diumenge, 16 de febrer de 2014

Foreign policy roundtable stresses need to work towards international recognition

The Catalan National Assembly, a civic umbrella group working for a referendum in Catalonia, conquered by force of arms by Spain in 1714, held a fourth talk on post-independence foreign policy, within “The Country We Want” series. The two speakers were Liz Castro, American-born, originally from California, who has helped to make Catalonia known to the world, writing a number of books and articles in English. She currently serves as coordinator of online newspaper Vilaweb's English-language edition. Jordi Vazquez, a business graduate, is the editor of Help Catalonia, a private entity devoted to public diplomacy. He has a long curriculum working to inform the world about Catalonia's freedom movement. Over a couple of hours, Vàzquez and Castro discussed how to work to ensure the speedy recognition of independent Catalonia, also going over other issues such as the role of civil society in public diplomacy and how to ensure Catalans abroad are not denied their right to vote.

Liz Castro: Catalonia has powerful cards up her sleeve to negotiate with the EU.

Following the presentation of the two speakers, Liz Castro opened the event, explaining how at first her purpose had been to inform her friends and acquaintances about what was going on in Catalonia. She stressed how the news circuit, often going through Madrid, made it difficult for events in Catalonia to reach international audiences.

She then next referred to Catalonia's economy, equivalent in size to that of Finland, which makes it impossible for Catalonia to be excluded from Europe. Furthermore, the current euroskeptic wave makes it even less likely for the EU to try to exclude Catalonia, a net contributor to Brussel's budget. In addition, the more than 3,500 foreign companies in Catalonia constitute an added powerful voice to defend continued EU membership.

Castro also discussed the intoxications one often finds in the media. As an example, she cited the “Barcelona Declaration”, which at first seemed to have been signed by more than 50 powerful German businessmen allegedly against the coming referendum, but that was quickly disowned by BASF. Also significant were the recent words of Josep Oliu, Bank Sabadell chairman, saying that although he personally did not expect Catalonia to recover independence, it should not be a problem for his bank. The third example was the claim by Jaime Malet, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Spain, who said that many American enterprises were worried, only to be immediately corrected the following day by US Ambassador to Spain James Costos, who said that no companies were worried about this.

According to Castro, Madrid is not free to do what she wants, due to her huge national debt. The debt is also important because, if Madrid wishes Barcelona to take up a portion, then she must open negotiations with Catalonia. Should Spain fail to recognize Catalonia, then Catalonia would not be bound to re-pay any part of the former's national debt. Castro next discussed the different European institutions and organizations, and the euro, and Catalonia's prospects for continued membership. While noting that it was by no means a foregone conclusion that Catalonia would be excluded from the EU, she stressed how countries like Norway or Switzerland did not belong to the Union and this was no bar to a very high standard of living. She also explained how European law did not provide for German reunification, and this was no obstacle for immediate East-German membership once the two Germanies had reunited. It was then, and it is now, basically a matter of finding political solutions.

Concerning recognition, Castro explained that no state would speak out about Catalonia until a referendum had been held. Then, once Catalans had voted, foreign governments would follow suit. She then proceeded to describe what, for her, were Catalonia's outstanding characteristics. She emphasized the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises, the high degree of solidarity (as clear in the yearly TV3 television fund-raising marathon), and the strength of civil society, which has pushed forward a peaceful independence process. Being a small country can also be an advantage, since they tend to work better than bigger entities.


Jordi Vàzquez: 'We must fight to gain recognition by the 193' UN member states

Vàzquez opened his address stressing the importance of Sants, together with Gracia, two of Barcelona's most active districts, and thanking them for their role in promoting the independence movement within Catalonia's capital. He then explained the significance of recognition by other countries, stressing that some states had proclaimed independence yet failed to gain recognition. Northern Cyprus and Abkhazia were among the examples he cited. Thus, “what we must fight for, and this why we set up Help Catalonia, is to gain recognition by the 193” UN member states. According to Vàzquez, “many of us are no longer Spanish”, having mentally broken away from Spain, and therefore now the time has come to declare independence and to get other countries to recognize us as no longer Spaniards. Taking into account all examples of unrecognized states, making Catalonia known around the world is essential. Following the Spanish Civil War, Catalonia disappeared from the maps. Furthermore, Madrid worked hard to ensure that this remained so. It was a “silent war”, a strategy where one tries to silence one's enemy. This is the “silent war” against which Help Catalonia was created. The goal was “to make friends, find allies”, so that “the Catalan Republic is recognized by these friends”. Vàzquez stressed the need for Catalonia to have relations with all countries in the world, no matter what their nature was. Normal countries have embassies everywhere, “Iran, North Korea, everywhere”. Thanks to Help Catalonia, foreign journalists have an alternative view on the table, media outlets like the BBC can now get information direct from Catalonia. They no longer have to exclusively rely on Madrid, Help Catalonia speaks their language, English. Furthermore, Help Catalonia not only communicates in English, it uses the terminology of the international media. As an example, Help Catalonia has succeeded in labelling Spanish nationalists as “unionists”, and acts of political violence against Catalonia as “terrorism”.

