Sunday, March 23, 2014

“A people have to be given the possibility to express its will” Franz Schausberger, EU Committee of the Regions

Help Catalonia and the International Press Office of the ANC (Catalan National Assembly) had the opportunity to welcome Professor Franz Schausberger to their headquarters in Barcelona. Franz Schausberger is an Austrian politician and historian. From 1996 until 2004 he was governor of the region of Salzburg in Austria. He is currently the Vice-President of the Committee of the Regions of the European Union.

Franz Schausberger: In German? Good, it’s better if the subtleties can be expressed and reproduced in one’s mother language.
ANC: Indeed. This interview is for the ANC international section, which specifically promotes the internationalization of the process, especially in the media.
Franz Schausberger: Yes, this is a very important task. I already said before that this has to be intensified.
ANC: I have to admit that I am personally grateful to meet you today, because I quoted you in my thesis. I thought it was interesting that your article “States come and go” is one of the few articles in the German-speaking press that has judged the process from a fairly objective and positive point of view.
Franz Schausberger: (Laughter. To his translator, Mr. Torra): Yes, you had told me this. Good.
ANC: I have various questions for you that were put together within the press group. First question: What is your general impression of an independence process with the power of huge demonstrations like the Catalan Way or the international organization of the ANC outside of Catalonia… What is your perception?
Franz Schausberger: Well, I start with the second part of the question: For someone from outside, I have to say that the knowledge about the reasons, why people here want to be independent, are almost unknown. There is much less information about what is going on here than for example about Scotland. That is a fact. And that’s why there are many misunderstandings. And that’s where – and I say this especially regarding the press – this unfriendly image of “those nationalists” comes from. Because nationalism has for historical reasons a bad image in Europe. And because the nationalists are always considered the most right-wing people. I think that one has to be very careful with this. I see this from a very neutral point of view and I admit openly that I am a “de-centralist” in Europe. Which means I always oppose centralism and I am in favor of the processes of de-centralization. And that’s why one can naturally detect certain sympathy for Catalonia in my publications. But the ‘card’ of nationalism is a bad card. The card of “a strong minority in a big country and the respect of the minority- and human rights”, that is a positive card. And one should draw conclusions from this for the international projection of Catalonia.
The second part (of the question) that concerns the situation here: Yesterday, I visited an old, long-time companion, Jordi Pujol. He is a man over eighty years old, who has a real big political experience of decades, who has a vast knowledge not only about the situation here but also about other countries, who knows History, etc. Jordi Pujol had been convinced all his life, and worked for, that Catalonia’s sovereignty could fit into Spain, which means a very positive and cooperative attitude. This is not a man who has been revolutionary and in favor for independence from his youth on. On the contrary, he is a man who has actually worked his entire life for co-operation. So, I was truly impressed by the fact that a man like this told me with very solid arguments at the last part of his life: “I am sorry, but unfortunately I have to say that this is not possible and that’s why I support the movement towards independence”. This should make all involved sides really think about it. Because a man like him doesn’t say this easily, this is something well pondered and reasoned. This doesn’t mean that Spain will say “yes” with enthusiasm about independence, that’s understandable. But it should make one think that maybe there have been mistakes on the Spanish side.
ANC: What do you think your organization could do regarding this situation? Could the Committee oftheRegionshelp to negotiate in this process? Could it be an international observer, if there are elections or a referendum, and negotiate between Catalonia and Europe?
Franz Schausberger: What we can offer is considerable know-how in questions like strengthening regions, their rights… and about the question of what happens, if over a longer period of time these rights are not being respected. Personally, neither my institution, nor I are separatists. We try to support de-centralization and regionalization so that the habitants of the regions are satisfied and say “OK, under these circumstances I am willing to continue in a global state, in good cooperation”. But I always point out: whoever denies during a longer periodof timethe rights of the minorities, the rights of the regions, has the complete responsibility if a region says: we want to be independent, because we see that we cannot advance. And that’s why we always try to convince the central state – that’s where I see my task – to allow, if well justified, the corresponding autonomy that the region needs. And there are many levels. People like the Catalans have good reasons to express the autonomy they want in terms of culture, language, economy, etc. It should be a high level of autonomy; there is no question about that. One has to be aware that if these requests are constantly being rejected, then the region will say: well, we’ll do it on our own.
