On October 6th 2016, the Parliament of Catalonia designated the 17th of September 2017 as the date in which the population of that region are to vote in a referendum to determine whether to remain as part of the Kingdom of Spain or formally assume the status of a sovereign country.
Catalonia’s Regional President Carles Puigdemont made it clear that though he would ideally hold the referendum with the central government’s approval, he would hold it “with or without Spain’s blessing.” For its part, the central Spanish government which is based in Madrid has voiced its opposition to the prospect of Catalan independence as apart from the undermining of territorial integrity, it would mean losing a sixth of its population, and a key economic contributor to the stagnant Spanish economy, in which some approximate 22 percent of the population are unemployed. But what would Catalan independence really mean? In the context of financial flows between Catalonia and Spain, as well as international trade, globalisation, the EU, NATO, and cultural confluences between the two entities, would Catalan independence be a mere formality? In other words, has the Catalan Question been relegated to the symbolic by these twenty-first century forces?
The question of Catalan independence is as old as Spain itself. Having been originally independent as the County of Barcelona, it was merged with Aragon in the 11th century, (and – ironically – served as an important launch-pad seaport that allowed Aragon to become an important seagoing nation, and an important naval power in the Mediterranean and eventually subdue other nations such as Valencia, which is still a part of Spain) which itself in turn was merged with Castile in 1469 in the personal union that arose from the marriage between King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile that birthed the Kingdom of Spain. In the following five centuries, perhaps the most tumultuous and unstable in Spain’s history (enduring a war of succession, occupation by Napoleonic France, civil war, no less than two coup d’états and restorations), the Catalan province enjoyed unpredictable relations with the Crown of Spain. To begin with, in the early 18th century, with the death of the childless King Charles II, Spain had a new King whom Catalonia had opposed in the 12-year war of succession (1702-14) in Louis XIV’s grandson, Philip V, the ancestor of the Spanish branch of the Bourbon dynasty, which retains the crown of that country to this day. In the ensuing years of his reign, King Philip energetically enacted “Spanification” attempts that saw him clamp the relative regional autonomy that the various medieval kingdoms such as Catalonia had enjoyed – with the exception of Basque, which had supported him in the war – and began a process of centralisation along the lines of what Cardinal Richelieu and later Louis XIV had done in France. He also established a Royal Academy that perhaps in retrospect came to be the agitating cause of the desire for independence among the Catalans as its implicit foundational mandate was the replacement of various regional languages, including Catalan, as languages of government and of literature in their respective territories.
Between 1931 and 1939, with the fall of the monarchy and the rise of the (second) Spanish Republic, Catalonia once again enjoyed regional autonomy and was even self-confident enough to declare independence under the charismatic Francesc Macià i Llussà in 1931, only to later renegotiate its relationship with Spain and become a greatly independent Generalitat de Catalunya within Spain a year later. With the victory of General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) came many reversals to the autonomy of Catalonia once again. The conservative, fascist government, which had won the war partly as a result of assistance from Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, enacted measures that once more rolled back regional autonomy, and went as far as to ban regional languages from public use.
With the death of Franco and the restoration of the monarchy, Spain entered had a surprising democratic transition and a period of economic growth that economists rendered almost miraculous. And importantly, regional autonomy was put back on the table, with Catalonia walking away with a greater deal of it than most of Spain’s other regions. Increasingly, however, Catalans wanted more of it. Today, as a result of the seismic 2015 election in that region, the 135-seat Parliament of Catalonia is under a 72-seat majority held by the pro-independence Together for Yes (Junts pel Si) coalition of secessionist parties which won the highest number of seats at 62 as well as the pro-independence, anti-Euro, anti-NATO, Eurosceptic CUP (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular) which came third place (a position it shares with many pro-union parties), winning 10 seats. Both parties ran on manifestos promising a referendum on independence, and did so against the backdrop of a 2014 non-binding (and, some say, illegal) referendum in which 80% of those who answered voted “Yes” (hence the name of the coalition). The French-born leader of the coalition Muriel Casals i Couturier, who died in early 2016 from motor injuries, described the motivation behind separatism in these terms: “the dream of traditional Catalanism has been shown to be unworkable, and that if we want to live as Catalans we mustn’t seek to transform Spain – just our relationship with it.”
