Last winter I attended an international conference on security and self-determination sponsored by Princeton University which comes to mind lately when I read Catalan and European newspapers. The symposium lasted a couple of days and took place in the monastery of Sankt Florian, an austere and robust Augustinian fortress, aired by large patios and several noble halls that give it a romantic edge, reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian cavalry headquarters.
The headline of the conference was given by a Chinese diplomat who talked very little yet with royal aplomb and macaronic English like mine, said: "We’ve been centralizing for more than two thousand years, and we’re doing pretty well because we fear inequality more than poverty". The sobriety of that man put most of the delegates on the spot. Under the wing of the United States, the Europeans looked like those eggs the Austrians color to grace the Easter festivities.
In private many representatives admitted that Europe is in the doldrums while it perpetuates pointless debates. In almost every speech you could see how the same European Union that criticizes xenophobia and declares itself liberal and cosmopolitan, then grumbles because China is investing heavily in the continent. Someone regretted that the Chinese would have bought a stake in Toulouse airport and would plan to convert it into an aeronautical laboratory. When I reminded them that Paris has preferred to let the south of France become impoverished rather than connect it with Barcelona, everybody turned a deaf ear.
The European speeches manifested a white hypocrisy of business in liquidation with which we are quite familiar in Catalonia. The disquisitions about identity and the importance of the law seemed aimed at maintaining self-determination in a strictly theoretical plane. In a hallway, a former minister from Eastern Europe wished us luck with independence, while the representative of an organization that works to promote referendums asked us why we did not seek to agree on a more ambitious statute.
During one of the cocktail breaks, a US military officer who had conducted operations in Afghanistan took us aside and asked us three concrete questions: how many Catalans are in the Spanish army, how many Catalans are in the national police and the Civil Guard, and how many Spanish are in the mossos d’Esquadra. "We have a big problem," he said with a worried face after finishing the glass of champagne once we had explained him the situation which we, in Catalonia, can outline with a few broad brushstrokes. He didn’t ask any questions regarding the October referendum.
As it had happened in Japan, China was dragged into a long decline when the obsession to maintain inner peace became the basis of their thinking and their politics. During the time that Europe found itself in war and during the revolutions a creative way to manage its diversity, the continent led humanity and dominated the world. The two world wars put European countries at the utmost of self-destruction, and the scare helped open the way to democracy.
The democratization of Europe, protected by the United States, should have helped manage the diversity of the continent and therefore promote its progress without violence. In the end, the Americans restored the European project that had collapsed in 1714, but now let’s not get into historiographical debates. The paradox is that the same fear of past carnages that initially helped consolidate the prestige of the polls has gradually drowned its role in double standards and lies.
As the Chinese diplomat put it ―with his broken English―, centralization works when the natural differences between people are more feared than poverty. The decline of the Spanish empire would be more evidence that centralizing is more of a primary solution than an enriching one. If Europe wants to extend the last eighty years of peace, so exceptional in its history without retreating on the international stage, the right to self-determination cannot be taken lightly.
Europe must take a leap in democracy as significant as the technology leap we've experienced in recent years to avoid losing steam. When it comes to centralizing, Beijing will always have the upper hand because it is centuries ahead of us and because China, like Spain or Russia, is used to being poor and being brutish. Europe's contribution to the world must be the humanist dream, the idea that intelligence has more power than the police batons. That is, that the will of an individual can be treated as though it were that of all individuals, rather than the inverse.
In the world to come, freedom devoid of the right to self-determination will increasingly resemble China’s capitalism without democracy. It is terrible that to conform to the Spanish centralist impulses, the Catalan pro-independence parties would scorn the voters in the media and in the representative chambers. At stake for Europe is whether or not democracy becomes a vintage system that chooses the color of the politicians' ties. And realism is to understand that in this war for the future, Catalonia cannot afford to set such a pernicious example to the continent.
Translated from Catalan by Fernando Beato