Spanish prime minister Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

International Mediation is Not the Answer in Catalonia

Since Catalonia's referendum on independence on October 1, regional leaders and their sympathizers have called repeatedly for international mediation between the Catalan and Spanish governments. But external mediation would pose a severe threat to democracy and the rule of law – and not only in Spain.

MADRID – On the evening of October 10, Catalonia’s separatist president, Carles Puigdemont, stood before the regional parliament to deliver what was widely expected to be a unilateral declaration of independence. But he ended up offering a fudge. Despite asserting “the mandate that Catalonia become an independent state in the form of a republic,” he proposed “suspending the effects of the declaration of independence to undertake talks in the coming weeks.”

The performance left more questions than answers, but that was precisely the point. Puigdemont was not addressing anti-independence protesters on the streets of Barcelona, or Spanish citizens more broadly. He was speaking to the international community. Like his fellow Catalan separatists, Puigdemont knows that the movement’s only chance of moving forward lies in internationalization.

Since the Catalan regional government held an illegal referendum on independence on October 1, its separatist leaders and their sympathizers have called repeatedly for international mediation in their standoff with the Spanish government. The goal, exemplified by Puigdemont in his speech, is to make Catalonia appear magnanimous, in order to get the international community on its side.

The call for dialogue – such a sleek and simple request, fitting neatly into a 140-character tweet – resonates with much of the international media and the broader nebula known as the “international community.” International doyens, including former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, have also called for dialogue. In the face of chaos and confusion, what could be wrong with talking?

The answer, of course, is nothing. Democracy relies fundamentally on dialogue. At its core, a democratic system is simply a legal framework – underpinned by a constitution – that facilitates discussion and dispute resolution. It is not a static model. If there is a problem with the framework, the constitution can be changed, though this cannot be done frivolously. Democracy is hard work. It requires persuasion, alliances, and compromise. But, so long as society believes in it, it works.

It is when dialogue is pushed beyond the system’s constitutional bounds that the problem arises. There is no need to engage in the give and take of democracy if one can simply circumvent its ground rules. And, with all due respect for Annan and Tutu, this is what external mediation would amount to – and it would threaten to cripple Spanish democracy.

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That is why the world – and especially Europe – must resist Catalan separatists’ calls for international mediation. Nothing less than the future of the rule of law and constitutional democracy in Spain – and elsewhere – depends on it.

What is happening in Catalonia is a problem for the Spanish nation and, in particular, for a divided Catalan society. And, while Spain is a relatively young democracy, it is also a mature one, having endured many challenges in the 42 years since the death of the dictator Francisco Franco. We should let its robust and vibrant system work.

The good news is that, so far, the European Union and its member states have taken precisely this stance. French President Emmanuel Macron rejected European intervention, declaring that it would “give reason to those who do not respect the rule of law.”

At the European level, European Council President Donald Tusk, despite some ambiguous statements on the topic, urged Puigdemont to “respect the constitutional order.” European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans declared that the Catalan regional authorities had “chosen to ignore the law,” and that if one of the three pillars of European societies – “democracy, respect for the rule of law, and human rights” – is removed, “the others will fall. too.”

But the pressure to internationalize – or, specifically, to “Europeanize” – the crisis will continue. The Catalan separatist leaders are smart and media-savvy. They know that scenes of violence, or even a prolonged stalemate, would weaken European leaders’ resolve not to get involved. They also know that in an increasingly intergovernmental EU, some member states would not necessarily consider the prospect of a weakened Spain to be a negative outcome.

European leaders must not succumb to this temptation. The EU is, at its core, a construction of law. Facilitating the erosion of the rule of law and democracy should be anathema to its leaders. It should also be abhorrent to member states, which continue to guard their sovereignty and prerogatives.

More broadly, if democracy in Spain, in the heart of Western Europe, can be weakened so fundamentally, so can democracy everywhere. If, however, Spain is given the space to work through the challenge it faces, the rule of law will be reinvigorated. For those who proclaim themselves to be champions of liberal democracy, short-circuiting that possibility is as irresponsible as it is hypocritical.

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