Will Lithuania become’s Catalonia’s Iceland? (Opinion)

Date: 29.06.2014

Source: The Lithuania Tribune (first published 06.06.2014)

Author: Kęstutis Girnius

In September the Scots will be holding a widely discussed referendum on their withdrawal from the United Kingdom. Much less attention is paid to Catalans’ intention to hold a referendum in November on their secession from Spain, even though the latter, in some respects, is likely to be more significant for the European Union (EU), Kęstutis Girnius in DELFI.

Scotland, whereas the Spanish government adheres to the decision of the Constitutional Court and considers the Catalan referendum unconstitutional.

Kęstutis-Girnius-2-DELFI-Photo-by-Š.-Mažeika

In principle, I do support referenda and the right of any nation to secede. My primary opinion that Catalonia has a right to their own state intensified after our visit to Barcelona together with a group of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians on the Catalan government’s invitation. Although the Catalans seek their own country and have strong supporting arguments, it is also possible that they will succeed in finding a compromise with Madrid, which would give the region a wide degree of autonomy.

Public opinion polls show that almost 80 percent of the Catalan population support the referendum. They believe that key political issues are to be dealt with in consultation with the public. Support for an independent state is lower – about 55 percent. Almost 30 percent are opposed to independence. The Madrid government is against the plans to hold a referendum on 9 November, which in its turn raises concerns in Catalonia that the central government is going to prevent a referendum and perhaps even take over the direct governance of Catalonia, although there are few who believe that such radical measures will be resorted to.

Catalans’ argument is quite simple and attractive. The legitimacy of each democratic government and its right to rule depends on the support from the population. The government is legitimate as long as the public expresses its favour. Should the confidence and support be gone, the government loses its legitimacy, and the citizens are not obliged to obey it. If the government ignores the will of the people, they can secede, create their own state and elect a credible and favoured government. Otherwise, they become the government’s hostages.

2013_09_11_Via_Catalana_Tram_633_Vilademuls--0437Catalans emphasise that they are an old historical nation that only 300 years ago was forcibly incorporated into the Kingdom of Spain. They also keep reminding everyone that Franco’s dictatorial government expelled the Catalan language from schools and public life, tried to destroy their culture, and exerted pressure on the Catalans to change their surnames into Spanish ones. The Catalans nevertheless succeeded in preserving their culture and language, and the present intensive curricula ensure that almost all the residents of Catalonia, including an extremely large number of immigrants, understand and speak Catalan. Currently 7 to 10 million people speak Catalan, which is much more than in the case of the Swedish, Norwegian, Slovak or other languages. And therefore the Catalans require that they be granted the rights that are enjoyed by almost any other European nation.

Catalans stress that they are financially exploited. Every year, Catalonia transfers 4-8 percent of their GDP to the central government – at least twice as much as any other region in the EU. The central government’s investment into the infrastructure of Catalonia is disproportionately low and is thus endangering the region’s economy and its further prosperity.

The reallocation of resources is a complex issue. Governments have a right to demand the richer regions, as well as wealthier residents, to contribute more to the maintenance of the state and the common welfare than those who are less prosperous. I do not have any positive feelings towards selfish interpretations of the Northern League claiming that northern Italy has the right to establish their own independent state as they are tired of subsidizing “lazy” Sicilians and residents of the southern Italian regions. If the Catalans based the right for their own state solely on financial considerations, I would not support their goal. On the other hand, the central government may not impose disproportionately high taxes on a region, and at the same time provide a disproportionately low funding for their infrastructure, education and healthcare system.

cadena-644x330So far, efforts to clarify the relationship between Catalonia and Madrid have been unsuccessful. In 2006 they signed a new agreement, which was approved by the Catalan population in a referendum and ratified by the Spanish parliament that still cut back some of the rights provided for Catalonia. Nevertheless, in 2010 the Spanish Constitutional Court overruled the agreement as unconstitutional. Since then, the relationship has been consistently deteriorating. Catalans complain that the central government is increasingly interfering in their affairs and is discriminating against the region. Madrid recently ordered that if parents of only one schoolchild require lessons in Spanish, a quarter of the lessons must be conducted in the Spanish language. Catalan parents are not granted similar privileges.

Of course, Madrid sees the situation in different colours. But in this case the Catalans’ understanding plays a crucial role, for as long as they feel discriminated, they will not calm down. Some would refuse the ambition for an independent state in exchange for an agreement on a new Constitution, which would provide more rights to autonomous regions, or maybe even lay the ground for a federal state. But this option is also unacceptable to Madrid.

Officially, Lithuania supports Spain. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius has pointed out that there is no doubt that Spain is a legal and democratic state capable of resolving their own internal affairs as provided by law. Many EU countries have a similar view. Even Vytautas Landsbergis, when interviewed by the Catalan newspaper El Punt Avui, was uncharacteristically reluctant to speak openly, noting that he does not have enough legitimacy to speak for Lithuania and for the world, but you cannot prohibit a nation from seeking independence. Asked about advice for Catalonia if Spain refused to discuss the referendum, he said that “an unsolicited advice is not the best course of action.”

Colla-Xiquets-Valls-Paris-GuardiolaMarina_ARAIMA20140608_0185_14Former Latvian President Vaira Vike Freiberga maintained a stronger position. At the beginning of the year she stated that if people want to preserve their national identity and think that the central government fails to represent their interests, it is necessary to allow them to hold a referendum, since a referendum is an expression of people’s choice and attitudes.

Lithuania’s hopes that the Catalan problem will be somehow solved by itself are groundless. For eight years, the tension between Madrid and Barcelona has been dramatically increasing. If Spain blocks the referendum of 9 November, the situation will become even worse, and Catalans will be making more fuss. There will be no miracle from above.

When Lithuania sought its independence, the Western countries urged Lithuania to realistically assess the situation and to act with restraint. This attitude provoked many Lithuanians who identified it with the denial of values ​​and self-determination of nations and indulging the Soviets. Remember the flood of joy when little Iceland dared to incur the wrath of Moscow and was the first to recognise our independence. With regard to Catalonia, Lithuania consistently adheres to the policy once openly condemned.

Lithuania’s attitude is not honouring. A nation enslaved for centuries must be granted the sacred right for self-determination. We should not be indifferent to others’ desire for freedom. Lithuania will surely not announce publicly that it supports Catalan independence, but it could publicly, and even more privately, urge Madrid to start a dialogue, to search for a compromise and take into account the desire of the Catalans to solve the most important issues by way of referendum.

Linkevičius made a proper remark when he stated that “it is incorrect to compare the Soviet Union and our struggle for freedom with the situation in Spain” which is a state of law. But we can also learn from the Czechoslovakian “velvet” divorce when the Slovaks were fed up with the little brother’s role just as the Catalans are with the Spanish claims to be the big brother. Certainly, there were concerns about the potential consequences, but it is now clear that the secession was necessary and mutually beneficial.

In the democratic European Union, a nation of seven million should not be forced against their will to submit to another one, no matter how close they might be. Lithuanian politicians should recall our past and try to understand the Catalans’ desire for sovereignty rather than maintain the status quo automatically.

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