However, the transformation of that relationship may prove somewhat vacuous.
The Spanish-speaking community outside of Spain, mainly concentrated in Latin America, maintains close relations with the former mother land, to the extent that the now-defunct government-in-exile of the second Spanish Republic during the Franco years chose Mexico City as its headquarters. According to Sam Wang, researcher at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, “Spain, although having lost its continental possessions in the Americas two centuries ago, still regards relations with Latin America as a top foreign policy priority, and maintains strong political, business, and cultural links with Latin America. Although Spain’s economy and political influence is dwarfed by those of the United States, Britain, and China, Spain commits proportionally more resources to Latin America than any major power in diplomacy, foreign aid, investment, and cultural activities. In Spain, many people, including government officials, believe that Madrid’s relation[s] with Spanish-speaking Latin America is a “special” one: characterized by a common language and a shared cultural history and identity.”
What is interesting is the economic side of the story. For a considerable number of Latin American countries, Spain is their second-largest trading partner outside of the more economically and politically potent and geographically closer US: Spain enjoys particularly strong economic ties with Mexico (18 percent), Colombia (13 percent), and the Central American economies, and in 2014, a total of 19.6 percent of Spanish FDI flowed to Latin America. To put it in context, about 40% of Spain’s FDI for the same period was towards the EU with whom Spain has much more formalised ties thanks to the common tariff.
Being “heavily reliant on Spain’s Treasury credit lines,” according to CNBC’s Caroline Roth, Catalonia, much as the secessionist elements would have it otherwise, is unlikely to be rid of that dependency for a long time; and should political independence be won, the economic one will merely take a different form. Indeed, former colonies (as no doubt many pro-independence politicians would characterise Catalonia’s status in Spain) tend to have notoriously resilient trade pathways with their former colonisers. Spain as a market is a very important one for Catalonia. In 2012, for example, Catalonia exported goods worth €58,282 million to foreign countries; a figure well in excess of sales to the Spanish market, which amounted to €49,026 million, but one which, at 45.7%, signifies Spain’s importance to Catalonia. “A key aspect to consider in our analysis is the presence in Catalonia of numerous Spanish companies, for whom the Catalan market represents between 15% and 25% of the Spanish market as a whole. The ten Spanish firms with the largest turnover are: Telefónica, Repsol, Santander Bank, Endesa,Iberdrola,ACS Group,CEPSA, BBVA, Mercadona and El Corte Inglés.Most of them are present on a large scale in Catalonia,” stated Francesc Raventós who served as Chief Executive Officer and Director at Catalana d’Iniciatives S.C.R., S.A., in a report published by Association of Economists of Catalonia on September 11, 2014 (Catalonia’s national day).
And so, a hypothetical break with Spain need not mean a severing of ties. And far from it; the existence of the EU could effectively render Catalan independence only symbolic. With the existence of a common tariff (should it ascend to the EU), the Schengen Area, and the CSDP, cooperation and confluence with Spain would be quite concentrated as common issues such as the economy, terrorism, and migration make insulation an improbability in today’s Europe. And should it desire to, an independent Catalan Republic would most likely gain entrance in the EU (unless of course Spain vetoes the ascension, which is a possibility). It has a strong economy (having been the least affected by the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession, unlike the rest of Spain), a vibrant democracy and stable institutions. And so, ironically, Catalonia is an ideal EU member for the same reasons that it wants out of Spain. As the Catalan economist, David Ross Serra has put it, “juridically,…an independent Catalonia would fit into EU legislation and International law.”
