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Tactical Retreat: Madrid Makes Concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country

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The November 2019 general parliamentary elections in Spain resulted in none of the parties getting an absolute majority needed to form a government. Following two months of negotiations, a left-wing coalition between the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party) and Unidas Podemos (United We Can) was formed in January 2020. Having received the necessary parliamentary support, Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the socialists, assumed the post of the Spanish Prime Minister.

Catalan and Basque parties are now vital for the Spanish government

Since this is the first coalition government in the history of modern Spain that does not rely on a stable parliamentary majority, the role of regional parties has significantly increased. The PSOE-Podemos coalition only has 155 mandates, falling short of the majority (176) by 21 votes. In such a situation, success of any initiative put forward by the left-wing government depends on the support of other parliamentary parties—in particular, the nationalist movements of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the ERC) and “Together for Catalonia” account for 13 and 8 seats, whereas the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP) and the EH-Bildu are each represented by 6 and 5 MPs.

Support of the four regional parties facilitated a number of crucial events in the Spanish political process. These include Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, taking the office of Prime Minister in January 2020, a repeated extension of the state of emergency in the country in spring 2020, the adoption of the state budget for 2021 as well as passing the bill on the distribution of money from the EU recovery fund into law.

In this regard, both Catalonia and the Basque Country are now presented with more opportunities to promote their interests in broadening autonomous powers in exchange for their support of the governmental projects. At times of the bipartisan system, when the party to win general elections could independently form a majority government, regional forces had weaker bargaining positions. However, the value of their votes in the Congress of Deputies today has increased drastically. Amid such conditions, P. Sanchez has no other way but intensify interaction with the two autonomies on the issues of interest to them. He is driven by the desire to sustain support of the regional forces, ensuring the viability of his government.

Different aims: Catalonia is seeking referendum while the Basque Country is keen to broaden its autonomy

The coronavirus pandemic, which broke out in 2020, did not allow to launch another stage of negotiations between the Spanish government and the political leadership of Catalonia and the Basque Country. Notably, each autonomy has its own strategy and aims to pursue in their negotiations with Madrid.

The negotiations agenda of the new Catalan government, formed by the ERC and “Together for Catalonia” following the regional elections on February 14, 2021, includes: 1) amnesty for all the prisoners detained after the illegal referendum on October 1, 2017; 2) agreement with the government on holding another, this time official, referendum on the status of the autonomy; 3) revision of the current structure of financial inflows in favor of increasing investments from Madrid in the budget of the autonomy.

At the same time, the Basque government, headed by the BNP, has a different set of objectives: 1) implementation of all the remaining provisions enshrined in the Statute of Autonomy of the region, namely the transfer of some 30 competencies in self-governance to the regional authorities; 2) resuming talks on a new Statute of Autonomy; 3) formation of a broad negotiating platform involving the largest Spanish and Basque political forces.

In 2021, negotiations on these issues were intensified between Madrid and the regions. Each autonomy has managed to achieve certain results in pursuing their interests.

Catalonia: two tactical victories with no prospects for a referendum

Both Catalonia and the Basque Country managed to get a number of significant concessions in the course of June to October 2021. By doing it, P. Sanchez has shown the importance of the two autonomies in maintaining stability in the PSOE-Podemos coalition government.

Catalonia succeeded in achieving two important outcomes. The first victory was a judicial one. On June 23, 2021, amnesty was granted to all 12 prisoners sentenced to terms from 9 to 13 years on the charges related to the illegal referendum on the status of the autonomy that was held on October 1, 2017. This step sparked a severe backlash in the Kingdom, with demonstrations held in many regions. The majority of Spaniards (61%) expressed disagreement with such a move. However, it manifests that P. Sanchez is ready to make controversial compromises to maintain his political allies, despite possible long-term losses of the electorate support.

The second success of Catalonia was in the political domain. Due to a flexibility of the central government, the first talks in a year and a half that took place between Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Pere Aragones, the head of the Catalan government, became possible. While the sides only exchanged views on topical bilateral issues at their first face-to-face meeting on June 27, 2021, the parties could hold a substantive discussion of a plan to normalize interaction during the second round on September 15.

In the meantime, it was the Catalan side that set the agenda. This emphasizes the increasing role of the autonomy in bilateral relations, while indicating that Madrid is keen to garner support among the Catalan deputies. This is the why the central government is ready to offer some concessions.

Following the talks, the Prime Minister stated that the sides managed to agree on 44 out of 45 points of the document presented by P. Aragones. However, the only stumbling block remaining is a new referendum in Catalonia. On this issue, P. Sanchez is not going to make any concessions.