Vàzquez explained how Help Catalonia did not emphasize the tax plunder of Catalonia, since this is something that other countries do not care about. Instead, Help Catalonia explains how Spain is trying to prevent Catalans from voting, which is something that no democrat can ignore. It also informs about Spain's wasteful economic policies, using subsidies from the EU to, among others, build huge embassies and trains to nowhere. Help Catalonia also informs the world's defence and security think-tanks about Spain's failure to do her duty as a NATO member, acting like a security consumer and not a security provider.

Now it is the time for Catalan civil society to devote her efforts to public diplomacy, instead of relying on the Catalan Government, Vàzquez stressed. This is necessary for a number of reasons. First, to avoid accusations that the independence movement was government-directed, instead of a grass roots development. Second, because the Catalan Government could be accused of wasting resources if it spent much on diplomacy while being forced to implement cuts in health care and education. Third, in order to bypass the legal limitations under which it labours when acting abroad, which the Spanish regime is trying to tighten even further.

Vàzquez then outlined the origins and the work of Help Catalonia, stressing that it operated in a number of languages, including not only English but also French, German, and Spanish. It is staffed by volunteers, based all over the world. In addition to directly informing about events in Catalonia, Help Catalonia has often assisted media outlets interested in conducting interviews or filming documentaries in Catalonia. Volunteers do not receive any kind of compensation. Help Catalonia has also conducted a number of events, including a guided visit to Catalonia's Parliament, where lawmakers had the chance to explain the mediaeval origins of the institution to a group of foreign journalists. Another guided visit took place last year, on the occasion of Catalonia's 11 September National Day, when a dinner with foreign journalists was held.

Help Catalonia has cooperation agreements with other organizations, like the Catalan Business Circle. Since, “unfortunately some people do not read much,” Help Catalonia also designs infographs and multimedia guides, which are spread in the social media, reaching a lot of people. While Help Catalonia denounces Spanish nationalism, including violent threats and Nazi propaganda, it also seeks to put forward a positive message, welcoming developments like Monarch Airlines' Catalan-language website, and informing about attractive episodes of Catalan history like Pau Casal's UN address. While in the past, many Spanish nationalist deeds went unnoticed in Europe and the wider world, in recent years Catalans have started to systematically denounce policies like government subsidies for the Francisco Franco Foundation, which Madrid funds.

Vàzquez concluded his address stressing that it was other organizations' job to win the referendum, while Help Catalonia's was to contribute to gaining international recognition for the new state.

Who will recognize Catalonia first? Both speakers were asked to give their opinion on who would likely recognize Catalonia first. Castro believes that recently-independent countries like the Baltic Republics could be the first, and that the United States, which favours stability, would follow. Vázquez believes that Scandinavian countries will immediately recognize Catalonia, and that countries opposed to Spain will follow suit. An example is the United Kingdom, which would have easily recognized Catalonia if she had declared independence last summer, while Gibraltar was suffering a blockade. He also explained that Help Catalonia had a number of volunteers in Gibraltar, and that relations between Catalonia and the Rock were excellent. Israel is clearly in favour of Catalonia. Russia is traditionally more reluctant, but Putin seems to be shifting. African countries will probably wait and see what Western powers do, while South American countries and Portugal seem reluctant to date.  

Other Questions. 
One of the attendants asked Jordi Vàzquez whether Help Catalonia sought to engage ordinary citizens abroad. He explained how it very much did so, and how over the years they had received expressions of support from myriad countries. As time goes by, Spanish aggressions increasingly go unchallenged. An example he provided was a Filipino citizen who, on reading about Spain's attempts to stamp out Catalan from schools, wrote to Help Catalonia and sent pictures taken during the colonial period showing how Spanish authorities had imposed their language in the islands by force.

Another question to Vàzquez and Castro concerned the position of countries not mentioned earlier. In his reply, Vàzquez explained how France, which five years ago was rather reluctant toward Catalan independence, had now become neutral or even leaning towards recognition. Contacts with Quebec have helped, as have visits by French journalists to Catalonia.  Castro referred to Canada, explaining that Otawa was clearly in favour of Catalonia's referendum, in accordance with her strong democratic tradition.

A member of the public asked about the role of different Catalan entities and associations in public diplomacy. Vàzquez explained how Help Catalonia cooperated with a number of associations, including Catalan centres in many cities like London. Castro stressed the significance of Catalan centres abroad in helping to adapt one's narrative to each country, stressing those issues that could better connect with local public opinion. This led to the issue of the right to vote of Catalans abroad in the coming referendum, in danger from Madrid's grip over the election system to date. In the past, many Catalans have been de facto deprived of their right to vote, and Vàzquez stressed the need to work hard to ensure this did not happen again.

A question concerned the influence on the United States of a Israeli decision to recognize Catalan independence. Castro explained that Israel's recognition could have a significant impact on the United States, while Vàzquez added that the impact extended to many other countries as well. He also explained that Israel had already treated Catalan Prime Minister Mas as a head of state, and that her ambassador to Spain had visited the Born Cultural Centre and learned about the siege of Barcelona and occupation of Catalonia at the end of the War of Spanish Succession.

The roundtable took place at Cotxeres de Sants cultural centre, in Barcelona, at 1900 on the 13th of February 2014. A video of the event is available on line

Alex Calvo is an Asian defence and security expert

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