On the cultural front, apart from Catholicism (which represents a religious uniformity not even England can boast regarding Ireland and Scotland), the key commonality between Catalans and Spaniards is the social currency of football; their two respective flagship teams being among the best in the world: FC Barcelona and Real Madrid FC, respectively (Barcelona currently being 2nd and Madrid 1st). FC Barcelona has a presidency and a substantial number of players who wish for Catalonian independence, a fact which triggered the president of the Spanish Sports Council, Miguel Cardenal, to come out and state that Barcelona would lose a lot of income from the loss of La Liga broadcasting rights. And for their part, the pro-independence elements in the soccer team would like to continue to be able to play in La Liga. “[On this issue] perhaps a compromise is possible,” said Jan Marot of Politico.
Should independence be won, it is highly probable that the Together for Yes coalition, which was born out of a desire to deliver independence would lose its mandate (as has UKIP in the UK, some argue, after Brexit) and become divided on the nuts and bolts of what independence should mean, not in the least as it pertains to the relationship with Madrid, as well as with Brussels. As it stands, the party with the highest number of seats within the coalition is the pro-EU Catalan European Democratic Party, with its junior partners having no particularly consequential Eurosceptic views. On the other hand, apart from the Eurosceptic CUP, most of the other parties who compose the rest of the Catalan Parliament, including the 32-seat Citizens Party, are pro-EU. And so, in the event of independence, it is likely that Catalonia would not completely rule out membership in the EU, and therefore concentrated economic, political, and even human exchange with Spain.
Come September 17th, I am not sure what the Catalan people will choose, and there is evidence that they are not yet either (the 80% who voted for independence in the 2014 referendum were less than 50% of Catalonia’s population; and despite their parliamentary majority, Catalonia’s separatist parties garnered only 48% of the popular vote), and what Spain will make of it; though there is clear evidence that the pro-independence camp has the edge and Madrid will have few choices outside of recognising the outcome. Essentially, it would appear that what Catalonia wants from Spain has already been granted to it in that the region enjoys formal autonomy from Madrid and has a distinct culture for which its people are not persecuted (though pledging loyalty to the Bourbon King continues to be a sore subject). From the football pitch, to questions of human settlement (think India and Pakistan in 1947, though perhaps with far less bloodshed and urgency), security issues, as well as the economy, should independence be won, the existence of the deep ties between the two entities will – as they are being unravelled – become more and more visible (if not retightened anew, as was the case in the early 1930s). It is quite clear therefore that, for better or for worse, there will always be Spanish Catalonia, and for that matter Catalan Spain.
Time to Tackle the Stigma Behind Wartime Rape
The youngest capital city in Europe, Pristina, is the ultimate hybrid of old and new: Ottoman-era architecture stands amongst communist paraphernalia, while Kosovars who lived through the bloodshed of the 20th century share family dinners with a generation of young people with their sights set on EU accession.
This month, the capital’s Kosovo Museum welcomed a new force for change; Colours of Our Soul, an exhibition of artwork from women who survived the sexual violence of the Yugoslav Wars, showcases the world as these women “wished it to be.”
Colours of Our Soul isn’t the first art installation to shine a light on the brutal sexual violence thousands of Kosovar victims suffered throughout the turmoil of the conflict which raged from 1988 to 1999. In 2015, Kosovo-born conceptual artist Alketa Xhafa-Mripa transformed a local football pitch into a giant installation, draping 5,000 dresses over washing lines to commemorate survivors of sexual violence whose voices otherwise tend to go unheard. “I started questioning the silence, how we could not hear their voices during and after the war and thought about how to portray the women in contemporary art,” said Xhafa-Mripa at the time.
Victims, and their children, pressed into silence
The silence Xhafa-Mripa speaks of is the very real social stigma faced by survivors of sexual violence in the wake of brutal conflict. “I would go to communities, but everyone would say, ‘Nobody was raped here – why are you talking about it?’”, remarked Feride Rushiti, founder of the Kosovo Rehabilitation Centre for Torture Victims (KRCT).
