Give them a chance.

Photographer: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images

Alex Salmond to Catalonians: Keep Calm and Carry On

Former First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond is the Scottish National Party's international affairs and Europe spokesperson in the U.K. Parliament.
Read More.
a | A

I do not know if Artur Mas, the President of Catalonia, deliberately chose the eclipse of the supermoon as the day on which to hold the most important election in Catalonia's democratic history. Traditionally a portent of historic things to come, the fact that the eclipsed moon bore a striking resemblance to the colours in the Catalan flag made it all the more powerfully symbolic.

At any rate, Catalonia did not disappoint with its historic vote, delivering a clear majority for the independence coalition of Junts pel Sí ("Together for Yes") alliance and their allies in the radical left CUP. Although Madrid will point to the failure of the independistas to win a majority of the popular vote, that is a poor argument against change. Indeed, the left-green alliance of Catalonia Yes We Can (Catalunya Sí que es Pot), with a further nine percent of the vote, also supports the right of Catalonia to hold a referendum on independence.

QuickTake Catalonia

Only the now ironically named, Popular Party of Catalonia of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, falling to a humiliating eight percent of the vote, is fully against any constitutional progress for Catalonia.  With Spanish elections due in December, and looking increasingly problematic for the ruling party in Madrid, this is a very narrow political base on which to continue adamant opposition to Catalan aspirations.

How should people react to this outpouring of democratic expression in Catalonia, first in the international community and the European Union, second, elsewhere in Spain, and third in Catalonia itself?

First, the international community should cease viewing Catalonia as a problem and start to see the opportunity in this democratic expression. In a world where violence abounds, and in a country that only two generations ago was ruled by a fascist dictator, peaceful democratic movements should be accorded respect and legitimacy. International commentators, whether sympathetic like myself or hostile like David Cameron,  should support the right of the people to choose their own future; the interventions of President Obama, David Cameron and the European Commission in Spain will have little impact on opinion and are likely to stoke resentment.

There is nothing unreasonable in the idea that Catalonia could be successful as an independent country. Catalonia, like Scotland, has a per capita GDP that is higher than the European Union average.  Were there an agreed, democratic and peaceful process of self-determination in Catalonia, Europe would have to acknowledge and accept that. All of this is merely to say that Europe must uphold its own key founding principles; turning its collective back on democracy is the sort of bureaucratic politics of convenience that further undermines the European ideal.

The Commission is already embroiled in controversy over allegations of interference in the Catalan vote. The Commission is looking into what happened to the Spanish translation of the text of the President Jean-Claude Juncker's parliamentary answer on Catalonia, which differed markedly from the original English version. He was asked whether or not the Commission would recognise a unilateral declaration of independence from Catalonia, or whether it would honor the Spanish constitution, which is against a declaration. The English version was short and rightly insisted that it's not the Commission's place to "express a position on questions of internal organisation related to the constitutional arrangements of a particular Member State." The Spanish version was longer, and adds the view that a decision of a regional parliament cannot determine the territory of a member state.

The very last thing pro-Europeans across the continent need is the European Commission to descend into disrepute amid allegations that it has tried to interfere in so important a debate about the future of one of its member nations.

Second, it is important that all of Spain recognize Catalonia's aspirations. The government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has spent years hoping the problem would go away. It hasn’t and it is now one of the many mounting problems threatening the Popular Party political hegemony.

The Spanish people need and deserve creative thinking about how to move toward a political settlement. Perhaps they will get it from the other parties in the upcoming elections.

Lastly, the independence forces in Catalonia would be well-advised to take a “calm souch,” as we say in Scotland. They have a democratic mandate. They now need to deliberately and calmly build international acceptance for the legitimacy of their aspirations, looking for allies in the December Spanish elections and in the other autonomous regions.

In Ireland, a long time ago, there was a saying that “England's difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.” Catalonia is not Ireland; nor is it Scotland. However, Madrid’s difficulty could soon become Catalonia's opportunity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Alex Salmond at alex.salmond.mp@parliament.uk

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net