The Basque Country: higher flexibility and new competencies for the autonomy

Madrid has also stepped up negotiations with the Basque Country. However, it should be added here that the region has managed to achieve more tangible results in terms of expanding its autonomous powers in judicial and financial matters.

First, as the agreement signed in April 2021 suggests, three penitentiary centers with 1,378 prisoners were handed over to the Basque Government from October 1, namely the Department for Equality, Justice and Social Policy.

Second, the talks on July 28 between Pedro Sanchez, Spanish Prime Minister, and Inigo Urkullo, head of the Basque government, within the framework of the Joint Economic Commission resulted in new tax competencies handed over to the Basque Country. Local authorities are now in charge of collecting taxes from e-commerce, financial transactions and digital services. This may lead to an inflow of additional 220 ml euros to the Basque budget.

In response to such steps of the Spanish government, I. Urkullo made an eleventh-hour decision to attend the Conference of regional leaders on July 29, 2021. This event is of political importance as it unites the heads of all Spain’s 17 autonomies. At the same time, the Catalan Pere Aragones did not participate in the meeting. Had both Catalonia and the Basque Country been absent, this would have come as a real blow to P. Sanchez. Therefore, it was of utmost importance for the Prime Minister to persuade at least the Basque leader to attend the meeting. Urkullo’s presence partly contributed to the image of Sanchez as a politician who can reach agreement with the regions.

Key differences between the Catalan and the Basque government that influence relations with Madrid

In Catalonia, the coalition government is dominated by the ERC, which is more moderate and ready to move away from harsh rhetoric in favor of discussing common problems with Madrid. At the same time, its partner, “Together for Catalonia” that lost the February 2021 regional elections to ERC by only a narrow margin, stands for more straightforward actions.

Such a configuration within the coalition restricts Catalonia’s flexibility. The main goal of the radical wing is a new referendum. The ERC’s moderate approach is counterbalanced by “Together for Catalonia”. It does not support excessive rapprochement with Madrid or any deviation from that idea.

At the same time, the situation is different in the Basque Country. The moderate BNP enjoys leading positions in the government coalition while the EH-Bildu has a much lower weight in strategy setting. It allows the autonomy to be flexible, interacting with Madrid in a more successful manner.

Moreover, the talks between Catalonia and Madrid are still held in a narrow format of face-to-face meetings between the Prime Minister of Spain and the head of the autonomy. At the same time, the Basque Country has already resumed dialogue within the Joint Economic Commission. This is a more inclusive format that enables the sides to cover a wider range of topics.

Currently, the Basque Country’s give-and-take strategy results in smaller but more meaningful concessions, bringing about a broadening of its autonomous powers in exchange for political support of the central government. Meanwhile, Catalonia’s attempts to achieve more significant results, which may affect the image of P. Sanchez, bump up against Madrid’s reluctance to cross the red line. The Prime Minister is ready to make some tactical concessions to the autonomies in order to garner political support for his initiatives. Despite certain criticism from the right wing, such steps confirm the effectiveness of the PSOE-Podemos coalition, demonstrating the viability of the incumbent government to the electorate.

Talks have future as long as the left-wing coalition remains in power

The future of the negotiations between the center and the autonomies heavily depends on the 2023 Spanish general elections. Right-wing parties like the People’s Party, VOX and “Citizens” are not inclined to broad negotiations with Catalan and Basque nationalists. If these parties form the next government just in two years, the entire process of normalizing relations with the regions may be put on hold.

P. Sanchez’s excessive flexibility in negotiations with Catalonia and the Basque Country may lead to a higher popularity of the right-wing VOX party. Those among voters, who are dissatisfied with the policy of offering concessions to nationalists, may switch to the forces that safeguard the Spanish constitutional order. Another problem for the PSOE-Podemos government is the socio-economic recovery of Spain from COVID-19.

Little progress in these two directions is likely to result in the loss of public support. The influence of Catalonia and the Basque Country will not see a decline in the coming years. It is therefore essential for Madrid to make new concessions similar to those made to the Basque Country. But they should be gradual to provoke less publicity.

From our partner RIAC

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Europe

On international relations, the public is clueless, democracy fails

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Nothing is more important to the people in any nation than international relations, because that includes national security, peace and war, and also includes the nation’s economy, which depends heavily on foreign trade. 

