Finnish Recognition of Catalan Independence


Source: Jordi Rovira via Wikimedia Commons

The unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan authorities naturally has continued to fan the flames of the conflict. A surprising sidetrack appeared when Finnish MP Mikko Kärnä congratulated the Catalans and declared his intent to bring the question before the Finnish parliament next week.

Kärnä’s support for Catalan independence is nothing new, and he has earlier been on the receiving end of threats by the Spanish ambassador, who threatened that Spain wouldn’t support Finland in case the country would one day need “solidarity”.

The tweet was quickly blown out of proportion, with a number of media outlets declaring Finland being ready to go against the stated EU policy of giving Madrid their full support. These include Sunday Express, who seems to have been the first to headline with Finland preparing to go against EU, as well as Scottish The National.

It is understandable that a non-Finnish news outlet would find the story plausible upon first inspection. Kärnä is a member of the Finnish PM Sipilä’s Centre Party, and due to Finnish history the principle of right to national self-determination enjoys broad support amongst the population.

This superficial look however misses the larger picture. To begin with the Finnish government has throughout the crisis expressed it’s clear support for the Spanish government, with FM Soini usually being the one who does the talking. Kärnä isn’t a heavyweight in Finnish politics (he only entered parliament upon the decision by fellow party member Paavo Väyrynen to remain in Brussels as a MEP), and that he could muster enough support to force the government’s hand against his own party leadership seems unlikely. Finnish popular support for a Catalan state is harder to judge, as most people treat the question with indifference, but there seems to be no room for whipping up a popular movement to force the hand of the Finnish government.

However, what makes the whole thing even less likely is the fact that the decision to recognise the independence of countries does not rest with the Finnish parliament, but with the president himself, who does so in consultation with the government. Kärnä recognises this, and is himself open with the purpose of his move being to put pressure on the government to raise the issue with president Niinistö.

President Niinistö in turn is known for not making hasty or controversial decisions when it comes to foreign policy. Considering the important role EU solidarity occupies in Finnish national security thinking, it is doubtful if he would go ahead with a move that is so clearly contrary to the wishes of the EU leadership even in case of support from the government. That he would do such a move against the wishes of the government is more or less unthinkable.

Reflections on Catalonia

Amongst the host of feudal fiefdoms and titles gathered under the Spanish crown by the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile were the counties of Catalonia. The region has had a somewhat shaky relation to the monarchy since, including revolts and uprisings in the area taking place 1640 to 1659, 1687 to 1689, 1693, 1706 to 1714, 1833 to 1840, and obviously during the civil war of 1936 to 1939. Several of these were fought against the backdrop of larger conflicts, either as part of internal Spanish struggles or as part of wars with other European powers.

Before getting into what happened in Catalonia on Sunday, a number of things should be noticed. To begin with, no poll that I have seen have given Catalan independence more than 40% popular support in the region, most polling somewhat lower. The whole issue has also been a non-question amongst politicians or general populations outside of Spain. Few Europeans were likely to even have heard about the separatism, let alone the fact that a non-binding referendum had been held back in 2014. There is precious little to indicate that this new one would have made anything more than temporary waves in the news as well. In fact, many of the same reactions and one-liners used then from both Madrid, Barcelona, and the international community could be cut-pasted into the current debate.

If not for the police violence.

It should be remembered that Spain only returned to democracy in 1976 following the death of Franco, and that the last (failed) military coup took place in 1981 (a planned one being foiled before put into place the following year). As such, a considerably part of the Spanish population have personal memories of living in an authoritarian state. This makes the scenes showed even more powerful amongst the Catalans, and it is hard not to think that the scenes are exactly what could sway large swaths of the population to a pro-independence stance.

But perhaps of even greater importance is the impact it will have on the image held by the international community. People are sharing pictures of riot police beating old and young apparently indiscriminate, and politicians are asked to denounce the actions of the Spanish government.

As is usually the case, some of the pictures are old, some faked, and some doesn’t tell the whole story. Still, there are certainly enough real ones to cause quite an outrage, and they portray a powerful story of peaceful protesters being denied their right to make democratic choices.

Now, strictly legally there is no justification to the Catalan referendum. It goes against both domestic and international law, as unilateral declarations of independence doesn’t actually hold any intrinsic value (regardless of how democratic the process leading up to them has been). As such, getting the recognition from other states are key, something which the Catalan cause has seemed hard-pressed to get (with the exception of certain countries which have an interest in getting the favour back in another place, or which generally like to destabilise Europe).

And this is why the actions of the Spanish government is so mind boggling. Everyone must have realised that there would be violence if small(ish) groups of outnumbered riot police would try and stop the voting. Madrid, not Barcelona, has managed to lift the question of Catalan independence to the forefront of European politics. Voters who earlier hadn’t had any particular opinion about it are suddenly discussing it with colleagues and friends, and are calling for their governments to condemn the violence. It is also important to note that a large number of EU-countries cherish memories of how they have broken free from larger countries, and it isn’t difficult to imagine e.g. current ministers in the Baltic States remembering their own personal experiences from the break-up of the Soviet Union. Spanish attempts to persuade foreign politicians to stay out of their “domestic affairs” also run a serious risk of backfiring, with e.g. the email to Finnish MP Kärnä by the Spanish ambassador likely not furthering its intended aim. The seeds to international recognition might have been planted by pictures of police beating the very people they are sworn to protect.

It is hard to see Sunday’s referendum as anything but a major victory for Catalan independence. This is regardless of the fact that any numbers quoted by the local government are next to impossible to verify independently. How the story continues from here is anyone’s guess, but I dare say that next week will begin without a de facto independent Catalonia. However, I will also make the guess that unless Madrid radically reverse how they tackle the separatism, the Iberian wedding might soon be headed for a divorce.