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Paul Vallely: Brexit must learn from Catalonia

27 October 2017

Instability in Spain sends a vital message to the UK, Paul Vallely warns


Freedom!: pro-Catalan independence supporters protest in Madrid against the jailing of two prominent separatist leaders

Freedom!: pro-Catalan independence supporters protest in Madrid against the jailing of two prominent separatist leaders

IT IS difficult to consider the events in Catalonia and the rest of Spain without seeing them refracted through our own issues of devolution and self-determination in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But there are lessons for us in the heavy-handed way in which the politicians in both Madrid and Barcelona are conducting themselves.

There are obvious parallels in the desire of many Scots and Catalans for greater autonomy — although, among both, those who want outright secession are in a minority, albeit a substantial one. But the referendum on independence took place in Scotland within the framework of UK law: had the Scots voted to leave, the rest of us would have little choice but to acquiesce.

In contrast, the recent vote in Catalonia was not approved by the government in Madrid, which condemned the poll as illegal, and tried to quash it with some fairly brutal police tactics — and seems likely to do the same again this weekend to oust Catalan officials from their government offices.

Hardliners in Barcelona have threatened a massive campaign of civil disobedience. The prospect of serious violence cannot be discounted in a country that was, within living memory, torn apart by civil war, and where democracy was restored only four decades ago.

This grim lesson on how not to conduct such matters is one that we would do well to apply here, as we work through our pre-Brexit period of uncertainty. Nicola Sturgeon now seems to have ceased talking about the option that Scotland remains inside the EU when England leaves, although the Scots — who voted 62 per cent to remain — are looking for a different kind of post-Brexit settlement.

But things are likely to be more problematic in Northern Ireland, where 55 per cent voted to remain.

There seem four options for the Irish frontier. The first is a hard border, which no one seems to want, as the 300-mile boundary would be a smugglers’ paradise and threaten the Good Friday Agreement, which has brought peace to that troubled region.

The second is what the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, has called a “digital border”, where numberplate recognition and preregistered cargo would allow for a frontier that would be otherwise invisible. The Irish Foreign Minister has pronounced this to be unworkable.

The third, proposed by Sinn Fein, is a referendum for Irish reunification, which would outrage Ulster Unionists.

The remaining option, proposed by the Irish government, is for a special status for Northern Ireland, which would allow it to remain, in practical terms, part of the EU: immigration and customs checks would take place at ports and airports between Ireland and the UK. This would also allow Northern Ireland to retain its £600-million annual EU subsidy. But it would also enable Republicans to crow about de facto reunification.

None of these solutions is without problems. But the lesson from Spain seems to be that high-handed and principled assertions are best avoided in negotiations to find a way out of this predicament. Painting your opponents into a corner from which they have no way to escape without losing face is a recipe for political disaster.

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