The way Spain defends territorial integrity ends up boosting separatism – ex-Council of Europe head

The independence referendum in Catalonia has caused a violent crisis in Spain, with potential wider consequences for the EU. Where to go from here, and how can the European community help? We ask the former head of the Council of Europe, Walter Schwimmer.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Walter Schwimmer, welcome to the show, it's good to have you on our programme. Now, you were at the helm of the Council of Europe, and very vocal in your support for EU unity. But at the moment the continent has its problems - for instance, in Spain. Catalonia has voted for independence, while Madrid says the referendum was illegal. Clashes between the Spanish police and independence supporters left more than 800 people wounded - and the region has now gone on strike. In your opinion, what’s next? Will one side back down? Or is another Spanish civil war on the cards?

Walter Schwimmer: It calls urgently for dialogue, there’s no alternative. I have been shocked by the force used by the police. I fully understand that the Spanish government wants to defend the territorial integrity of the country. On the other side, there are justified requests by the people of Catalonia that cannot be answered just by police force. That calls for dialogue and I hope Europe will be able to moderate such a dialogue between the Spanish central government and the government of Catalonia.

SS: So, the main issue, the main bone of contention between Catalonia and the central government is fiscal policy. Catalans want control over their taxes - something that the Basques have, for instance, so it’s not impossible. Why not just give them that, wouldn’t that soothe the tensions?

WS: That could be the outcome of a fruitful dialogue. I don’t think that the supporters of Catalonia’s independence are extremists. They want, like everybody else in Europe, to live in peace and to decide on their own affairs. So a compromise should be feasible and I call on all sides to be ready for such a dialogue.

SS: You know, in Canada or the UK, central government allowed secession referendums, treated them with respect - and persuaded people to stay, peacefully. Why didn’t the same happen in Spain?

WS: Just to declare it’s illegal is not enough. It is, of course, not in accordance with the Spanish constitution, so the decisions of the constitutional court are understandable. But the Catalonian people should have the opportunity to express their opinion and I am not sure that under peaceful conditions there would be a majority for independence. But you’re right, the Spanish government should be ready to accept the referendum with full information for the people - what does it mean, what means independence, what means enhanced autonomy. And the question, perhaps, should not be only ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to independence but also the third option - enhanced autonomy for Catalonia.

SS: You know, before this violence happened, the public opinion on independence was actually tilting in Madrid’s favour - is it too late now to persuade the Catalans round again?

WS: Yes, you’re right. And the behavior of the police is absolutely unacceptable and that has driven, I think, more people to the side of the separatists.

SS: But do you think it’s too late now to actually persuade the Catalans the way around?

WS: No, It’s never too late. As long as peaceful solutions are possible one should drive for them.

SS: Canada’s PM Trudeau is actually from Quebec, which was once looking to break away from Canada. Does Spain need a Prime Minister from Catalonia in power - would that actually help solve anything?

WS: For the time being I don’t see the opportunity of having a Prime Minister from Catalonia in the Spanish government. So let’s look for every other opportunity to solve this dispute peacefully.

SS: Barcelona’s mayor has called on Spain’s PM to step down. Do you see a point in Rajoy’s stepping down?

WS: The problem is that the Spanish central government has to learn how to deal with the wish for more self-determination. That’s the point.

SS: What do you mean exactly?

WS: As you said before, there’re other options than independence or non-independence. Enhanced autonomy would be such an option. And with more fiscal authority for the government in Catalonia, I think, main difficulties could be solved.

SS: Right before the referendum, Spain's foreign minister branded it ‘a mockery of democracy’. And, obviously, the Catalans are calling the actions of Madrid an affront to democracy. Who, if anyone, is right in this situation? Once again, your personal take, not an official statement.

WS: Here we have a conflict of two principles: the principle of self-determination of people and the principle of territorial integrity. Catalonia is not the only case in that respect. But as Spain is a member of the European Union, Spain is a member of the Council of Europe, Spain should be committed to peaceful solutions.

SS: The EU has said the referendum wasn’t legal, and didn’t promise membership to Catalonia, as it’s supporting Madrid - but in light of the violence, is it right for the EU to be condoning such brutal tactics?

