Former consul blesses Catalan referendum, Geoff Cowling (UK)



Author: Laura Pous

Source: Nació Digital

Enormous” and “extraordinary” are the adjectives Geoff Cowling, former UK general consul in Barcelona from 2002 to 2005, gave to the march for independence that took place on the 11th September, Catalonia’s National Day, which he witnessed himself. Interviewed in London, Cowling makes clear he supports the Catalan referendum for independence which will allow Catalonia to decide its future. “Democracy must prevail and people have the right to decide”, declares the former general consul, who warns us that making external action even stronger is necessary if the Catalan government aims to create an independent state. “Doors must be knocked on. If you don’t knock on doors, they won’t open. You must get out there and try”, he stresses.

For decades, Cowling has worked for the Foreign Office, as a diplomat for Britain in South America, Denmark and Afghanistan. His last destination, and one of the most remarkable ones for him, was the consulate in Barcelona. Since he went back to London, seven years ago, Cowling has followed, interested and also a bit surprised the political and cultural events in Catalonia. He even attended the large march in Barcelona on Catalonia’s National Day last year.

Just like the current German consul in Barcelona, Bernhard Brasack who, in an Interview with Nació Digital showed his astonishment stating that «The Catalan National Day gave a positive message to the markets », Cowling tells us his memories of the day: “It was said to be a march, but it  wasn’t really because you couldn’t actually move due to the amount of people that attended. Catalonia has experienced a pretty significant change. One of the changes I have noticed since I left is the increase in pro-independence.”


Geoffrey Cowling explains that in 2005, when the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, which had been controversially ruled on by the Spanish Constitutional Court, hadn’t been passed yet, ERC was the only parliamentary power that was clearly in favour of independence and there was “obviously” a demonstration every 11th September, but not much more. “It was nothing like what I experienced last September when I was in Barcelona” he admits. “If there were 1.5 million people in the march as the police assured, that means about a 25% of the Catalan population. That is enormous”, he exclaims.

He reminds us that “All that enthusiasm emanated from the streets and it actually changed the politicians’ point of view bringing forward the elections which weren’t to be held on November 25th”. Cowling thinks that, different from the process that is taking place in Scotland, in Catalonia the pro independence feeling has risen from the streets, and has later been passed onto the government. “In Scotland it has a Top-down condition, whereas I can see that in Catalonia it comes from the base”, he confirms. “Scotland will have a referendum for independence, but the idea of having 1,5 million Scots coming out to Princess Street, in Edinburgh, waving the flag doesn’t really fit in my mind” he admits.

Facing it democratically

Alex Salmond and David Cameron

According to this British ex diplomat, Mariano Rajoy should allow Catalonia to carry out a referendum, as the Prime Minister David Cameron did with Scotland. In fact, he believes that the English conservatives’ compromising attitude has helped “get rid of the tension” in the whole independence debate. “The situation in the UK is completely different from the one in Catalonia”, he explains, admitting that “London has always been aware that Scotland is a separate nation”. Moreover, Cowling thinks the fact that the UK doesn’t have a written constitution makes everything easier.

Spain has a very strict constitution that is apparently really hard to change.” Plus,” it’s clear that there are elements in Spain which don’t want to foster the idea of a Catalan referendum”, says the former general consul in Barcelona. “However, my point of view is that all this should be faced democratically”, he adds. In fact, in Cowling’s opinion, even if the Spanish constitution doesn’t permit a referendum for Catalonia, “the will of the Catalan nation must be respected”.

“On the authority of the Spanish Constitution, Catalonia is only an autonomous region, but even so, it has a parliament, and if there’s a majority in this parliament that reflects the will of the people to carry out a referendum on their future, I don’t see why it shouldn’t be allowed”, stresses the British official. “Holding a referendum doesn’t necessarily mean a result that says: «Yes, we want to become independent»”, he notes, defending the democratic right to vote of the people who opt for maintaining the union between Catalonia and Spain. “But I personally believe that democracy must prevail and people have the right to decide”, he emphasises.

VAN ROMPUYMore external action

After years of walking along the corridors of the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and traveling across countries of every continent, Geoff Cowling states that one of the most important chores for any country is projecting itself to the outside world. Cowling avoids anticipating if an independent Catalonia –or Scotland– would be in or outside the EU but he admits that the European commission led by the conservative Jose Manuel Durão Barroso “contrives” against secession.

For Cowling, the argument that a new independent country would need to reapply for accession to the EU is as speculative as stating that it could continue being a full member state without any negotiations. “Both Catalonia and Scotland are current members of the EU, and leaving them out would entail excluding two substantial communities. Moreover, I don’t think this rests within the European constitutional limits”, he affirms.

But could the international or European community intervene in the event that Spain blocks the referendum? “It will depend on the decision taken within the EU. Personally, I want to think they’d say yes, this is what my heart presumes, but my mind says no, they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t want to harm their relationship with Spain”, Cowling admits. To prevent the rest of European countries from describing the Catalan situation as an “internal affair of Spain”, Cowling has a solution: internationalising the conflict.


Before this happens Catalonia should really use its tools, through delegations, the Foreign Affairs Council, the Diplocat (Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia) to convey their message particularly throughout Europe, he argues. “The United Kingdom would certainly listen to them, of that I’m sure” says the former general consul, who thinks that bearing in mind the parallelisms between Catalonia and Scotland sooner or later someone from either London or Edinburgh would express their opinion on the issue in Catalonia. In fact, Cowling knows the task of the delegation at the English capital and it regards it as really positive. “They are highly considered and are welcome at the Foreign Office and Westminster”, he explains. “Doors must be knocked on. If you don’t knock on doors, they won’t open. So it is necessary to get out there and try”, he stresses.

If I were in Catalonia’s position, I would prepare a kind offence in Paris, Berlin, Brussels, London and probably New York, using the delegations that already exist in these cities”, suggests Cowling. “It is essential to tell the world what’s happening. When you ask me what the relationship in the international community would be like, I think that the international community must be wised up. There is really the need for some kind of international program from the Catalan administration to tell its positioning?” says the former diplomat, who assures he doesn’t know whether Madrid is already launching a counter-campaign abroad. “There must be negotiations, especially within the EU, including all its countries, since all of them have a veto” he adds. According to Cowling, the message is obvious: Catalonia’s independence “is a European issue and it must be discussed along the corridors of the European governments”.

(Translation: PM)


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