In the current systemic uncertainty, it is not easy at all to comment on international relations developments on the spur of the moment. In other words, to express immediate stances and attitudes, guided by dated perceptions and not seldom ill-advising historical analogies. A research conducted by a group of experts from a famous American university (Harvard) recently proposed that the U.S. President should form a group of historians that would evaluate historical precedents/similarities for current events and identify, by analysing the past, ways of reacting that would be presented to the President as directions worth considering. The aim of this research is, especially, to identify adequate reactions to international crises, so as not to endanger international peace and so that crisis management would not fail – as happened historically in general war (see the crisis of July 1914, which resulted in the First World War because of improper management of the crisis triggered by the assassination in Sarajevo).
The most recent example of this major difficulty is offered by the reaction of G. Rachman, the experienced foreign policy commentator of The Financial Times, who, while monitoring the developments occasioned by the independence referendum in Catalonia, noted the following on his own Twitter account: “Uneasy feeling we’re reliving the 1930s, is not helped by fact Spain now seems to be flirting with civil war – 01:51 – 1 Oct. 2017.” Hence, under the impact of things seen in the broadcasts of international news networks in what concerned the authorities’ reaction to participation in the referendum for independence, declared illegal by central authorities, the commentator made, with sufficient prudence, a historical parallel with the 1930s, stating that he is feeling “flirting with civil war.”
Historically, the Spanish civil war, taking place with unusual violence from 1936 to 1939, was undeniable a prelude to the Second World War, its future camps being clearly delineated in the internal conflict on the Iberic Peninsula: on one hand the democratic camp, on the other hand the authoritarian-fascist and Nazi camp. A lot has been written as interpretation of the events occurring during those years in Spain, especially since numerous famous writers and artists were involved in the civil war, knowing how to impart on the events a power of historical resonance not yet fully consummated (E. Hemmingway, P. Picasso and others). On the grounds of this confrontation occurring in Spain on the eve of the world war, the latter was even interpreted by a certain historiographical school as a “European civil war,” a label that survives even today. G. Rachman immediately received feedback from his followers: from labelling his comparison of the events with a civil war as “hyperbolic nonsense” and “exaggerated statement,” to invoking the EU as guardian of continental stability (“the EU is there to prevent such occurrence”) or incriminating on Madrid’s part a certain inability to solve the problem, due to its young democracy: ‘This is a bit exaggerated! In spite of the situation and unease, Spain is far from flirting with civil war!’; ‘Legitimacy gradually lost. Levels of violence gradually up etc. Long way from war, I’d guess. But risky’; ‘You know better than that, Gideon. Please be serious. There is indeed a constituional crisis. Not less. Not more. Keep away big sentences’; ‘ Maybe I’m too optimistic but my experience is civil war memories are very acute in Catalonia, and that has consequences.’; ‘ Catalan nationalists are bullies who have bulldozed unionists and broken Catalan laws. Stupidly Rajoy gave them the images they wanted’; ‘ I’m laying Spanish Civil War at 1 million to 1 if you want insurance against hyperbolic nonsense coming true.’; ‘Flirting with civil war enormously exaggerated statement.’; ‘ unfortunately inaccurate tweets and headlines like these are only contributing to confusion + misinformation.Check ur facts!’; ‘EU has lost the democratic path’; ‘It’s ok, the EU is there to prevent such occurrence…’; ‘The last thing Western democracies need in this perilous age is to split into pieces. But it could happen with California, too.’; ‘Spain only had 20 years of democracy between F/ranco/’s death in 75 & joining EU in the 90s. They have no idea how to resolve conflicts peacefully.’
After only five hours, the commentator decided to apologise for his previous tweet: “Apologies to Spanish and Catalan friends worried by last tweet mentioning civil war. It was melodramatic. Not meant to be taken literally. 06:02 – 1 Oct. 2017.” A reconsideration of the previous opinion – hence, it was not understood by its author as a literal comparison with the 1930s and the civil war that occurred back then, being rather a reflex in the face of systemic uncertainty – which of course was received differently by those who follow its stances on ongoing events. Ranging from the clear rejection of the expressed stance toward the events – worth mentioning that former NATO Secretary General and EU leader Xavier Solana commented thus: “It is a pitty. But reflexes are what comes automatically. Then you think and apologies” – to making common cause with this way of seeing the developments in Catalonia. At any rate, opinions on the need for a new referendum – but this time legal – are also present: ‘Agree it’s not the referendum we want. Hope it helps, at least, 2 make the world understand we want a regular one’; ‘All bad enough, I believe it. Yet not offering any alternative will one day lead to the explosion we see today. And that’s bad.’; ‘let’s face it, civil war wouldn’t happen right now,but these illegalities 1 side and police violence on other, just need to wait a few years’; ‘We saw lot of police violence in Ulster . UK suspending autonomy. Was it a civil war’; ‘a Catalan civil war would have been more accurate’; ‘Honestly, you were absolutely right. That’s where we’re headed and denying it won’t change the reality of the situation.’; ‘Nobody wants to talk about it,but we are all afraid. We do not deserve these politicians.’; ‘The world is going to hell tho. I wudn’t say you’re being melodramatic to warn of us revisiting 1930’s’.
The “reflex” of identifying historical similarities thus put the aforementioned commentator in a tough spot. That is why he felt the need to explain his opinion in extenso, so he published an expanded comment the next day, in The Financial Times. The title and subtitle of this editorial say it all: “Force is not the answer in Catalonia” (title) and “Allowing an independence referendum need not mean making separation easy” (subtitle). Outlining that Madrid has legality on its side – holding the referendum did not meet the constitutional requirements –, the commentator considers that a solution liable to avoid the use of force (more autonomy and/or lifting the threshold of a new referendum to 60 percent of the votes for validity) must be identified. Emphasising that even winning such a referendum does not make independence certain for the independentists, if they are rational, because the request for a necessary but of course lengthy and difficult EU accession will intervene, among other things.
From this perspective, it is obvious Brussels must become a veritable “player” in the Catalonia dossier, but in others like it too. Rachman points to a wide trend in Europe: “the uproar in Spain is the latest evidence that national identities still matter in Europe. The Brexit vote and the resurgence of nationalist parties in France, the Netherlands, Poland and even Germany suggest that the EU needs to think harder about pressing forward with a federalist agenda for more Europe.” Brussels should – the commentator believes – equip itself with institutions that would manage issues of this kind. Hence, Catalonia is a warning – addressed to commentators but especially to political decision-makers – both against a reaction “on the spur of the moment,” based on inherited or gained reflexes and regarding the growth of a European trend leading to fragmentation. This current is worth taking into account in Brussels, so that it could be “treated” adequately and seriously, and not according to hotheads that are usually positioned on one side and the other of such a dossier.