Take, for example, the big issue in Finland and Sweden, the decision whether or not to join America’s NATO anti-Russian military alliance. To join that alliance would cause Russia to target the country as being an enemy nation if there is to be a war between America and Russia — which now seems increasingly likely. These nations weren’t targeted by Russia in the past (neither Finland nor Sweden is), because they weren’t Russia’s enemies in post-WW-II times. So: joining NATO would create an enormous and entirely new national-security threat to the people there. But, apparently, they either don’t know this; or, if they do, then they don’t think it’s important; and, so, it doesn’t affect their opinions on whether or not to join NATO — which their leaders are now determined to do. Apparently, Finns and Swedes are being led into this monumental decision on the basis of ignorance, if not of inattention, to the issue of the potentially grave threat to their national-security that might be entailed by their joining NATO. 

To judge from what is being reported in the press, public opinion on the matter, in both countries, ignores the issue of whether being targeted as an enemy, by Russia, even factors, at all, in their opinions, on whether or not their country ought to join.

Turkey’s AA News agency headlined, on May 23rd, “Swedish public … have mixed thoughts about country’s NATO membership bid”. None of the respondents volunteered that concern (about whether becoming an enemy of Russia might reduce, instead of increase, their nation’s safety and security) when asked “how they feel about the sudden urge of their country to become a NATO member.” The closest answer which was volunteered to that was “if you poke the Russian bear too much, it might react because Putin has totally no regard for any laws of war”; but no preference, one way or the other, was cited from that individual.

Alleged experts on the subject were similarly ignoring the issue. On May 13th, France 24 News bannered “In Sweden, misgivings over rushed debate to join NATO”, and reported that, 

“It’s not Sweden deciding the timeline, it’s Finland, because they share a 1,300-km border with Russia”, said Anders Lindberg, political editorialist at Aftonbladet, an independent social democratic daily.

Sweden is otherwise more accustomed to lengthy government-commissioned inquiries on major issues, aimed at fostering debate and building consensus so that decisions are broadly anchored in society.

In contrast, a security review on the pros and cons of NATO membership prepared by the parties in parliament was pulled together in just a few weeks.

The rapid U-turn is also remarkable given that the country “has built its identity on its neutrality and military non-alignment,” Lindberg added.

Support for NATO membership has soared in both Finland and Sweden since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But while a record 76 percent of Finns are in favour of joining NATO, Swedish public opinion is more divided, with recent polls indicating that between 50 and 60 percent back the idea.

On April 20th, Reuters headlined “Growing majority of Swedes back joining NATO, opinion poll shows”, and reported 

 A growing majority of Swedes are in favour of joining NATO, a poll showed on Wednesday, as policy-makers in both Sweden and Finland weigh up whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should lead to an end to decades of military neutrality.

The poll by Demoskop and commissioned by the Aftonbladet newspaper showed 57% of Swedes now favoured NATO membership, up from 51% in March. Those opposed to joining fell to 21% from 24%, while those who were undecided dipped to 22% from 25%.

The March poll was the first to show a majority of Swedes in favour of joining NATO.

Sweden has not been at war since the time of Napoleon and has built its security policy on “non-participation in military alliances”.

But like Finland, the invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow calls a “special military operation”, has forced a radical rethink. Both countries are now seen as highly likely to join the 30-nation alliance.

The article didn’t even mention the issue of whether becoming targeted by Russia’s missiles might possibly endanger Swedes far more than protect them by NATO.

On March 23rd, Business Insider headlined “Finland’s people now strongly back joining NATO, poll says, a massive political shift that would enrage Russia”, and reported: “A survey of people in Finland found that a majority wanted the country to join NATO after Russia invaded Ukraine. The survey by the Finnish Business and Policy Forum Eva think tank found that 60% of people supported Finland joining NATO, a massive jump from previous years.” It closed:

Ilkka Haavisto, the research manager at Eva, said of the results: “Russia has shown that it does not respect the integrity of its neighbors. “The war in Ukraine has concretely shown what the horrors of a defensive war on Finland’s own territory would be and made it clear that NATO countries cannot use their military forces to help defend a nonaligned country.”

No mention was made that joining NATO would cause Finns to become targets of Russia’s missiles, perhaps even of nuclear missiles. 

On May 9th, The Defense Post bannered “Overwhelming Support for NATO Bid Among Finns: Poll”, and reported “Around 76 percent of Finns now want the country to join NATO, up from 60 percent in March, according to the poll commissioned by broadcaster YLE and conducted by research firm Taloustutkimus.” The same day, YLE headlined “Yle poll: Support for Nato membership soars to 76%”, and reported that, “Backing for membership in Yle polls has grown from 53 percent in February to 62 percent in March and 76 percent in May. Before the Russian attack on Ukraine, a majority of Finns had long opposed membership.” No mention was made there, either, regarding Finns’ possible thoughts on whether becoming targeted by Russia as being an enemy-nation might possibly create massive new danger for Finns, vastly more than any possible increase in Finland’s national security might result from joining Russia’s enemies.

