, national identities has greatly helped to relax rigid positions that have caused bloodshed for generations.

There has been little sign of this sort of creative thinking, on either side, in the Catalan-Spanish conflict in recent years. Instead, each nationalism has dug itself deeper into exclusively self-referential bunkers. This led almost inevitably to last Friday’s unilateral declaration of independence from the Catalan nationalists, and the imposition of direct rule by the Spanish government.

Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which has been triggered to impose direct rule on Catalonia, has often been called the ‘nuclear option’. We will begin to know this week, as Spanish representatives attempt to take over ministries that have been Catalan for almost four decades, whether this option will indeed prove explosive and destructive. Or whether it will, as Madrid claims, return calm and normality to the region.

Everything will depend on the sensitivity with which the new rulers operate. They must avoid any appearance of repression. Meanwhile, the relatively muted response so far from the Catalan nationalist leadership to direct rule is puzzling. Pro-union Catalans, probably a majority, with their huge demonstration in Barcelona yesterday, actually appear better organised.

But maybe the apparent paralysed confusion of the independence leaders is due to a massive mutual misunderstanding with Spain. Perhaps, for many Catalan nationalists, ‘independence’ was never a real political goal. Rather, it was an expression of political theatre, aimed at gaining greater respect and a better deal for the region. But Madrid read it deadly seriously, all along.

If that is really the case, there is still an outside chance that a period of calm, and the elections called for December, can lead to a new accommodation. If it is not, and direct rule causes violent conflict, then the region, Spain, and the European Union face a very threatening future.

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