EU failure to respond to plight of the Catalans is shameful

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

Sir Graham Watson delivers a speech in his former capacity of leader of the ALDE party. [Zoltan Mathe/EPA]

In Catalonia, there appears to be a majority in favour of independence at least as great as the majority in the UK which voted for Brexit. The EU cannot continue to close its eyes to what is happening, writes Sir Graham Watson.

Sir Graham Watson was a Member of the European Parliament from 1994 to 2014 and leader of its Liberal Group from 2002-09. He now serves on the European Economic and Social Committee.

American President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Woodrow Wilson famously outlined the principle of the self determination of peoples. It is an idea which Juncker, Tusk, Tajani et al would be well advised to revisit. For the EU’s failure thus far to respond to the plight of the Catalans is shameful.

The concept of self-determination goes to the core of what are sometimes described as ‘European values’. It raises difficult questions wherever it is applied. The longer the history of conflict, often the more so. But it has served the UK remarkably well in recent years in healing the hurts of nations, particularly those of the Scots and the Irish. And it should be applied, under EU guidance, on the Iberian peninsula.

Three questions need to be answered.

Is there a minimum size for a ‘people’ to be self-governing? Who decides whether a ‘people’ should be considered as such? Can a decision to become self-governing be reversed?

The population of the Pitcairn Islands is 56 people. That of Liechtenstein is about 38,000. Iceland has about 320,000. All these territories are largely self-governing and the first two could quite credibly be independent, as the third is. Size does not matter. Democratic will does.

Ultimately, only the people themselves can decide. There must of course be a mechanism for the global community to decide whether to recognise them as such. Currently, this is the UN. And there must be freedom for dissenters to leave.

The opportunity to reverse the option of self-government and to join with others in a larger federation must exist, enshrined in the Constitution of any state.

Other, practical questions then arise. It is perfectly reasonable for others to insist on evidence of the decision being based on the ‘settled will’ of the people concerned (ie. decision taken after exhaustive and fulsome debate over a number of years, from which outsiders should not be excluded). Scotland’s Constitutional Convention is a textbook example of how this can be done.

Just as we have international teams of election observers, international teams of mediators could be put to good use (such as happened with the Northern Ireland peace process).

The impact of secession on both sides must be assessed. The UK’s decision to leave the EU will have an impact on the 27 which must be taken into account in the Brexit negotiations.

But what is really at stake here is a commitment to freedom and democracy. Democracy involves a commitment to persuasion through conversation but also an acceptance of others’ decisions where attempts at persuasion fail.

I would not argue in favour of the independence of Cornwall; nor even necessarily in favour of Scottish independence, if it meant breaking up the UK. But I would defend the right of a people democratically to make such a decision, though with a preference for the decision to be reached by qualified rather than a simple majority.

In the case of Catalonia, there appears to be a majority in favour of independence at least as great as the majority in the UK which voted for Brexit. And since Catalans were never asked whether they wished to be part of Spain, they should be allowed to express themselves peacefully. The refusal of the Madrileños to allow this, and even to engage in meaningful dialogue, is inflaming the situation and risks further violent conflict.

The EU cannot continue to close its eyes to what is happening in Catalonia. To do so is to accept Napoleon’s view that Europe ends at the Pyrenees.