Also, none of the alleged news-reports mentioned that, when Russia, on February 24th, invaded Ukraine, it was the result of a war which actually had started eight years ago in February 2014, when the U.S. perpetrated a bloody coup disguised as a ‘revolution’, that replaced Ukraine’s neutralist government, by a rabidly anti-Russian government, which then promptly started a civil war against Russian-speaking Ukrainians, especially in Ukraine’s far east and south. Neither Sweden nor Finland is in anything like that situation regarding Russia — at least not yet.

How can democracy work if the public are in the dark, and are being kept in the dark? And are satisfied to remain in the dark? When their government is taking them to war? Maybe even rushing them into a war? Maybe into WW III? Is this really democracy? Who profits from whatever it is? If this is true in Finland and Sweden, then is it true in every country? Is there any way to change it — to produce a democracy that cannot be manipulated so that it is functioning against the most important interests not only of foreign publics, but of its own public? Does anybody even discuss these problems? Why not?

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Europe

Is European humanity skin deep?

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At the border crossing between Ukraine and Moldova at Palanca, refugees stand in line. © UNICEF/Vincent Tremeau

When talking about security the most common line of thought tends to be war and the actors involved in the attack, however, all the people who had regular lives within those territories that are jeopardized are as important. With the increasing tensions and armed conflicts happening within the Twenty First Century, the movement of people searching for shelter has increased. More asylum seekers leave their home countries every single day and contemporary politics is still struggling to find a way to catch up. Europe, history wise, is the zone of the world that deals with more refugees wanting to enter the continent due to different factors: geography, proximity, democratic systems, level of development and more. Nevertheless, with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, true sentiments towards refugees are now being put on display.

Even though all refugees are fleeing their countries because their lives are in mortal danger, authorities and government officials do not seem to care. Processes to apply for the refugee status are getting harder and harder. In Europe, to apply for a refugee passport, people are asked for identifications, online questionaries and many other unrealistic aspects that if not answered correctly, the whole process is cancelled. It is ridiculous to believe that when people are scaping in order to stay alive, they will take under consideration all these requirements to receive help, sometimes even from neighboring countries. Which inevitably leads to the following question: why are refugees accepted based on the legality of their applications and not of their status?

By 2016, nearly 5.2 million refugees reached European shores, which caused the so called refugee crisis. They came mainly from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq: countries torn apart by armed conflicts. Similarly, with Russia’s invasion over the Ukraine in 2022, only few days deep within the fighting,  874,000 people had to flee their homes. Nonetheless, the issue seems to be that, for Europe, not all refugees are the same. When the refugee crisis in 2015 was declared, the European Union called for stopping and detaining all arriving refugees for around 18 months. There was a strong reluctancy from Europeans towards offering them shelter. On the contrary, countries such as Poland and Slovakia have said that Ukrainian refugees fleeing will be accepted without passports, or any valid travel documents due to the urgency of the situation. Therefore, stating with their actions, that Ukrainian refugees are more valuable or seem to be more worthy of help than refugees from Asia, Africa, or the Middle East.

Correspondingly, it is true that not all countries inside Europe deal and act the same way towards refugees, be that as it may, with the current refugee crisis it has been proved that they all share strong sentiments of xenophobia and racism. For instance, Hungary is a country that refused to admit refugees coming from outside Europe since 2015. In 2018, Prime Minister Viktor Orban described non-European refugees as “Muslim invaders” and “poison” to society, in comparison with Ukrainian refugees who are being welcomed without hesitation. In the same way, Jarosław Kaczyński, who served as Prime Minister of Poland and is the leader of the Law and Justice party, in 2017 said that accepting asylum seekers from Syria would be dangerous and would “completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country”. Furthermore, Germany in 2015 with Chancellor Angela Merkel in charged said that they would accept one million of Syrians. Although, as time passed, Europe’s solution was to make a deal with Turkey, who is not part of the European Union, to close the migrant route. Moreover, the promise of letting refugees integrate into German society was not fulfilled since. Seven year later, an impressive amount of refugees are still in camps and centers, with their lives frozen in time. Sadly, most European governments gambled towards the idea of sending them back once the armed conflict was over, without caring for the aftermath of war’s destruction.

The common narrative until now pushed by leaders, politicians, and mass media has been that Ukrainians are prosperous, civilized, middle class working people, but refugees coming from the Middle East are terrorists, and refuges from Africa are simply too different. Despite, refugees are all people who share similar emotions and struggle to grasp the fact that their lives may never be the same; having lost their homes, friends, family and so much more. Plus, being selectively welcomed based on their religion, skin color or nationality by the continent which’s complete rhetoric is universal rights, just adds another complex layer to the issue. Conjointly, the displacement of people due to war displays how regular individuals are always the ones who suffer the most in consequence to the interests of the few that represent larger powers. Hence, greed, envy, and cruelty are stronger than recognized, even in a developed continent such as Europe.

