[SCMP Column] Let Cool Heads Prevail

October 09, 2017

For anyone keen to quantify the harm done by the 2008 global financial meltdown, and the decade-long recession that has followed, you need look no further than the catastrophe now unfolding in Catalonia.

For those who found comfort in the moderation that elected Emmanuel Macron in France, and returned Angela Merkel to power in Germany, the blocked and traumatized streets of Barcelona show clearly that democracies worldwide – and the beliefs that democracies provide the best practical form of governance –face profound challenges.

And for anyone who thinks this is a European crisis, think again. Even we in Hong Kong have our little local difficulties with resurgent populist calls for democracy and independence.

Catalonia’s claim to independence to any outsider seems ridiculous. Yes it is true that the Catalans have a long history - Petronilia, Queen of Aragon and Ramon Berenguer IV, Count of Barcelona married in 1150 and formed a dynasty that lasted for nearly 600 years. Even today, more than 90 per cent of the population speak Catalan rather than Spanish.

But for three centuries, since the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, Catalonia has been woven into the heart of modern-day Spain. Today it accounts for 16 per cent of Spain’s population, and 19 per cent of its GDP. Some would argue that with Barcelona at its centre, it provides the beating heart of Spanish culture. It’s food isn’t at all bad either.

For Europe, Catalonia’s preposterous quest for independence (and yes, it is preposterous even compared with Britain’s self-inflicted Brexit adventure) opens an awful Pandora’s box. The European continent, painstakingly riveted together over the past five decades into a multi-ethnic community of 28 rule-based states, faces the danger of degeneration into babel of mini-states as separatist and autonomous movements are unleashed, many of them built on ethnic and xenophobic foundations.

Fundamental as the Catalan challenge is to the EU, Brussels’ hands are tied in response. Its constitution dictates that the “Catalan problem” is a domestic problem for the Spanish government, and has to be resolved by the government in Madrid. But how does that Spanish government led by Mariano Rajoy bring any meaningful influence to bear when in Catalonia his party trails fifth, far behind a cluster of pro-independence parties?

From a simple economic vantage point, Catalonia can argue that it has the critical mass and cultural and ethnic coherence to justify being treated as an independent nation. Its 7.5m population is close to that of Austria. Its GDP of around US$314bn makes it the world’s 34th largest economy, not far short of Austria (US$371bn), and bigger than either Malaysia or Singapore. It claims strength in shipping, textiles, finance, services and a wide range of new high-tech industries.

For Hong Kong’s preposterous independence movement, Catalonia’s demographics are awkwardly similar to our own, and must surely provide fuel for our (currently small number of) silly separatists: our populations are the same, as is our GDP (at US$320bn). In our glory days in the 1990s Hong Kong also claimed to account for 18 per cent of China’s GDP – within a whisker of Catalonia’s 19 per cent contribution to Spain’s GDP. Perhaps it is no small matter that over the past 20 years Hong Kong’s contribution to national GDP has shrunk to around 2 per cent. This begets a modesty that Catalonians clearly do not feel.

Whatever the economic numbers, Catalonia’s principle challenge is to democracy and the effectiveness of the democratic process. Spain’s constitution forbids state referenda, so to go ahead with the poll eight days ago calling for independence was clearly in defiance of national laws.

The pro-independence activists in Barcelona say that over 90 per cent of voters in the referendum called for independence, and are calling for immediate moves to that end.

But there was only a 42 per cent voter turnout, which suggests just one third of the Catalan population actually supported a call for independence. And if you take the view that such an important vote should engage the entire Spanish population, then this amounts to less than 7 per cent of Spanish people are in support. It was controversial enough for Britain’s Conservative government to initiate Brexit even with 48 per cent of voters calling for exit: in democratic terms, just how credible can Catalonia’s claim be for a mandate for independence? As Oriol Bartomeus at the Autonomous University in Barcelona warned: “This is a process without a steering wheel and without brakes.”

Among those alarmed at implications for the democratic process, Philip Stephens in the Financial Times noted last week that there is “a rising belief that disputes can be settled by a simple popular vote”, but that “history records they are more often a route to authoritarianism – a device for dictators and demagogues”.

As a young and still politically innocent political community in Hong Kong take up arms both for democracy (however defined) and Hong Kong independence, it need to remember that there are many forms of democracy, many of which are problematic and are being abused. They may over the past century have worked better than the authoritarian alternatives that have been tested, but recent performance is not a source of comfort.

And as Anson Au noted here in the SCMP last Friday, it is always essential to remember that democracy is a means – not an end. Our main responsibility is to deliver what Anson calls “a good society”, which is measured in terms of its success in delivering freedom, material comfort, affordable housing, good education, quality health services and comprehensive elderly care.

Just as it is difficult to see how Hong Kong’s young idealists’ democratic obsession will deliver the “good society” we all seek, so in Catalonia some cooler heads need to pause to assess the harm that will be inflicted on millions of Catalans and Spaniards if their vision of independence is made real.

As the FT’s Stephens starkly warns: “The relationship between Catalonia and Spain ultimately will be decided by political agreement or by civil war.” So too for Hong Kong. So far, political agreement has prevailed, but if this fails we should be under no illusions – civil war would loom as clearly as it does today over the citizens of Barcelona.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own. 
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