Catalan independence: 'Nicola Sturgeon is being a candid friend to the EU over its mistake in backing Spain's crackdown'

The EU has refused to recognise the result of Catalonia's independence referendum

Catalonia's independence referendum was marred by violence - and the aftermath has no less shambolic

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Let's dispense with one silly myth from the outset - there is no longer any credible doubt over whether the people of Catalonia want their country to become independent. 

The Spanish government staked everything on disrupting the October 1 referendum to such an extent that it would never be clear which side would have won under free and fair conditions. Given the inconclusive nature of the opinion polls, there seemed every chance they would succeed in that endeavour, but they failed utterly. 

Approximately 38% of the entire registered electorate braved the intimidation and violence to cast a vote in favour of independence. Even if we completely ignore the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were prevented from voting, and that there is no reason to doubt that the overwhelming majority of them would have voted Yes, the official result is more than sufficient to conclude that a Yes victory would have been virtually inevitable no matter how high the turnout. 

For a No win to be even arithmetically possible, there would have had to be a percentage turnout at least in the high 70s, and practically every single additional vote cast would have had to be No - which is plainly in the realms of fantasy. EU leaders such as Guy Verhofstadt demean themselves by maintaining the pretence that they just 'know' by some mysterious means that Catalans don't want independence. Most EU citizens possess calculators, even if their political representatives apparently don't.

So now that a democratic mandate for an independent Catalonia has been firmly established, the million-dollar question is this: what should leaders sympathetic to the Catalan cause, such as Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, actually do or say about it? Ms Sturgeon is not short of advice from opponents in other political parties and the media, and the consensus from them is the usual one - that she should be scared of her own shadow and do absolutely nothing. Otherwise she risks offending Spain and jeopardising an independent Scotland's EU membership. Otherwise she risks demonstrating that the Scottish national movement does not always respect the rule of law, which might damage her standing with the electorate. Otherwise she risks encouraging anti-EU sentiment among her own supporters, potentially undoing decades of work in framing Scottish independence as an internationalist project. Risk, risk, risk.

A cynic might suggest that if Sturgeon's rivals want her to be scared, it's a sign that they actually fear her boldness. Certainly the concern about turning SNP supporters against the EU is an obvious red herring, because the EU is already doing a sterling job in that respect without requiring any help from her. Nobody in Scotland was ever naive enough to expect the EU to defy one of its own member-states by taking an open stand in favour of self-determination, but there has been genuine shock that the EU nailed its colours so firmly to the mast in supporting a violent Spanish crackdown against democracy. 

A number of independence supporters who were lifelong advocates of EU membership are now wondering for the first time whether EFTA might be a better and more ethical bet. Arguably Ms Sturgeon is in fact doing all she realistically can to stem the loss of support for the EU by pointing out, as she did in her SNP conference speech, that the EU's words and actions have parted company with the EU's own values on democracy and human rights. If the EU changes tack and demonstrates that those values were not a sham all along, faith will be quickly restored.  

And the importance of a change of heart goes way beyond the future relationship between Scotland and the EU. Authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary will have already noted the double standard of human rights violations in their own countries being deemed a legitimate matter for the whole of Europe, while Spain taking political prisoners is supposedly an internal matter for Spain alone. The trajectory is obvious - the EU will have to start falling silent on human rights across Europe and the wider world unless it speaks up about Spain. Indeed, it is now in the overwhelming interests of Europe for Spain to emerge on the losing side of this dispute, even if Europe's leaders haven't quite worked that out yet.

As far as the risk to Ms Sturgeon of being seen to be on the wrong side of Spanish law is concerned, she’s in the enviable position of not actually having to decide whether to formally recognise a unilateral declaration of independence, which admittedly would be a choice fraught with genuine dangers. Only a sovereign country can recognise the sovereign independence of another, and Scotland is not yet a sovereign country.  What she will do instead is speak for both the rule of law and the inalienable right of stateless nations to democratic self-determination. 

Those two principles are perfectly reconcilable provided that the law gives way as soon as it proves to be incompatible with democracy. When the law makes voting illegal, and empowers thugs to use violence on behalf of the state to prevent votes being cast, then the law is the problem, not the voters. EU leaders will remain in a very dark place until they embrace that obvious truth, and there’s no reason whatever for Ms Sturgeon to join them there.