There is no such thing as failure. Richard Branson

Madrid's Heavy Hand

The right to self-determination is a concept that aggravates Madrid more than a red cloth aggravates a Spanish bull. Whoever wants to anchor it in the Spanish constitution is by default a sympathizer of the radical group ETA. That view is shortsighted. The renunciation of violence can lead to peaceful self-determination.

In the empire of king Juan Carlos I., pride (especially the pride of a Spaniard) can kill. Half a million people were killed in the civil war between 1936 and 1939. Another 150.000 were executed by Franco’s fascist troops after the civil war ended in order to protect “Spanish unity”. In the Navarra province alone, the henchmen of General Francisco Franco assassinated one per cent of the population in order to put an end to the Basque pursuit of liberty. Yet in today’s Madrid, it is still more politically correct to refer to the 860 people killed by the ETA in 51 years than it is to mention the victims of General Franco. Or, for that matter, the 350 people killed as part of state repressions against ETA and the 750 political convicts in Spanish prisons.

Only “España” counts as a nation

Although Franco died in 1975, the constitution from 1978 adopted his ideal of an “inseparable entity” of the “Spanish nation”. Article 6 of the constitution still upholds the idea that the Spanish nation is defended by the nation’s military against external and internal enemies.

In 2006, Army Chief of Staff José Mena Aguado declared himself combat-ready in order to fight the new Catalan status of autonomy. He saw Spain endangered because Catalunya had been attempting to become a nation. Yet according to the Spanish constitution, this status is only entitled to España. The regions are called “nationalities” and their autonomy can be suspended by an act of parliament. Thankfully, in 2006, the tanks stayed in the barracks and the general came under house arrest. Instead, the conservative People’s Party sent constitutional judges to decide the case. This summer, they put an end to Catalonian independence.

This act might have saved the spirit of the constitution but it also destroyed the autonomous state. The decision of the Supreme Court communicates the disastrous message to the Catalans that the Basques already know: You can democratically decide whatever you want – Madrid will have the final say. Prior to the court decision, the population of Catalonia had given their blessing three times, through the parliaments of Barcelona and Madrid and recently in a popular referendum. Over 1.5 million Catalans have protested against Madrid’s arbitrariness. Since then, the approval for Catalonian independence from Spain has risen to a historic 47 per cent.

Non-violence as an avenue for discussion

In the Basque country, another movement is opening avenues for debate and compromise despite Madrid’s heavy hand. Faced with prosecution from the state and threatened in its existence, the left-wing independence movement of the Basque country still manages to launch peace initiatives. It even prompted ETA to acknowledge the primacy of politics and to renounce violence. The case of Northern Ireland has illustrated where this important step might lead: lasting solutions to long-simmering conflicts become possible when violence is excluded from the toolkit of activism. Now Madrid has to decide whether to accept this offer and consider the right to self-determination.

The Irish Sinn-Fein leader Gerry Adams has been working with ETA to convince them to embrace his “How to Make Peace” strategy of non-violence. Now it would be useful if the EU helped the Spaniards (like it did in 1975, after the end of the Franco regime) to reform their constitution. The chances that might arise from compromise are tangible: Denmark and the United Kingdom have shown us that the right to self-determination has not “balkanised” Greenlanders and Scots. It has led not to break-ups of the nation-state but to lasting peace.

Read more in this debate: Clá Riatsch, Florian Weber, David Torrance.


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