Disputes about sovereignty are as old as man, but in the midst of a deep questioning of globalisation and rising nationalism and violence, it’s important to elevate the value of dialogue and multilateralism as extremely important tools in resolving major geopolitical conflicts today. Looking at the Catalonian independence referendum, Brexit, and even Argentina’s longtime claim on the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands, we must question our interpretations of national identity and statehood in order to make sense of a new world.
It was disappointing to see the response of the government of Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, to last Sunday’s Catalonian referendum on independence. Disturbing videos showed National Police and Civil Guard agents — which were deployed in the hundreds and remain stationed in Catalonia — beating peaceful protesters with batons and shields, while others fired rubber bullets into the crowds. The referendum, deemed illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, resulted in approximately 90 percent of the 2.3 million votes in favour of independence; voter turnout was 43 percent.
Through its official representative in Catalonia, Madrid apologised yesterday for the excessive use of force but continued to reject any dialogue, suspending a Monday meeting of the Catalan Parliament and preparing legislation to make it easier for companies to move their headquarters out of the region, as banks like Sabadell and CaixaBank move in that direction. In defiance, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is slated to appear before Parliament on Tuesday, where it’s expected he will declare some level of independence.
Catalonia, which has a GDP of more than US$240 billion — representing nearly 20 percent of Spanish output — has asked for international mediation. It is difficult to pin down a precise meaning of national identity and statehood, as Max Weber pointed out in Economy and Society, published posthumously by his wife in 1922. Nationality depends on the purpose of what a certain status group is pursuing. Generally connected by a common language and/or a belief in a common ancestry or historical memory, nations are an organisational form through which groups of people fight for “power prestige” in cultural and economic arenas with other nations. Weber also recognises nations as a valuable medium to generate civic education — and participation — and political maturity in a particular group.
Globalisation has poured further uncertainty onto that definition, as capital has broken all borders and migratory flows become ever so massive. Wars and persecutionin the name of religious extremism or in defence of resources—including drug-trafficking networks—have led to record-high numbers of displaced people and refugees. At the same time, the Internet and the adoption of smartphones have given rise to a global culture that reaches the most remote places on Earth on the one hand, and concentrated pockets of intentionally isolated groups within global cities on the other. On top of that, Facebook and Google have unintentionally given birth to a dangerous concoction of profit-induced virality that has the power to influence public opinion and even elections which we now call fake news. And the effects of climate change, of course, are felt by the entire planet.
From Brexit to Donald Trump, we are brutally aware of the perils of failing to generate Weber’s civic education and political maturity. We must create the conditions for a good faith debate about complex issues, which means engaging our political opponents in dialogue, many times through the intermediation of third parties, particularly multilateral organisations like the United Nations.
Rajoy’s rejection of a conversation with Catalans on their claims for independence are makin to Britain’s position on the Malvinas, where London will not allow the issue of sovereignty to be put on the table. It is also similar to the position taken by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s administration, which chose to ignore the existence of the islanders and their claims to self-determination. In her address to the UN General Assembly last month, Vice-President Gabriela Michetti did well to manifest our “legitimate and imprescriptible” claims on the Malvinas through dialogue with Britain while “respecting the way of life of the islanders.” It is a definite step forward, particularly after what appears to be President Mauricio Macri’s limited interest in the matter. After a gaffe at the 2016 UN General Assembly where he indicated he spoke of the issue of sovereignty with British PM Theresa May, only to be rebuked by the British Foreign Office, Macri met with Phillip Hammond — chancellor of the Exchequer — this August to discuss the bilateral economic agenda, failing to mention Malvinas even once.
A good faith dialogue about the world’s most pressing issues, with accountability and transparency should remain the cornerstone of global diplomacy. From Rajoy to Trump, including Macri and some British politicians, it would be good to see global leaders adopt that stance.