It’s been a week of hell for the Spanish government. Faced with the daunting task of dealing with a rising tide of nationalism and defiance by the local Catalonia government, it has taken to enforcing the law through arrests of officials, confiscation of materials and deployment of security forces in an effort to prevent a local referendum on independence for the east Spanish region. And the government of Catalonia is literally on the run, denied a chance to make a moral statement by the Spanish authorities. The situation shows no sign of calming down, but whatever happens next, there must be intervention and out of the box thinking to prevent the unthinkable.

Nobody likes civil conflict. It’s messy, frightening, and worst of all, leaves scars that linger long into the future. Most civil conflicts have been bloody, and while almost always there is a victor, the whole mess afterwards becomes the real problem. Throughout history, civil conflict generally has been about one side wishing to no longer be a part of the other. It can happen for the most varied of reasons – religion, slavery, language, or even money, but whatever the cause, the ending is always the same – death, destruction and animosity.

Soft breakup

There have been exceptions, such as the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia, which took effect on 1st of January in 1993, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia emerging from what became known as the Velvet divorce. That event proved that with proper cooperation, independence can be achieved without conflict.

But the question is can this be done with Spain? I have no desire to take a position on this issue, because I genuinely believe that both sides have good reasons for their stance, but I will say that I believe that the Spain we know today will not be the same country in twenty years’ time. It will be smaller, of that I have no doubt. How that happens is really up to the Spanish people. Conflict or negotiation – those are the only two options and it is imperative that Europe must avoid the possibility of a new Yugoslavian outcome. Some may see this threat as nonsense, and say that the Spanish people are not as divided as the people of the Balkans – and yes, I would agree with that on the most part, but when nationalistic tendencies are involved, history tends to show us that a once unified collective can become enemies very quickly if the wrong ingredients are mixed together. Those ingredients tend to be misinformation, lack of communication, a small bunch of people with a hidden agenda, and a media looking to fuel the fires for a great story.

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Catalonia’s President Carles Puigdemont

Already we are beginning to see these ingredients emerge with a lot of the non Spanish media appearing to be taking a side with Catalonia, or at least focusing on them in their articles. I see very little interviews with the Spanish government, while soundbites from the leaders in Catalonia are everywhere. Why? Because it’s sexy to listen to the rebel. Yet, in this case, balance is not only essential, it’s crucial.

EU fence sitting

And what of the EU? Why have we seen little or no movement from the powers that be in Brussels? They may claim that there is some kind of a conflict of interest should they were to become involved in what is clearly a domestic dispute, but surely the situation requires a broker in this rising conflict?  I am hoping that behind the scenes there is work being done, but I am not confident, as usually anything the EU Commission does tend to be a glaringly public affair. Last week under pressure from the Spanish media, a top EU official said that any new independent state would become ‘a third country’. What good is it to state that issue right now? Surely there needs to be a certain amount of holding back before any decision can be made about a possible independent Catalonia. An answer like that only tends to push one side or another further towards the edge and is counterproductive in the short term. The EU needs to be publicly stepping in somehow and be seen to be offering to be the middle person. Staying neutral is not an option, because whatever the outcome, Europe will eventually have to face the end result.

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Prime Minister of Spain Mariano Rajoy

The independence problem is not going to go away, and the Spanish government can forcibly kick the proverbial can down the road and try to deal with it later, but it won’t matter in the long run. Catalonia’s independence fire will not flicker out and the situation could get worse if the likes of the Basque region see the current crisis as an opportunity to revive their own call for independence. So what can be done to extinguish the heat before it reaches flash point? For Spain, it is indeed a matter of pride and who can blame them. Their uttermost fear is that this will be the beginning of a large scale break up of the nation with one region after another following suit should Catalonia be successful. Spain is one of Europe’s oldest nations and any loss of part of that nation will hurt its people deep down. On the other hand, Catalonia is feeling isolated and cornered, believing that is has been morally wounded and now facing a national government who, in their eyes, has shown little respect and intends to dismantle its right to govern. But regardless of the current sate of relationships, there must be alternatives available.

A future federal union

Could this be the moment for a new constitution based on a proper federal system with all the regions enjoying a reviewed level of autonomy and Madrid as a state upon itself in the new map of Spain? A federal Spain may even be a successful template for a future federal Europe in which smaller autonomous states make up the bulk of a new type of membership.

But whatever the future holds for the Iberian peninsula, the option for conflict, no matter how small, cannot be the answer. The people involved on both sides right now need to take big breath, step back a few metres and come to the table as Europeans, not Catalans or Spanish. And the EU needs to be sitting right in the middle, ensuring that their motto, united in diversity, is in constant view of the negotiating teams.

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