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What Everyone Should Know About Preventing Ethnic Violence: The Case of Bosnia

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Image source: srebrenica.org.uk

When the Balkans spiraled into violence and genocide in the 90’s, many wondered what caused this resurgence in militant ethnic nationalism and how a similar situation may be countered.

***

The 1990’s were a vibrant decade, that is unless you were living in the Balkans. 1995 was especially bad, as the 11th of July of that year marked the Srebrenica Massacre, which saw Serbian soldiers murder over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims over the span of two weeks. This shocked the world, as it was the first case of a European country resorting to extreme violence and genocide on ethnic lines since World War II. After World War II, the idea that a European country would resort to genocide was unthinkable. As Balkan nations continue to see the consequences of the massacre after over 25 years, it is increasingly evident that more needs to be done to curb ethnic violence.

We must first investigate key causes of ethnic violence. According to V.P. Gagnon, the main driver of ethnic violence is elites that wish to stay in power. Ethnic nationalism is easy to exploit, as creating a scapegoat is extremely effective for keeping elites in power. This is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia, which had previously seen high levels of tolerance and intermarriage in more mixed areas that saw the worst violence during the war. Stuart J. Kaufman argues that elites may take advantage of natural psychological fears of in-group extinction, creating group myths, or stereotypes, of outgroups to fuel hatred against them. While they may take different approaches to this issue, Gagnon and Kaufman agree that the main drivers of ethnic violence are the elites.

David Lake and Donald Rothchild suggest that the main driver of ethnic conflict is collective fears for the future of in-groups. Fear is one of the most important emotions we have because it helps secure our existence in a hostile world. However, fear can easily be exploited by the elites to achieve their personal goals. In a multiethnic society such as Yugoslavia, the rise of an elite that adheres to the prospects of a single ethnic group could prove dangerous and sometimes even disastrous. The destruction of Yugoslavian hegemony under Josip Broz Tito and the resulting explosion of ethnic conflict at the hands of Serbian elites in Bosnia underline this because of the immense fear this created.

Regions with high Serb populations in Bosnia sought independence from the rest of the country when they found themselves separated from Serbia by the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Republika Srpska was formed by these alienated Serbs. The leadership and elites in Serbia riled up the Serb population of Republika Srpska by stereotyping and demonizing Bosnian Muslims as “descendants of the Turkish oppressors”. This scared the Serbs in Bosnia so much so that they obeyed the elites of Serbia in supporting and fighting for the independence of Republika Srpska by any means necessary. As was seen in Srebrenica, they were not opposed to genocide.

We know how the elites fuel ethnic tensions to secure power as well of the devastating effects of these tensions reaching their boiling point. But what could be done to address ethnic conflict? David Welsh suggests that a remedy for ethnic conflict could be the complete enfranchisement of ethnic minorities and deterrence towards ethnic cleansing. This means that we must ensure that ethnic minorities are able to have a say in a democratic system that caters to all ethnicities equally. Fostering aversion to genocide is also vital toward addressing ethnic conflict because it is the inevitable result of unchecked ethnic conflict.

There is also the issue of members of ethnic groups voting for candidates and parties on ethnic lines. For example, in the United States, White American voters have shown to prefer White candidates over African American candidates, and vice versa. Keep in mind that the United States has a deep history of ethnic conflict, including the centuries-long subjugation of African Americans by White Americans.

Ethnic violence is horrifying and destructive, but it can be prevented. The first measure would be the establishment of a representative democracy, where members of all ethnicities are accurately represented. Another measure would be to make ethnic conflict and ethnic stereotyping taboo so that the average person would not resort to genocidal behavior once things go wrong. Lastly, making people feel secure is the most important step towards preventing ethnic conflict. If the people feel secure enough, they will not even need to think about ethnic violence. In short, while it is important to consider the differences of the various ethnic groups in a multiethnic society, it is vital that each group is kept represented and secure, free of any fears of subjugation.

While the case of Bosnia was extremely unfortunate, it provides an integral view into what could happen if perceived subjugation and fear of eradication reaches a breaking point. As was seen in Bosnia, ethnic violence can be extremely violent, resulting in untold suffering and death. That is why we must take necessary steps towards de-escalation and remediation of ethnic conflicts. These measures can, quite literally, save millions of lives.

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