ANC: Spain shows absolutely no disposition at all for any dialogue. What mechanism has Europe to help in this regard? Some time ago, in your article “States come and go”, you said that Europe has to create objective criteria, and that it should use the same criteria for the union of states as well as for the separation of a nation or people from a state. In Montenegro the established thresholds were 50% of participation and 55% of votes in favor of independence. Would Europe apply the same rules in Catalonia and also negotiate on its behalf taking in consideration Spain’s negative posture?
Franz Schausberger: I request, both in Europe and also here more calmness. That’s what I wanted to express with “States come and go”. One has to see things long-term. It has never been the end of the world if a state disappeared nor if three new ones have been founded. I just expect more calmness from foresighted politicians, also in Europe. And in second place, naturally this issue is still an internal question, even though I think it would be wise for the EU not to keep its eyes closed in the face of such developments, because they don’t take place only in Catalonia, also in Scotland, Belgium and other countries. I would – to prevent any surprises – start to think about criteria on how to deal with these situations at a European level. And pragmatism is necessary in this, because none of the situations are alike. Each case is a case in its own right. In the end the question is, when a region reaches its independence and says, “I am coming from an EU country and now we also want to be an EU member”, it could be a poor region, that doesn’t fulfill the criteria to be a full member. There has to be some kind of an evaluation method to determine if this new country fulfills the criteria. And it is not said that such a country fulfills the democratic requirements. All these questions have to undergo some kind of evaluation. There is for example a really long way like Croatia had to take and there is a short way, that Iceland could have chosen. And maybe there is an even shorter way. I would like to say that for Catalonia this question is maybe not that essential. I am absolutely positive, once the moment comes, that Europe will find a very pragmatic way. Because a country with 7,5 million inhabitants is a factor in Europe. They won’t say, we don’t want you here. On the contrary, of course Europe will want Catalonia to be included. As it was also interested in Montenegro becoming part of Europe with 600,000 inhabitants. In these matters Europe reacts very pragmatically. But there is still a long way ahead that has to be taken before getting to that point.
ANC: I find interesting that you mention that this problem is still an internal Spanish issue. The Catalans actually don’t see it like that. The ANC has by now representations in over more than 20 countries, the mobilizations in the last two years with more than 1,5 millions citizens were the most numerous ones in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Catalonia is asking for democracy in front of the world. Especially looking at Spain’s rejection of dialogue. That’s why we raise this question: what role can the international community play in this? In what way it can help so that Catalonia can move, in a pacific way, out of this one-way street that it’s being forced into at the moment?
Franz Schausberger: You know, the first point is: a people have to be given the possibility to express its will.
ANC: A referendum?
Franz Schausberger: Yes, whatever. No matter if it is a questionnaire or a referendum. But it should be clearly stated what people want. This can also mean a risk, because it can have a negative outcome. But I think this is the European democratic standard, that people are given the possibility to express their will. And this again brings me back to the minority rights. Catalonia and its people are a strong minority inside a state and they want to express something through their representatives. And that’s why they have to get this opportunity. From my point of view, a prohibition or inhibition of the clarification of this question does not comply with the European democracy standard. This is an important argument. And the British government has realized that. There is also a risk involved for Scotland; it may be that the majority will vote against separation. And this also allows the ones who are against independence to work for their position, which in democracy is the normal thing. Then it will depend on which project people believe in more, where they think they will live better. But in the first place they have to have the opportunity to express their will and I think that is an important matter. And this has to be transferred to Europe. And therefore, it is also still very important to create for these matters a minority right. Spain has signed the human rights resolutions, the minority rights etc. Then one has to follow these rules. Anything else is a game of narrow-mindness, that doesn’t lead to anything in the long term and doesn’t solve the problem and only increases tensions in such situations.
ANC: Yes, and the situation now is also becoming tenser, because the Spanish government is taking advantage of the economic crisis to increase centralization. For example, the government passes bills and regulations that cut the rights and freedom of the regions and this way they even enchain them even more to the state, also financially. All this is just an opposite tendency to all of what you have mentioned and indeed it increases tensions. We are also aware of the fact that Spain signed all human rights declarations but nevertheless it doesn’t fulfill some of them. In general the situation has got to a dead point. That’s why we would like to ask: what can Europe do for Catalonia, where can Catalonia look for help? What can the people do, people who are citizens of Europe? We organize ourselves, we hold demonstrations, and we are present on the Internet to try to explain our reasons. But the question is: what would be a practical step to achieve what you are proposing? Will Europe talk to Spain and say that the Catalans should be able to use their right to firstly find out how many people really want independence?
