The need for peace

The need for peace

The elections on 21 December 2017 are the most important elections Catalonia has ever seen. They are the most important elections Spain has ever seen. They are one of the most important sets of elections in Europe since the end of the Second World War. So everybody – absolutely everybody – must vote. But voting on its own is not enough. When people vote, they must make it clear why they are voting and what they expect from their politicians.

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By Matthew Parish

Catalonia is at risk of slipping into Civil War. That is why I am writing this. That is why I am engaged in the Catalan crisis. I am not engaged because some Spanish or Catalan party is paying me. I am not engaged because I have political interests in Spain. I am engaged because I am a specialist in the resolution of civil conflicts. Catalonia is at risk of war. That is why I am here.

I am personally neutral upon the issue of whether Catalonia should become an independent state. I can see arguments in favour of it. I can see arguments against it. But my opinion is not important. My message is that constitutional crises of this kind are not new. They are not something the Spanish and the Catalans invented between themselves in 2012. The twentieth century is full of secessionist crises. History is full of them. Most international attempts to intervene in these crises have failed. Most ethno-territorial disputes about secession have resulted in civil war and widespread death of civilians. This means that the Catalan crisis is more likely than not to result in civil war and widespread death of civilians. The odds are in favour of war.

I am trying to stop that from happening. In order to help, I need you to vote, and I need you to demand that all your friends and relatives vote. I do not care how inconvenient or time-consuming it is for you to vote. I need everybody to vote. If it takes three hours of research to find your polling station, and five hours of standing in line in order to vote, I need you to vote. If you need to take a day off work as vacation in order to vote, then I need you to do that in order to vote.

I will predict how the Catalan civil war will start, if it starts. To repeat, it is more likely than not that this civil war will start, although I am here to try to stop that. The scenario is this. After the forthcoming elections, politics takes a more uncompromising turn. Political positions become entrenched. Tax revenues are withheld. More violent incidents occur. The economy of Catalonia, much of which is based upon tourism, industry and banking, plummets as tourists and investors flee. The economy of Spain suffers, as diminished Catalan tax revenues inhibit Spain’s ability to pay interest on its massive sovereign debt. Spain teeters ever more closely on the edge of sovereign debt default. Austerity is imposed by the European Union, in an attempt to balance Spain’s books. This means cutting social spending and increasing taxes even more.

This foments social unrest. The unemployed young of Spain riot in the streets, because they cannot afford to eat or pay rent. This creates a downward economic cycle. The Spaniards riot. The Catalans riot. The number of homeless and unemployed increase. The economy collapses, because political unrest deters investors and precipitates capital flight. Spain defaults on its foreign debts, amidst still more violent riots. This increases the pressure for Catalan independence, as the Catalans want to escape the Spanish catastrophe.

Madrid can afford that independence ever less, because Madrid’s tax base is eroding as the Catalan economy collapses. Nobody will lend Madrid any more money. Madrid stops being able to pay civil servants’ salaries. The pressure for austerity is increased from Brussels. The hardships suffered by the Spanish and Catalan people are compounded. Eventually something breaks. Somebody uses violence: either to take someone else’s money, or to stop someone else from taking their money. This is almost always how civil wars start.

If you imagine yourself a hero or a martyr to the cause, think again. if you think your blood will be admired as it drenches the Spanish or Catalan flag, think again. Nobody can win in this civil war. Nobody really won in Spain’s last Civil War. Many people on both sides died during and after the war. A generation was scarred by war and death. Spain descended into fascism and poverty. There are no winners in civil wars. The heroes are always dead, and so are their families.

Ask yourself whether your parents or grandparents should be martyrs to the cause. Ask yourself whether your infant children should be martyrs to the cause. Ask yourself whether your brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews should be martyrs to the cause. Ask yourself how a child or the elderly or infirm can agree voluntarily to be a martyr to the cause. Children and the elderly are the first victims of civil war. Ask yourself what gives you the right to decide whether innocent people should serve as martyrs to your ideology.

