As one might have expected, the Catalonia problem is getting problematic. Spain HQ aka Madrid is gearing up to take away Catalonia’s powers in some sort of direct rule power-play. No rebellions allowed!

After an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday morning, Rajoy said he was invoking article 155 of the constitution to “restore the rule of law, coexistence and the economic recovery and to ensure that elections could be held in normal circumstances”. The speaker of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, called the measures a “de facto coup d’etat”.

… Citing the Catalan government’s “conscious and systematic rebellion and disobedience”, Rajoy said Carles Puigdemont’s government would be stripped of its powers and its functions would be assumed by the relevant ministries in Madrid …

“We are not ending Catalan autonomy but we are relieving of their duties those who have acted outside the law,” he said.

So let’s answer some more questions.

Could Catalonia be a country?

Could Catalonia be a country? asks the BBC, without mentioning once the only thing that matters here, namely how to get RECOGNISED as a country by most/all other countries.

This one takes us to First Principles of both international law and negotiation.

The Ur-First Principle of international law and diplomacy as a whole is that states exist, or they don’t. When you get a space where its statehood is contested (most notably Kosovo, but there are other examples), the situation is messy and unhappy.

Why would anyone serious invest in a territory whose very legal identity is at best unclear? Passports? Membership of key international organisations? What are we dealing with here? Interminable arguing over this sort of thing is wearying for the world and seriously weakens the ‘state’ concerned, just when it needs to be focusing on doing well.

This is no accident. Statehood carries with it all sorts of responsibilities, even if in practice the rulers of many states ignore them. So states that currently exist keep a beady eye on the possibility of creating new states. What sort of precedent is going to be set in both outcome terms and process terms?


Yes, the Catalans might make a decent case that they have the right to self-determination under international law. But if their case is accepted, what about Chechens and Tatars and Kurds and scores of other territorially defined minorities who might fancy their chances of going it alone? Under optimal conditions lots of countries will be cautious here, and we do not have optimal conditions.

EU mediation?

What? The EU is nowhere to be seen? How can that be?

At this moment of acute peril for the European project, Jean-Claude Juncker, the notoriously garrulous commission president, has fallen silent. A spokesman’s brief statement on Monday sided with Rajoy and said, feebly, there was nothing Juncker could do.

A golden chance to pull back from the abyss was missed again on Wednesday when Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the commission, called for dialogue and an end to violence – but failed to offer assistance in, say, the form of an EU mediator, insisting it was an “internal matter”.

Spain (not unreasonably) does not want non-Spanish EU people poking their noses into its own business. The Spanish leadership will have put the word round the EU top brass that they will do best to keep quiet if they do not want a furious Spanish reaction. The EU has no right to say a word on this without Spain’s consent: Spain is part of the EU!

It follows that EU ‘mediation’ is not an option either. Of course if Madrid agreed to it, some clever ways could be found with senior EU support to bring in friendly distinguished outsiders eg from Latin America to help chair some meetings aimed at re-establishing dialogue. There must be some sensible Latin American Spanish-speaking ex-Presidents with the political and moral authority to take this on.

But this in itself needs careful choreographing so as not to come across as Spanish national weakness or humiliation. See how carefully President Bill Clinton negotiated with London a way to help move things along in Northern Ireland.

Can’t the EU intervene in some other way?


The EU elite might be wondering if they can find some plausible legal locus for pronouncing on this situation as they have done on Poland’s supposed breaches of fundamental principles. But that is scarcely a happy precedent:

The job of EU leaders in Brussels in cases like this is to calibrate their responses with extra subtlety and sensitivity. Anyone who knows anything at all about Poland and PiS understands that open, clumsy, foreign pressure on Warsaw from anyone with a German-sounding name will play straight into their political hands.

So much better to have a quiet private and above all respectful word with key PiS Ministers, and take it cautiously from there…

Yes! In situations like this you lose all sensible leverage once you start ‘speaking out’. Less is more!

On the substance, there is no case that within Spain Catalans get a raw deal. On the contrary. They enjoy some of the best human rights on the planet.

That might change depending on how clumsily Madrid tries to implement new controls over who does what in Catalonia. But for now there’s no legal case for any Brussels ‘intervention’ that might make a helpful difference.

So does Spain have a veto?


The bottom line here is simple. Unless there is an extraordinary drastic turn of events, Catalonia CAN NOT be an independent country UNLESS Spain itself recognises that as such. Then there is no issue of principle and the rest of the world can shrug, agree, and carry on.

If war breaks out and other states decide to recognise Catalonia to help it defend itself (perhaps as part of a wider disintegration of Spain – see the collapse of Yugoslavia and the way many states moved to recognise different republics to help them get going), that might be different.

But even then it’s hard to imagine Spain not crushing Catalan resistance far more quickly than anything can be done to stop that. Why recognise something that is never going to work or be viable?


Now you’re talking.

But in any negotiation it’s important to be clear what the negotiating is in fact about.

Spain is unlikely to enter any negotiation that has as even a theoretical option Smaller Spain. Why would Madrid do that? It would be conceding the principle for nothing, then merely encouraging endless Catalan haggling over the price.

But, of course, the negotiating is not just what’s happening in meetings. The ‘real’ negotiating here is now the intensity of Catalonia’s defiance and Spain’s direct rule moves. How does each side value the possible outcomes?

Can Catalonia raise the cost to Spain so much that Madrid has no choice but to reconsider its fundamental principles?

Can Madrid raise the cost to Catalonia so much that its people glumly back down?

Thus the next layers:

Which side can inflict pain more painfully on the other?

Which side can endure pain the longer?

The negotiation is about will-power.

Once things get into that territory and Pride is at stake, sensible ‘rational’ calculation tumbles out of the window.

Is Madrid making a big mistake with this ‘direct rule’ play?

Maybe yes.

Seen from far away, it looks to be much wiser to do nothing much in a purposeful way. Make loud more-in-sorrow-than-anger public noises about dialogue, but otherwise let Catalonia stew in its own juice and feel all sorts of costs and unhappiness from the current mess.

Madrid surely needs the case to be overwhelming in itself that something like the status quo is THE reasonable option. A good part of being reasonable and persuasive is not to try to sound ‘tough’ and peremptory. Use words like fair and dialogue, not punish, disobedience and rebellion.

But no doubt Madrid’s leaders have their own political reasons for wanting to come across as ‘tough’ or at least ‘firm’. This is where ‘cultural’ factors are so important and subtle. Projecting a sense of calm measured wisdom in the face of what looks like direct provocation may just not be an option in the local psychology of the leaders concerned and wider public opinion.

Offer Catalonia a deal within wider Spanish constitutional reform?

Why not? That kicks the ball into the long grass.

But NB it works only if Catalonia accepts a no independence outcome in principle, if only by implication. When you sit down at a negotiating table, you first accept the agenda and rules of the meeting.

Therefore what?

States exist. Or they don’t.

Therefore mess and division and mistrust beget more mess and division and mistrust. Confrontation escalates and leads to everyone being poorer and angrier and more divided.

It gets easier to fight than think – and talk.