WS: I think it should condemn such unacceptable behaviour of law enforcement agency of the central government. This wasn’t helpful for the position of the central government. So I think Prime Minister Rajoy and the central government should apologize for the actions of Guardia Civil, of the central police units, and that would open the path for dialogue and for the negotiations between the two parties.

SS: And we just saw the Spanish king which has condemned the Catalan authorities for placing themselves ‘outside law and democracy’ while backing the central government for ‘ensuring the constitutional order’. I mean, in a way it’s understandable - he’s a monarch, what else is he going to say... But wouldn’t that be wiser for him to go neutral to calm things down? Look at Queen Elizabeth of England, who was a lot more careful in a similar situation giving the audience to the Scottish First Minister, making very careful comments even though shу was obviously against the split…

WS: All central authorities in Spain, including the King, of course, the Prime Minister, the parliament, also the socialist opposition should bear in mind that the way how they want to defend the territorial integrity was supporting the call for independence and self-determination. So they should step back and try to find a common way how to deal with the wish of the Catalonian people.

SS: Catalan politicians have called on the EU to mediate, but Brussels has said that the whole thing is a Spanish internal matter. Why not help out a fellow member state in trouble? Why not help mediate?

WS: I wouldn’t say that this is a fully internal matter. The force used by the Spanish police was in my view a clear violation of human rights and this is never an internal matter. This is a European matter when human rights are violated.

SS: What do you think are the consequences of the Catalan vote for the European Union?

WS: There are no immediate consequences of the Catalonian vote. If you deal seriously with the legal character of the referendum it cannot be taken as the decision of the majority of the Catalonian people partly because of the actions of the central government which confiscated ballots, which confiscated ballot boxes etc., which closed down polling stations. It’s a difficult situation and the solution is not a legal one, the solution is a political one. And there must be the political will of both sides - the Spanish government and the Catalonian government - to sit together and to find solutions. This is my final statement to that.

SS: Mr. Schwimmer, the EU has other issues right now. The tide of refugees and migrants into Europe has been put under some control for now - but what is happening to those who are already in, how is their integration going?

WS: The refugee crisis, if you want to call it that way, has two major perspectives. One is the control of the outer borders of the European Union which has to be enforced. If the union wants to be strong it must be possible for it to control the outside borders otherwise Schengen wouldn’t function. And the other aspect of the refugee crisis is the lack of solidarity within the European Union. It’s clear that due to the geographical situation mainly Greece and Italy are involved in the refugee wave from the Middle East and from Africa. And on the other hand the more wealthy countries - Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, Austria - are involved because when moving to Europe people understandably want to go to places with better living conditions. But the right to asylum, if you speak about real refugees (there’re refugees coming from conflict areas and there’re economic migrants who just want to have a better life in Europe)... The European Union has to deal with all these aspects. And it must insist on solidarity of all European countries with those countries targeted by the wave of refugees. This is unacceptable when a large country like Poland, which benefits from EU membership, refuses to take in refugees.

SS: But what’s happening to those refugees who are already inside Europe? How is their integration going?

WS: Those who have the right to stay in Europe, who were granted asylum, or others who will be, for humanitarian reasons, accepted as residents of the European countries, have to be integrated. And this is not a one-way street. The governments, regional and local ones, have to offer opportunities for integration. But people also have to be ready for integration. We have now a big discussion in Austria because some radical Islamic movements are against the integration of Muslims who came to Austria. Others are in favour, others are helping, others want to be integrated. So it is also the duty of migrants and refugees to contribute to their own integration. Learning the language of the country where they live, accepting the way of living in these countries, accepting equal rights of men and women, for example - that’s a clear request. 

SS: What do you think is going to happen to all those tens of thousands of people who got in? Are they going to end up settling in ghettos, like in Paris and other major cities?

WS: One should try to avoid it and ghettos are not a solution. Integration into the labour market, integration into society is a must when they want to have peaceful society in the future.

SS: Can the bans on burqas - like the latest in Austria - actually work to integrate people into European societies - or, instead, enrage them by forcing to give up on their traditions?