Franz Schausberger: I don’t think there will be any formal interference from Europe’s side. This would be very difficult. But what has to be done is to intensify lobbying in Europe. The reasons have to be explained: we request our democratic right, which normally is possible all over Europe. What I can say very officially, and what I have always fought against regarding regions in the EU, is that for economic reasons regional democracy is being reduced. This is not acceptable. And this does not only affect Spain, this is a general statement. And it is against the principle of subsidiarity that has become strong since the Lisbon-Agreement in the EU. And this is against all European thought and values. Of course this is also related to the question of independence but I would separate it and address it on another level. Here we are not talking only about independence, here other rights are being violated.
What is very important for Catalonia is the search for alliances in Europe. It is absolutely necessary to speak with the most important politicians in other countries. Regarding this Catalonia is still far behind.
ANC: Indeed, it is also devastating how the independence of Catalonia is seen in the German press.
(Mr. Torra agrees.) But it is also interesting to see that the arguments have very weak fundaments. As a German, sometimes I think that this is just caused by not knowing the facts. This explains why the journalists who came to Catalonia to cover the elections last November completely misinterpreted the results and didn’t understand at all the true underlying meaning for the independence movement.
Franz Schausberger: Yes, you see, they sit in their office in Vienna or Berlin…
ANC: … or in Madrid…
Franz Schausberger:Yes, and copy the agency news from Madrid. They don’t even investigate.
Mr. Torra agrees and says: They read El Mundo, El País and then they copy.
Franz Schausberger: Journalism nowadays has not even the time anymore to investigate (…) and an agency from here in Catalonia has a real lot of work to do.
ANC: Another question: In a book called “Com Àustria o Dinamarca” / “Like Austria or Denmark”, which talks about a possible independent Catalonia, there is a reference of Artur Mas comparing an independent Catalonia with Austria. Do you see possible similarities between these countries and in which areas?
Franz Schausberger: Well, that is very easy to answer. The comparison lies in the size or number of inhabitants. There is no doubt that a country like Denmark or Austria can exist on its own…
ANC: … or Catalonia…
Franz Schausberger: Yes, of course. We have 8 million habitants… also other countries like Luxembourg. Europe has supported very much the self-determination of Montenegro with 600,000 inhabitants, which is as many as in my region of Salzburg. This is not a question. Nobody can say Catalonia is too small to be independent.
ANC: Is Europe in general open to the creation of smaller states instead of big nation-states?
Franz Schausberger: No, this cannot be said in general.
ANC: Well, the regions can become stronger, can have more independence and we could be talking about a Europe rather of nations and people and not so much of a Europe of big national states. Couldn’t that be a future tendency?
Franz Schausberger: No, this is not a question. The questions are about history, language, and culture, also the economy… all these are criteria that can be considered. But no general tendency for smaller states in Europe can be seen. The in-satisfaction has its reasons and this has to be discussed. I don’t think that in Germany any Land, not even Bavaria, would want to be independent. Of course, if tomorrow Berlin says let’s cut back everything for the Bavarians 50 % then Bavaria might want independence too. There is also the question – which cannot be narrowed down to criteria – of the emotional component, that many do not understand.
ANC: So true. Catalonia, for example, is a 1000-year old nation that has not been allowed to exist as such for the last 300 years. This weighs heavily for many people.
Franz Schausberger: It is maybe better to speak of “one’s own people” than “nation”. What is a nation? You see, we Austrians and the Germans have the same language. In the interwar period many people in Austria wanted, so to say, to belong to the German Nation and there was this thought of a commonwealth… but then came the second war and since the middle of the 50’s there is not any objection in terms of the Austrian nationality. And we cannot even say that we have, like the Catalans and Spaniards, a different language. But we do have a completely different history and culture compared to Germany and this is also expressed through a certain emotion. And the main reason for the thought of unification with Germany back then was economic. But nevertheless, nowadays nobody would say I am part of the German nation.