Today, KRCT has more than 400 clients— barely a scratch on the surface given that rape was used in Kosovo as an “instrument of war” as recently as two decades ago. Some 20,000 women and girls are thought to have been assaulted during the bloody conflict; the fact that the artists whose work is featured in the Colours of our Soul exhibition did not sign their work or openly attend the installation’s grand opening is a sign of how pervasive the stigma is which haunts Kosovar society to this day.
As acute as this stigma is for the women who were assaulted, it is far worse for the children born from rape, who have thus far been excluded from reparation measures and instead dismissed as “the enemy’s children.” In 2014, the Kosovar parliament passed a law recognising the victim status of survivors, entitling them to a pension of up to 220 euros per month. Their children, however, many of whom were murdered or abandoned in the face of community pressure, are barely acknowledged in Kosovar society and have become a generation of young adults who have inherited the bulk of their country’s dark burden.
A global problem
It’s a brutal stigma which affects children born of wartime rape all over the world. The Lai Dai Han, born to Vietnamese mothers raped by South Korean soldiers, have struggled for years to find acceptance in the face of a society that views them as dirty reminders of a war it would rather forget. The South Korean government has yet to heed any calls for formal recognition of sexual violence at the hands of Korean troops, let alone issue a public— and long-awaited— apology to the Lai Dai Han or their mothers.
In many cases, as in the case of Bangladesh’s struggle for independence, the very existence of children born from rape has often been used as a brutal weapon by government forces and militants alike. Official estimates indicate that a mammoth 200,000 to 400,000 women were raped by the Pakistani military and the supporting Bihari, Bengali Razakar and al-Badr militias in the early 1970s. The children fathered, at gunpoint, by Pakistani men were intended to help eliminate Bengali nationhood.
Their surviving mothers are now known as “Birangana”, or “brave female soldier,” though the accolade means little in the face of a lifetime of ostracization and alienation. “I was married when the soldiers took me to their tents to rape me for several days and would drop me back home. This happened several times,” one so-called Birangana explained, “So, my husband left me with my son and we just managed to exist.”
No end in sight
Unfortunately, this barbaric tactic of rape and forced impregnation is one that is still being used in genocides to this day. The subjugation of the Rohingya people, for example, which culminated in a murderous crackdown last year by Myanmar’s military, means an estimated 48,000 women will give birth in refugee camps this year alone. Barring a major societal shift, the children they bear will suffer ostracization similar to that seen in Kosovo, Vietnam and Bangladesh.
Initiatives like the Colours of Our Soul installation in Pristina are not only central in helping wartime rape survivors to heal, but also play a vital role in cutting through the destructive stigma for violated women and their children. Even so, if the number of women who submitted their paintings anonymously is anything to go by, true rehabilitation is a long way ahead.
EU–South Africa Summit: Strengthening the strategic partnership
At the 7th European Union–South Africa Summit held in Brussels Leaders agreed on a number of steps to reinforce bilateral and regional relations, focusing on the implementation of the EU-South Africa Strategic Partnership. This includes economic and trade cooperation and pursuing the improvement of business climate and opportunities for investment and job creation which are of mutual interest.
Leaders also discussed common global challenges, such as climate change, migration, human rights, committing to pursue close cooperation both at bilateral level and on the global stage. A number of foreign and security policy issues, including building and consolidating peace, security and democracy in the African continent and at multilateral level were also raised. Leaders finally committed to work towards a prompt resolution of trade impediments affecting smooth trade flows.
Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, represented the European Union at the Summit. South Africa was represented by its President, Cyril Ramaphosa. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini, Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness Jyrki Katainen and Commissioner for trade Cecilia Malmström also participated, alongside several Ministers from South Africa.