WS: It’s a signal, it’s not directly helping, of course, but it’s a signal to the migrants: if you want to live here, if you want to stay forever in Europe, if you want to stay forever in Germany, Austria, France or Sweden you have to accept the way of life of the relevant society. And burqa is, of course, transplanting outstate patriarchal society to Europe and is not acceptable. And, therefore, it’s not a problem of masses but it’s a signal to the migrants who want to stay here - you have to integrate.

SS: But what if that signal alienates those migrants even further away or forces them to radicalize even more? Would you hear that signal from their end?

WS: I don’t think so. And this is by far not a majority, not even a strong minority of migrants who want to force their wives to wear burqa. So I think there’s a clear division line between the majority willing to integrate and the minority who want to establish a parallel society which is unacceptable.

SS: Do you feel like there’s any other way to make migrants integrate into the European society without asking them to give up on their traditions?

WS: If their traditions are clearly against the European traditions they have to decide whether they want to stay in Europe and to accept the European way of life, or in the end they have to go back to their societies. But they are also now in movement, look at Saudi Arabia  - the crown prince allowed women to drive cars. I think it’s a good sign and I think what is happening in their own societies should be taken into consideration when living in a European country.

SS: The rise of the right in Europe is directly connected to the refugee influx - do you see a danger here, the heightened passions, is this leading to politics that is more intolerant than usual?

WS: If integration is rejected by certain groups of migrants that could lead to such a situation, but that we have to avoid. Therefore we have to enhance all measures for successful integration so that there’s no repercussion on the European society itself.

SS: Europe is now seeing terror acts of a completely new nature - knife attacks, vehicles being used as weapons, lone wolf attacks - as well as a spike in violence aimed at refugees - attacks on camps and homes, individual assaults - what is happening, why is the continent becoming infiltrated with violence?

WS: First of all I wouldn’t blame migrants or refugees for the situation. This has other root causes. It’s the export of IS in principle who seems to be defeated in their own region and now tries to bring within quotation marks the war to Europe. But that means that there should be more European cooperation, more common fight against terrorism, exchange of information etc. I think it’s possible and we shouldn’t be afraid of this terrorism.

SS: You know, Austria’s minister for foreign affairs and integration Sebastian Kurz said immigration is changing Austria ‘not in a positive but in a negative way’. Would you agree with this statement?

WS: No, I won’t agree. I think so far we’ve been very successful in integration. There’re some problems, for example, brought into Austria by imams who are not part of Austrian Muslim society but paid from abroad. The Austrian law on Islam is forbidding financing of religious communities from abroad. So I think we’ve taken the right decisions and we’ll succeed in that way.

SS: The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Austria  - they all have been considering the idea of creating a ‘mini-Schengen’ zone to better guard their external borders and stem the flow of refugees. France and Germany have been discussing multi-speed integration for the EU. Do you think the unity is in a bit of a danger here, are members going to drift away from each other?

WS: I don’t support such tendencies and initiatives. The solution is a better control of the outside borders of the European Union and not to exclude European countries from European integration.

SS: You are taking part in the “Dialogue of Civilisations” forum on Rhodes Island, with the focus on multipolarity in regional and global developments. But today, it seems like people want instant solutions a lot more than dialogue, calling for patience and dialogue is, i dare say, a bit boring. How do you change that?

WS: Of course, dialogue is very often more cumbersome way, but the best way. If we want to achieve what is the wish of the vast majority of people  - to live in peace, to enjoy prosperity, to prepare better future for their children and grandchildren - there’re no instant solutions, there’re no violent solutions, there’s only the way to explore how we can live together and solve all these problems together. And this is still the major achievement of the European Union and the Council of Europe that European countries came together to solve such questions together.

SS: Mr. Schwimmer thank you for being with us today. We were talking to Walter Schwimmer, former Secretary General of the Council of Europe and co-founder of Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute about the recent independence referendum in Catalonia and the impact it will have on Spain and the rest of Europe. That's it for the latest edition of Sophie&Co. I'll see you next time.