I have two daughters. They are seven and four. On one day in December every year, I have to explain to my daughters why their Mummy is so sad. That is because their Mummy came home from school in Bosnia and Herzegovina on that day, in 1992, to find her Mummy and Grandad murdered by their neighbours in the midst of a civil war. I spare you the details. You do not want to know them. I tell you this to shock you. I tell you this so that you stop and think. I tell you this so that you will choose the path of peace, negotiation and compromise. The decisions you make as Catalan voters matter. The decisions your politicians make, who you will be electing, matter. The people you elect are responsible to you.

Civil war has two necessary ingredients. One is shortage of money. There is not enough money to go round. In Catalonia, this condition is satisfied. Madrid needs Catalonia’s tax revenues to avoid going bankrupt. Catalonia needs its tax revenues to provide social care and public services to its population. As people argue over constitutional issues, the shortage of money is exacerbated. That is because political instability causes economic damage. Businesses lose confidence. Tourists stop coming. Investors pull their money out of banks. Tax revenues go down. The problem of shortage of money becomes ever worse.

The second necessary ingredient of a civil war is a pronounced sense of cultural diversity and difference. Economic inequality between regions exists in every country in the world. But there is no movement for the independence of Côte d’Azur, Hertfordshire or Tuscany. These regions do not have their own languages, or a sufficiently different culture from the states of which they form a part, to spawn an independence movement. By contrast, Catalonia satisfies the criterion of cultural difference.

Political crises involving attempts at secession and constitutional reform can be resolved. They are not hopeless. The solution is compromise through representation of differing opinions in flexible democratic institutions that people trust. Neither Spain nor Catalonia have these institutions. The people of Spain and Catalonia do not trust their governments. They do not trust their courts, that imprison peaceful politicians but fail to bring to trial corrupt politicians. They do not trust their electoral system, which is so frail that it appears to be rigged. They do not trust their elected officials, who are mired in scandal. They do not trust their journalists, who propagate ill-considered prejudice rather than well-researched, dispassionate debate.

The Spanish state, including many in Catalonia, is engaged in a massive exercise of theft. The Spanish state is not performing its most important task. That is to provide a forum for exchange of different views, and a trusted set of laws and institutions to resolve those differences in a way that everyone can accept even if they do not agree.

In Spain, and in Catalonia, none of this works. The result is that people are afraid. They are scared to speak out against lawyers, the courts, judges and the police. They are afraid to express opposition to powerful people. This explains why the newspapers in both Spain and Catalonia are held in such contempt. People use social media to exchange ideas, because they are afraid to express their views in the ordinary media. My predominant experience of peoples’ views amidst the Catalan crisis is that people are scared.

There are no easy solutions to secessionism. But civil war and violence are not inevitable. They can be prevented, even if the institutions of state fail their citizens. Spanish and Catalan political cultures are authoritarian. They are far too tolerant of corruption. But this can change. It is not a matter of left versus right. A vibrant democracy finds room for debate between different ideologies. I have my own ideology, but I respect those who do not agree with it. For political institutions to change, and to give effect to this concept of respect, people must demand it. Things will not get better if everyone overlooks corruption and participates in corruption themselves. Things will not get better if you remain quiet about the failures in modern Spanish and Catalan society, that everybody knows about but nobody speaks about. Things will not get better if you try to hide Spain’s painful historical legacy that continues to infect its political culture today.

People must demand higher standards of their politicians. They must demand that their politicians talk about the things that matter to people’s lives. They must demand that their politicians improve the legal system. They must make it clear that if politicians do not deliver upon these elementary reforms, they will be removed from office. People must vote on the basis of a politician’s competence, not on the basis of national affiliation or ideological division.

The elections on 21 December 2017 are the most important elections Catalonia has ever seen. They are the most important elections Spain has ever seen. They are one of the most important sets of elections in Europe since the end of the Second World War. So everybody – absolutely everybody – must vote. But voting on its own is not enough. When people vote, they must make it clear why they are voting and what they expect from their politicians.