President Juncker said: “The European Union, for the South African nation, is a very important trade partner. We are convinced that as a result of today’s meeting we will find a common understanding on the open trade issues. South Africa and Africa are very important partners for the European Union when it comes to climate change, when it comes to multilateralism. It is in the interest of the two parties – South Africa and the European Union – to invest more. It will be done.” A Joint Summit Statement issued by the Leaders outlines amongst others commitment to:
Advance multilateralism and rules based governance
Leaders recommitted to work together to support multilateralism, democracy and the rules-based global order, in particular at the United Nations and global trade fora. South Africa’s upcoming term as an elected member of the United Nations Security Council in 2019-2020 was recognised as an opportunity to enhance cooperation on peace and security. As part of their commitment to stronger global governance, Leaders stressed their support to the process of UN reform, including efforts on the comprehensive reform of the UN Security Council and the revitalisation of the work of the General Assembly. Leaders reiterated their determination to promote free, fair and inclusive trade and the rules-based multilateral trading system with the World Trade Organisation at its core and serving the interest of all its Members.
Leaders agreed to step up collaboration in key areas such as climate change, natural resources, science and technology, research and innovation, employment, education and training including digital skills, health, energy, macro-economic policies, human rights and peace and security. The EU and South Africa will, amongst others, explore the opportunities provided by the External Investment Plan. Linked to this, Leaders committed to exploring opportunities for investment, technical assistance including project preparation, and the improvement of business and investment climates to promote sustainable development. Leaders welcomed the conclusion and provisional implementation in 2016 of the EU-Southern African Development Community (SADC) – Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA).
Leaders also committed to find mutually acceptable solutions to impediments to trade in agriculture, agri-food and manufactured goods. They agreed to work towards a prompt resolution of these impediments.
Leaders welcomed the new Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs put forward by the European Commission. They exchanged views on foreign and security policy issues, addressed a number of pressing situations in the neighbourhoods of both the EU and South Africa, and welcomed each other’s contribution to fostering peace and security in their respective regions. Leaders agreed to explore opportunities to enhance cooperation on peace and security, conflict prevention and mediation.
Leaders confirmed common resolve to reform the future relationship between the EU and the countries of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States. To this end they are looking forward to the successful conclusion of negotiations for a post-Cotonou Partnership Agreement, that will contribute to attaining the goals of both the United Nations 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the long-term vision for African continent – Agenda 2063.
Macron so far has augmented French isolation
French President Emmanuel Macron has recently criticized the unilateral pullout of the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but at the same time expressed pleasure that Washington has allowed France and the other JCPOA signatories to stay in the Iran nuclear deal.
In an exclusive interview with the CNN, Macron said that he has “a very direct relationship” with Trump. “Trump is a person who has tried to fulfill his electoral promises, as I also try to fulfill my promises, and I respect the action that Trump made in this regard. But I think we can follow things better, due to our personal relationship and talks. For instance, Trump has decided to withdraw from the Iran pact, but at the end, he showed respect for the signatories’ decision to remain in the JCPOA.”
There are some key points in Macron’s remarks:
First, in 2017, the French were the first of the European signatories to try to change the JCPOA. They tried to force Iran to accept the following conditions: Inspection of military sites, application of the overtime limitation on nuclear activities, limiting regional activities, including missile capabilities within the framework of the JCPOA.
Macron had already made commitments to President Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push Iran to accept the additional protocols to the deal, and he pushed to make it happen before Trump left the JCPOA.
Second, after the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, although France expressed regret, they had secret negotiations with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over the JCPOA.
The result of the undisclosed talks was deliberate delay on the part of the European authorities in providing a final package to keep the Iran deal alive. In other words, after the US unilaterally left the JCPOA, the French have been sloppy and maybe somewhat insincere about making the practical moves to ensure it would be saved.
Third, France has emphasized the need to strengthen their multilateralism in the international system and has become one of the pieces of the puzzle that completes the strategic posture of the Trump Administration in the West Asia region.
Obviously, French double standards have irritated European politicians, many of whom have disagreed with the contradictory games of French authorities towards the US and issues of multilateralism in the international community. Also, France’s isolation and its strategic leverage in the political arena has grown since the days of Sarkozy and Hollande. Some analysts thought that Macron and fresh policies would stop this trend, but it has not occurred.
First published in our partner MNA
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