The best things come in small packages, the saying goes. Iceland, a country of 300,000 inhabitants, is a small package, and could offer a great gift for Catalan independence. It was the first state in the world to recognize the independence of the three Baltic republics - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - in 1991. It was also first to respond to Slovenia and Croatia when they broke away from Yugoslavia. Iceland issued a challenge to all the great powers, who wanted to sacrifice the Baltics in order not to weaken Mikhail Gorbachev, with whom the West had negotiated the end of the Cold War.
Behind the Icelandic decision was Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, then Foreign Minister for the island nation, a man who in those five countries is treated as though he were a founding father. He even had the nerve to travel to the Baltic capitals in August 1991, just at the moment that the Latvian and Estonian parliaments declared their independence in spite of the highly threatening presence of Soviet troops.
Hannibalson is 78 years old and has had a long political career. He was president of the Icelandic Social Democratic Party (1984–1996), and served as Minister of Finance (1987–1988) and of Foreign Affairs (1988–1995). His diplomatic career took him to the US and Mexico between 1998 and 2002; to Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania between 2002 and 2005 and to Ukraine from 2004 to 2006. He was also leader of the delegation that took part in the formation of EFTA. He is about to publish The Baltic Road to Freedom and is one of the protagonists of the documentary Those Who Dare, which premiered in London this past Wednesday.
The argument of the European Union for not getting involved in the Catalan question is that it would establish a bad precedent for other nations and peoples of Europe, who would also ask for EU intervention. Scotland and Flanders are always given as examples of this, and from time to time Lombardy and Corsica are also mentioned.
Well, there are alternatives. Madrid's version is that the matter is only a legal question. They say: “According to the Constitution, a self-determination referendum is illegal and we have the right to use force to stop it”. The case of Catalonia, however, is not for the most part a legal issue. It is a political problem that demands political solutions. This means, in the first place, that Madrid has to totally reject the use of violence. Secondly, political negotiation needs to be opened up. The EU's duty is not to stand by and shrug its shoulders. It cannot say that this is a Spanish internal matter.
Brussels should send a delegation to Madrid to ensure that violence is not used and make a structured proposal to hold formal talks [between the Spanish and Catalan governments].
And what should the EU do, then?
This is 2017. The EU was set up in the 1950s to avoid the use of force, which is the great lesson of the two world wars. It came into being to institutionalize the solution of conflicts without violence and by democratic means. The primary reason for the existence of the EU is to avoid violence, to offer a peaceful solution, a path for mediation.
Brussels should send a delegation to Madrid to ensure that violence is not used and make a structured proposal to hold formal talks [between the Spanish and Catalan governments]. No democrat can deny or reject the right of the Catalans to express their will in a democratic and recognized referendum. That would be an anachronism.
Nobody wants to recognize a new country in Europe.
Well, there are times when recognizing new states is an imperative for the major powers [of the EU]. Remember Yugoslavia. Several of the parts that made up the country (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia) wanted to secede. The dominant part, Serbia, intended to resolve the issue by force, because it controlled the army. Unfortunately it was permitted to. The EU should have intervened earlier, at the beginning of the conflict, accepting that Yugoslavia could not remain united except by force. Unfortunately, in the EU there was a lack of political leadership to do this. We would have saved all those bloody episodes.
The Catalans are absolutely entitled for this right [to self-determination] to be recognized in their case, just as in Scotland.
Neither the Baltic states nor the ex-Yugoslav countries are saying anything on Catalonia.
That is is very strange, very strange. However, nobody can expect those countries to suddenly say “Okay, we recognize the independence of Catalonia”. This is not the question, it is not the role for external players right now. What should be expected of them is that they defend the rights of the Catalans, or of any other people, to self-determination by democratic means. The Catalans are absolutely entitled for this right to be recognized in their case, just as in Scotland, and the other countries are entitled to recognize the decision [of the Catalans]. It is not that complicated!
Are you suggesting that in so far as the Spanish government prevents the Catalans from deciding their future, it strengthens their case and the need for intervention by the EU?
If anybody has made all of this into a political affair it is precisely the Madrid government. Through its use of violence to prevent Catalans from expressing their wishes in a referendum, Madrid has crossed a red line and made the whole matter into a political affair that requires a political solution. The legal question is a secondary argument. Look at the Scottish case, which is far from concluded. If the British government misplays its political hand in the botch-up that is Brexit, Scotland will have no other option than independence if it wants to remain in the EU. When the Brexit referendum was held, the Scots voted in favour of remaining in the EU. Why do they have to follow the decision of the English to leave?
Iceland is not saying anything about the Catalan case either.
The thing is, we are in a crisis, you know? The government fell a few weeks ago and we are about to hold elections to constitute another - [on October 28th]. Because of that we have not yet spoken up.