The most important thing that people should expect from their politicians Is not a nationalist or anti-nationalist position. Nor should they demand a capitalist or a socialist position. Instead they should demand better courts; less corruption; a better media; greater political accountability to citizens’ problems; and the end of fear. People must explain what they expect of their politicians. They must demand these things.

After the elections, there will be a process of building a coalition. This is not some passive exercise for the people of Catalonia, in which politicians sit in smoke-filled rooms and make secret deals. Voters must tell their newly-elected politicians what they expect of a new Generalitat. They must be vocal, demanding that whatever coalition is formed soon thereafter deliver upon institutional reform. Voters must escape narrow divisions: separation versus union; socialism versus capitalism. They must tell their politicians that they want the Catalan government to work better.

If the Catalans can do this, the rest of Spain will follow. If Catalans raise the level of political discourse, Madrid will be embarrassed. Then the process of institutional reform can begin. It will be slow and painful. There are no quick fixes to the current dire situation. But gradual reform can begin. Demand rule of law. Demand fair courts. Demand an end to corruption. Demand constitutional reform: not just for Catalonia, but for all of Spain.

Whether or not independence comes for Catalonia, I am certain that it will not come quickly unless there is bloodshed. My job is to stop bloodshed, and to help Catalonia start to mend itself and emerge from its current crisis. In my opinion, whether or not Catalonia is able to obtain independence in the future depends upon whether Catalonia can reform itself more quickly and effectively than the rest of Spain. If it can, then Catalonia will be able to present an objective case for independence. You will be able to say that Catalonia works better than the rest of Spain. It has better courts, better laws, less corruption, more effective democracy, and a better government.

Catalonia is not yet there. But it can be. Catalonia’s future is bright, if its people want it to be bright. The Catalan crisis has revealed just how dysfunctional Spain is at resolving constitutional problems peacefully, and also just how ineffective the European Union is at mediating internal crises within its member states. The one good thing to emerge from the Catalan crisis is the stark exposure of grave problems with justice, freedom of the press, quality of democracy and the institutional ability to compromise.

Exposure of these problems means there is an opportunity to address them. But Catalan voters must make it clear that these are the things they are voting for. This is important not just at the ballot box, but in the days, weeks, months and even years after voting has concluded. Catalonia does not need any more snap elections. It needs stable government. At the same time, Madrid needs to support this and stop acting like a tyrant.

Catalonia is on the precipice of civil conflict. Were things otherwise, I would not be involved. Civil conflict is what I do. My presence in Catalonia is a bad thing. It means that events are out of control. To stabilise the situation, I need you to vote. If you do not vote, then someone else may vote for you. That will be no good. It must not happen. If there are lots of fraudulent ballots, then it will be much more difficult to find a path to peace.

I can help try to stabilise matters on an emergency basis. But Catalonia cannot operate within a state of political and economic emergency for much longer. Madrid and Barcelona must find a modus operandi immediately. They must agree on something, even if it is to disagree. There must be some sort of dialogue. Whatever the political future of Catalonia, it must be the product of negotiation and a process that everyone can accept the results of. It must not be the product of authoritarian posturing and violence.

The decision on the way forward now lies with the Catalan people. Voting is important, but it is not just a matter of going to a polling station. It is a matter of continuously pressing your elected politicians to improve. All the ugly features of politics, law and the economy must be discussed and improved. That is something you must do. Then, but only then, will Catalonia have a bright future.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He is a scholar of ethnic conflict and civil war, and he has published two books and over two hundred articles. He is an Honorary Professor of Civil Law and Litigation at the University of Leicester and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. Bilan magazine named him as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. www.matthewparish.com

This is the sixth in a series of articles written by Parish about the crisis in Catalonia – Reflection on the Catalan Conundrum; Catalan Independence; Sequestering Catalonia; Catalonia SuppressedCatalonia votesBallot fraud in the Catalan elections – could it happen?

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


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