ANC: That is the question, how do you define a nation? In the case of the Catalans the feeling of their nationality has even strengthened over the last 300 years, because they needed it in order to survive as a people, to be able to guarantee the survival of their culture. We are talking about a very unique example; that a country could withstand for such a long time such absorption, and in spite of physical frontiers and a strongly imposed integration. And that’s why people here feel so strongly about the impositions from the side of the Spanish state like the latest Wert Education law that limits the freedom of Catalan at school. This weighs very heavily for people here because the language represents an important part of the protective shield of Catalan identity. And that’s why for them it really feels like an attack. An attack within the official rules of the game but… if now we were to be living 300 years ago this imposition would have taken place with bayonets, only that today they use jurisdiction as a weapon.
Franz Schausberger: What brought you to Catalonia?
ANC: Basically, I came here for work, then I fell in love and now I have three children who
speak just as much German as Catalan.
Franz Schausberger: Yes, exactly like Mr. Torra here but the other way around. (General laughter).
ANC: Well, I have to admit that personally I am in favor of the independence process, because I am a democrat. It is also important to remark that in all big mobilizations in Catalonia there are many signs and slogans in English and one can notice many faces of foreigners. This is due to the fact that foreigners who live in Catalonia also feel the pressure from the central government on a daily basis and the imposed limitations. No democratic European citizen can accept this.
Franz Schausberger: This argument I would stress very much. That the possibility of an expression of the people’s will simply is part of the democratic European standard and that a prohibition or prevention of it is beneath the level of European democracy.
ANC: The reason for this is that we are dealing with a state that has signed a constitution in 1978 under very difficult circumstances. And it is the only European country that has not made a new start after Fascism. This also explains the current political corruption. It is exactly the same corruption as in times of Franco, when the business elite supported the dictator in order to maintain its status. And the same happened in the judiciary, as for example in the Supreme Court. The whole system has never undergone any kind of reform. Spain has never started over as Germany and Austria did.
Mr. Torra: This is also something that the international press doesn’t talk about. For example that the Partido Popular refused to condemn Fascism in the Spanish Parliament. And this is not being communicated in Europe. Imagine what would happen if in Germany an MP of the most important party refused to condemn Nazism. That is unthinkable. And here (in Spain) this is normal and you don’t read one word about it in Europe. And there has never been a profound review of recent history here.
ANC: And the new generations today, who grow up in Spain, grow up in ignorance; unlike the other young Europeans, they don’t have a clear reference of what their society thinks about Fascism. The Spanish “system” is not interested in talking about this. New Spanish generations grow up with this ignorance and also with ignorance about their minorities. A good example for this is the fact that in the (Spanish) constitution it was determined that Catalan and Basque are second official languages only in their territories. That was a huge mistake. They should have done the same as Switzerland; every citizen should have been obliged to know at least a little bit of the other languages in the state. This could have been vital. Just through that, the new generations of Spanish people would have learned more about the Catalan and Basque culture and this would have naturally led to…
Franz Schausberger: … a better common understanding.
ANC: Exactly. But all this had and has its origin in the Bourbon centralization that has always stood in first place. And on the other hand, there still exist organizations like the foundation that promotes the ideological heritage of Franco (FAES), presided by his daughter and that receives grants from the Spanish state…
Mr. Torra: … and also from the Socialists. That is the big shame. These institutions simply are passed on like a heritage and the monument of Franco and his mausoleum are still in the Valle de los Caídos, a monument where people still go to leave flowers.
Franz Schausberger: This was the mistake in the last phase of Franco, that Europe did not realize this and didn’t understand Spain. ‘Well, this is a light dictatorship, so let’s close an eye about it.’ And that’s why it was possible that this, as we say in Austria, “sloppy” transition could take place.
ANC: Indeed. Hopefully this recognition of Spain, its corruption and all what we have talked about, by Europe will be soon reconsidered. Thank you for your time.
Franz Schausberger: Thank you for your interest. And for the interview in German, that is really better for the subtleties.
ANC: Thank you. We wish you a nice trip home.

* Interview conducted by Help Catalonia Volunteer Krystyna S. for ANC Intl. Press Group; press@catalanassembly.org

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